If there is one thing that a tumultuous 2020 taught us, it is that no prediction is too outrageous to actually happen.
Anyone who had predicted the rash of lockdowns, pandemic death tolls, massive stimulus payments, plunging interest rates, stalled international travel and epidemiologists who became household names would quite possibly have been seen as plumb crazy.
But it all came to pass and plenty more as the COVID-19 virus picked its own set of economic winners and losers as some countries performed much better in fighting the virus than others.
They weren’t even the ones you might expect with some of the most advanced western countries such as the US and the UK performing terribly while some much less-wealthy countries, particularly in Asia, doing much better as a mix of co-operative government policies and a supportive populace trumped individualism and poorly communicated remedies.
So, Saxo Bank’s annual task of coming up with 10 outrageous predictions for 2021 was a tough one, given that some of them actually seem more likely than what happened in 2020.
Investors need to stay flexible to cope with shocks
What the outrageous predictions – and what actually happened in 2020 – teach us as investors is that it always pays to remain a little flexible to allow for financial shockwaves.
Saxo Bank’s provocative chief investment officer Steen Jakobsen said the “the COVID-19 pandemic and the painful US Election cycle have brought what might have seemed a distant future a quantum leap closer, accelerating nearly every underlying social and technological super-trend.”
“Simply put, the traumas of 2020 mean that in 2021, the future is now.”
“We’ve seen the fastest bear market and recovery in history, as well as central bank balance sheets and fiscal deficits exploding at an unprecedented pace.”
“So, our not-so-outrageous prediction is that 2021 will bring the beginning of a reality check to the idea that ‘extend and pretend’ can stretch to infinity and beyond, even as markets have been pricing in that very expectation.”
Technology super trends move to overdrive
Mr Jakobsen said the acceleration of the major super-trends meant that the total economic pie will grow, even per capita.
“One key enabler of that future is a rise in energy available per capita, with almost no negative impact on our natural resources, and with sufficient extra output available to power the high-end technology systems like advanced AI and quantum computing.”
“This would bring us close to ending cancer, preventing the fall-out from future pandemic risks, and dealing with fake news through super-charged blockchain technology.”
So here are the 10 outrageous Saxo Bank predictions and associated trading ideas – at least one of which will probably occur, if 2020 is any guide.
1) Amazon ‘buys’ Cyprus
2021 sees Amazon and other online monopoly and infotech giants casting an increasingly wary eye on governments looking to take them down a notch for having become too powerful, and for paying very low tax rates.
In 2021, as the heat from official quarters rises, Amazon makes its move, redomiciling its EU headquarters to Cyprus. The country welcomes the giant corporation and the tax revenue that will help it reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio of nearly 100%, having chafed at the heavy-handed treatment by the EU during the 2010-12 EU sovereign debt crisis.
Amazon consultants “help” Cyprus to rewrite its tax code to mimic Ireland’s, but with even lower levels of corporate and other taxes, with the country’s leaders and its population happily in its thrall from the financial windfall and lower tax rates.
But EU regulators quickly get wise to what is going on and move against Amazon, forcing the company to change its practices, and forcing Cyprus and other EU countries to harmonise tax rules. The US and other countries also move against monopolies in 2021, as these companies are punished for their hubris.
Trade: short monopoly tech companies, especially AMZN.
2) Germany bails out France
France is one of the European countries facing the highest wall of debt in the coming years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, public debt was flirting with the 100% of GDP threshold and private debt was skyrocketing, reaching nearly 140% of GDP – far more than that of Italy (106%) or Spain (119%).
And the emergency pandemic response has only accelerated the piling on of debt, with the level of public debt expected to rise above 120% of GDP in 2021.
Despite a massive stimulus package of €100 billion and a scheme in which the state has guaranteed up to 90% of the loans for companies, France is unable to avoid a wave of bankruptcies as many companies in the services sector are unable to cope with the series of “stop and go” lockdowns.
Investors are getting increasingly gloomy about the future return on equity, which triggers massive selling of French megabanks. Net revenue drops and loan provisions are on the rise, sending French banks’ market capitalisation and price-to-tangible book ratio to unprecedentedly low levels.
Given the poor state of public finances and the already extraordinarily high level of debt, France has no other choice but to come begging cap in hand to Germany, in order to allow the ECB to print enough euros to enable a massive bailout of its banking system, to prevent a systemic collapse.
Trade: probably safer to buy the French banks after the bailout than selling them before, but both might be possible.
3) Blockchain tech kills fake news
In 2021, the mounting threat of disinformation and the erosion of trust in even well-established news providers reaches a critical level, demanding an industry response. Major media companies and social platforms are forced to impose new countermeasures against fabricated and misleading news.
The enabling technology is a massive shared blockchain network for news content, which allows distribution of news in an immutable way with a validity check of both the content and the source.
With a shared ledger structure, any content alterations would immediately be visible to everyone, and every news item is always traceable to its original source, suppressing misinformation that other sources can’t verify.
Companies like Twitter and Facebook invest heavily in this blockchain tech, motivated first and foremost by self-preservation as the threats of regulatory oversight we’ve seen in recent years become white hot.
Alternative news sites peddling conspiracy theories like QAnon, disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, falsified evidence of election fraud and more will suddenly become unavailable on major platforms. Reality wins, and echo chambers lose.
Trade: buy Verizon, IBM, and social media companies.
4) China’s new digital currency inspires tectonic shift in capital flows
The Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP) will be a blockchain-based digital version of the Yuan (CNY) and in 2019, 80% of all payments in China were via WeChat Pay and AliPay.
The PBOC wants to take this one step further and in the process improve the efficacy of monetary and fiscal policy through an increasingly cashless society and with a goal of enhancing financial inclusiveness.
Allowing full access for foreigners into Chinese capital markets will reduce the main barrier of concern for foreign investors for using the CNY in trade and investment: its liquidity and direct access to their investments inside China. Meanwhile, the stability of the Chinese currency and the built-in traceability and oversight that blockchain tech enables would virtually eliminate the risk of capital flight or illegal transfers out of China.
Opening up China’s capital account and creating a currency that rivals the US dollar for reserve status will help boost Chinese consumption, fund an entirely new Chinese pension system and deepen the country’s capital markets.
Trade: short the US dollar and overweight Chinese government bonds and equities versus the rest of the world.
5) Revolutionary fusion design catapults humanity into energy abundance
The world will need much more energy if our economy is to continue growing at anything approaching historical rates. New alternative and green energy technologies are for the most part not the answer. The world urgently needs a disruption in energy technology.
Enter 2021, in which an advanced AI algorithm solves the super non-linear complexities of plasma physics, clearing the way for commercial fusion energy.
The SPARC fusion reactor design from MIT, which has been validated in 2020 as a viable path to less costly fusion energy, is massively improved by this new AI model.
Engineers adjust the SPARC design, with new models pointing to an energy gain factor of 20, creating the biggest paradigm shift in energy technology since nuclear power. Even more importantly, a massive investment from public and private sectors would allow the implementation of the new fusion design within a few short years.
The mastery of fusion energy opens up the prospect of a world no longer held back by water or food scarcity, thanks to desalination and vertical farming. It’s a world with cheap transportation, fully unleashed robotics and automation tech, making the current young generation the last required to “work” by necessity.
Best of all, fusion energy allows nearly every country to become food- and energy-independent and sees the most rapid and largest upgrade in living standards ever witnessed.
Trade: the political and investment winds favouring “traditional” green energy stop blowing, and the wind energy ETF FAN falls by 50% in 2021.
6) Universal basic income decimates big cities
The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated the K-shaped recovery that was driving inequality and tearing at the social fabric before the outbreak.
Financialisaton of the economy has meant that a single income is not nearly enough to support a family and technology is another driver, with the growing, wage-deflationary forces of software, AI and automation eroding a widening swath of jobs across industries.
The risk that societies are entirely torn apart results in the realisation that the COVID-19 measures weren’t a mere panic response, but the start of a permanent new universal basic income (UBI) reality.
In the new era of UBI, tech-driven job redundancies, and frequent work from home jaunts made more normal by COVID-19, city office real estate is suddenly faced with 100% or worse overcapacity. Commercial office property values are crushed, together with the commercial real estate containing restaurants and shops aimed at servicing commuting worker drones.
The new UBI also drives changes in the attitude toward work and life balance, allowing many young people to stay in the communities where they grew up. Meanwhile, the professionals and the marginal workers in big cities also begin to leave, as job opportunities dry up and the quality of life in small, over-priced apartments in higher crime neighbourhoods loses its appeal.
Trade: short big city REITs, for example SL Realty Trust (SLG), which exclusively invests in Manhattan, NY office buildings, or Vornado Realty Trust (VNO), which invests in Chicago, San Francisco and NYC.
7) Disruption dividend creates Citizens Technology Fund
The march of technology, combined with reliance on the legacy principles of the free market economy, is already undermining the social contract and even tearing at the very social fabric; COVID-19 has only accelerated these trends.
In 2021 and beyond, our society will have to find a new policy path if we are to avoid deepening injustice, but also political upheavals, social unrest and systemic risk.
This year will see policy come in for a major overhaul, with a whole new approach to reducing inequality that has little to do with adjustments to the tax code.
A Citizens Technology Fund is created that transfers a portion of asset ownership of capital assets to everyone, with an extra portion going to displaced workers, allowing them and everyone else to participate in the productivity gains of the digital era.
The policy is spun as a ‘Disruption Dividend’ and goes a long way to relieving the economic and social anxieties for those who have been losing out on the share of economic output in recent years.
The Disruption Dividend frees up enormous entrepreneurial energy at the individual and community scale as millions have more time and energy on their hands away from repetitive and stressful jobs.
Trade: long companies in education, art, crafts, and hobbies. But also, in the digital spectrum, virtual reality, gaming and E-sports.
8) A successful COVID-19 vaccine kills companies
The COVID-19 pandemic viciously accelerated the dangerous levering up of the global economy that unfolded during the 2008-09 financial crisis.
The policy of near infinite liquidity provision and easing financial conditions at all costs has pushed global sovereign and investment-grade corporate yields to historical lows and forced investors to take positions in riskier assets.
The investors’ risky stance is justified by the prospect of an effective vaccine bringing a new boom in economic growth. In perfect hindsight it turns out the economy was vastly over-stimulated during the pandemic, and the ripping post-vaccine recovery rapidly overheats the economy.
Inflation rises and unemployment falls so rapidly that the US Federal Reserve allows long treasury yields to spike higher, taking the yield on riskier debt with it.
The Fed ends up making a policy mistake by allowing financial conditions to tighten too rapidly via higher longer rates, having never implemented yield curve control as they were too distracted by the sudden spectre of 4-5% annualised inflation and 6-8% annualised wage gains by Q3.
Corporate defaults rise to their highest in years, with the first to go the most over-levered companies in the physical retail space that were already struggling in the solid, pre-COVID economy.
Trade: short HYG and JNK High Yield corporate ETFs.
9) Sun shines on silver, which sizzles on solar panel demand
2021 brings the usual suspects that power silver higher on its hard asset/precious metal side as the US dollar weakens, and as investors are faced with the harsh reality of no relief in sight from negative real interest rates.
This is exacerbated as inflation suddenly jolts higher in 2021 and policymakers are slow to respond, wanting to offer maximum support for their still-recovering economies.
With a COVID-19 vaccine in rapid rollout by the middle of the year, the excessive liquidity and over-easy policy drives a powerful bid into any hard asset.
Turbocharging the rise in the silver price in 2021, even relative to gold, is the rapidly rising demand for silver in industrial applications.
In fact, a real silver supply crunch is on the cards in 2021, and it frustrates the full throttle political support for solar energy investments under a Biden presidency, the European Green Deal, and China’s 2060 carbon neutral goal, among other initiatives.
Another challenge on the supply side for silver is that more than half of mined silver supply is a by-product of zinc, lead and copper mining, making it tough for miners to meet the surging excess proportional demand for silver.
Trade: long silver as the price races to an all-time high of US$50 per ounce in 2021.
10) Next-generation tech supercharges frontier and emerging markets
In 2021, economists discover that the growth rates in many frontiers and emerging markets have been woefully underestimated in recent years.
Closer analysis reveals that key technologies may lie at the root of an acceleration in private sector productivity growth far beyond anything seen in the developed markets in recent decades.
The first is the arrival of satellite-based internet delivery systems, which are set to crush the price of internet provisioning and importantly delivering an order of magnitude increase in download speeds. SpaceX’s Starlink will be the first on the scene there, with as many as 1,500 operational by the end of 2021.
In emerging and frontier markets, education and business productivity will reap the benefits. Second is the ongoing revolution in fintech payment and banking systems which have already given billions of people access to the digital economy via their mobile devices.
Finally, drone technology is set to revolutionise delivery systems and reduce the disadvantages and costs of living away from the largest cities and towns. Drone technology combined with automation also has applications in agriculture, where practices in many under-developed rural areas across the world stand to gain the most from productivity upgrades.
Trade: long emerging market currencies on superior growth outlook.