Recoveries, reflation and wrecking ballsMarc Jones and Saqib Iqbal Ahmed
The stocks bulls have stayed firmly in charge in 2021, surging energy and food prices have turbo-charged inflation, rattling the bond markets, while China has seen US$1 trillion wipeouts in its heavyweight tech and property sectors.
On top of all that, Turkey exited 2021 in currency chaos, bitcoin and cryptokind have crushed it, small-time traders gave some hedge funds a drubbing and though green has gone mainstream, dirty old oil and gas have been the big winners, up more than 40% and 50%.
STOCKS TILL YOU DROP
MSCI's 50-country world index has piled on another US$10 trillion, or 13%, thanks to Covid recovery signs and the torrent of central bank stimulus that has continued to flow.
There have been some stark differences though. Wall Street is up 23% but roughly 65% of the Nasdaq's gains (3 780 stocks) are thanks to just five stocks - Microsoft, Google, Apple, Nvidia and Tesla, according to Bank of America number crunchers.
European banks have had their best year in over a decade with a 33% gain, but emerging market equities have lost a woeful 7%, led by a 30% plunge in Hong Kong-listed Chinese tech hit by Beijing's moves to limit their influence.
"We think US equities are absolutely bonkers," said Tommy Garvey, a member of asset manager GMO's asset allocation team, adding that valuations in most other parts of the world were also expensive.
OIL TAKES THE SPOILS
Commodity markets have had a blinder as the world's big resource-hungry economies have tried to get back to some kind of normal. Respective 40% and 50% gains for oil and natural gas are their best in five years and left prices well above pre-pandemic levels.
Key industrial metal cooper hit a record high back in April and has jumped nearly 25% for the second year in row. Zinc has seen a similar gain, while aluminium has made 40% in its best year since 2009.
Precious metal gold has dipped but the agri-markets have blossomed with corn up by a quarter, sugar up a tasty 20% and coffee a perky 67%.
BEARS IN THE CHINA SHOP
China's crackdown on its big online firms, combined with a property sector crisis, have wiped over a trillion dollars off its markets this year.
Alibaba, China's equivalent Amazon, has tumbled nearly 50%. The golden dragon index of US-listed Chinese stocks is down 40%, while homebuilder Evergrande has just become its biggest-ever default.
That has sent a wrecking ball crashing into the Chinese high-yield or 'junk' bond market, which has lost roughly 30%. Property firms' bonds account for 67% of the main ICE Chinese high-yield index.
"If home sales keep dropping at the rate they are at the moment you could easily shave another 1% off of [Chinese] GDP," cautioned AXA Investment Managers' head of active emerging markets fixed income Sailesh Lad.
BONDS - NO TIME TO BUY
Booming inflation and big central banks starting to turn off the money taps has made it a difficult year for bond markets.
US Treasuries - the global benchmark for government debt investors - are set to deliver a 2% loss, their first red result since 2013, while the euro's 8% drop this year means German Bunds have lost over 9% in dollar terms.
On the positive side, the riskiest band of corporate 'junk' bonds - those rated CCC and below - have made around 10% in both the US and Europe.
Inflation-linked bonds have also done well, unsurprisingly, with US TIPs returning 5%, euro-denominated equivalents earning 7% and British linkers making 6%.
Retail traders took to Wall Street in a big way this year, driving eye-popping moves and huge trading volume in the so-called 'meme' stocks.
Shares of GameStop rose nearly 2 500% in January, but having given back a lot of the gains, it will end the year up 730%. AMC Entertainment, another meme favourite, is still up about 1 350% for the year, although it was up as much as 3 200% in early June.
Tesla, doyen of the electric car sector, recovered from a skid early in the year. But other funds or stocks linked to innovation – such as the ARK Innovation Fund and some solar energy stocks, BioTech shares and special purpose acquisition companies or SPACs – are down 20% to 30%.
Turkish lira slumps are hardly rare these days, but this year's blow-up has been spectacular even by its standards.
Things started to turn ugly in March when self-declared enemy of interest rates, president Tayyip Erdogan, replaced another central bank governor. But it has gotten even worse since his new head of the bank started slashing rates in September.
There has been a decent bounce this week as the government has sketched out another unorthodox plan to limit the pain, but the lira is still down over 40% for the year and the government's bonds have been hammered.
A surge in inflation became a major concern for investors in 2021 as the pandemic disrupted the global supply chain and made it difficult to meet demand for everything from microchips to potato chips.
With US inflation ramping to its highest since the 1980s, the Federal Reserve announced this month it will end its pandemic-era bond purchases sooner than previously expected and the Bank of England became the first G7 central bank to hike interest rates since the Covid outbreak.
Other major central banks are expected to follow next year, but some of the major emerging markets are already well advanced in the process.
Investors had high hopes for emerging markets coming into the year but it has proved to be almost the opposite. China's struggles and the persistence of Covid have seen EM stocks lose 7%, which looks even worse when you compare to a 13% rise in the world index and the 23% leap from on Wall Street.
Local currency EM government bonds have fared badly too, losing 9.7%. Dollar-denominated bonds have performed a bit better, especially in countries that produce oil, but JP Morgan's EM currencies Index, which excludes China's yuan, has shed almost 10%.
"China was the huge story of the year," said Jeff Grills, Aegon Asset Management's head of emerging markets debt, adding that next year was likely to be all about how quickly and far interest rates rise and how growth holds up.
CRYPTO CRUSHES IT
Bitcoin at nearly US$70 000; "memecoins" worth billions of dollars; a blockbuster Wall Street listing and a sweeping Chinese crackdown: 2021 was the wildest yet for cryptocurrencies, even by the sector's freewheeling standards.
Bitcoin's near 70% jump may look paltry compared to last year's 300% rise, but that has come despite a Chinese crackdown in May which saw it nearly halve in price.
Dogecoin, a digital token launched in 2013 as a joke bitcoin spin-off, soared over 12 000% from the start of the year to an all-time high in May - before slumping almost 80% by mid-December.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) - strings of code stored on the blockchain that represent unique ownership of digital art, videos or even tweets - have also exploded in the mainstream. A digital collage by US artist Beeple sold for nearly US$70 million at Christie's in May, making it one of the top three most expensive pieces by a living artist ever sold at auction.
The dream to go green has remained front and centre this year.
Green bond issuance is set for yet another record year, at nearly half a trillion dollars. The 'ESG' version of MSCI's flagship world stocks index is up more than 2% more than the standard version while China's most environmentally friendly stocks index has surged more than 40% even as other sectors there have crumpled.