Given all the negative headlines of the past year, one might have expected markets to struggle in 2021. Headline-grabbing and agita-producing events included the January riot in the U.S. Capitol, the delta and omicron surges, the foreign policy disaster in Afghanistan, Fed tapering, ongoing drama in Congress, reddit trades, the rise of cryptocurrencies, China’s bursting housing bubble, inflation at multi-decade highs, supply chain disruptions, and many more. In short, there was no shortage of reasons to be pessimistic in 2021.
Yet, the S&P 500 gained nearly 29% with dividends over the course of the year and 119% since March 2020, finishing near all-time highs. And even though markets felt choppy, 2021 was objectively one of the least volatile years on record. There were rotations within the market throughout the year, but in the end growth stocks gained 26% and value stocks 25%. International developed markets rose 12%. And although emerging market equities lost 2% in 2021, they are up 70% from the 2020 bottom. What’s more, this all occurred even though the 10-year Treasury yield jumped to 1.5% and the Fed is set to tighten policy in the coming months.
With that perspective, it’s fair to say that 2020 and 2021 both underscore the importance of staying invested and diversified. The path of markets and the economy are difficult if not impossible to predict, even in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic or skyrocketing inflation. These lessons are also likely be true in 2022, regardless of all the new causes for concern that are already being bandied about, for example, a possible first Fed rate hike by mid-year, the midterm election in November, and the course of inflation during the second half of the year.
In times like these, it helps to keep things in perspective. Although every market cycle is different, we are still quite early in this expansion. The underlying economic trends are strong. Businesses are growing, earnings rising, and employees are finding better jobs with higher wages. Inflation is elevated – and may continue to be so – but at least some of the change is due to year-over-year comparisons and supply chain disruptions. Higher inflation could indeed become more ingrained and disruptive, but it could also begin to subside later this year. Even without rising inflation, however, the Fed would reasonably be expected to raise rates at this stage in the economic cycle. And although we are still in the middle of another delta/omicron surge, some of the shock of these disruptions is wearing off as businesses, communities, and other organizations are beginning to realize that we need permanent and flexible solutions to a situation that has morphed from “pandemic” to “endemic.”
So while controversy over various micro-topics fuels day-to-day market ups and downs, we have learned that a more productive approach to investing is to rise above low-level uncertainties. An appropriately diversified portfolio can withstand a lot of uncertainty while benefiting from the long-term growth of markets and the economy. It is an approach that has stood the test of time.
Below are five key lessons of the past year that will no doubt carry forward into 2022 and beyond.
- Markets can do well when investors least expect it
Despite ongoing concerns around a variety of issues, the S&P 500 achieved 70 new record closes in 2021. This is the most since 1995 during the early stages of the dot-com boom. This is not unusual – the U.S. stock market has historically risen over long periods of time and, by definition, spends much of each cycle at new all-time highs.
- Investors should always expect uncertainty
Despite the stellar performance of stocks over the past two years, investors were constantly worried on a day-to-day basis. In reality, 2021 was one of the least volatile years on record with only a single 5% pullback that occurred at the end of the third quarter. Thus, there was a wide disconnect between how investors felt and how markets actually performed.
At the same time, investors should always expect greater uncertainty and volatility in the stock market. After all, the willingness to take appropriate risks is why investors are rewarded in the long run. Last year’s volatility fell far short of the average decline experienced by the S&P 500 each year.
- Fed rate hikes are the beginning, not the end, of the cycle
The Fed has accelerated its taper process, which reduces the amount of bonds it purchases each month, and is expected to raise rates by the middle of the year. Although this will no doubt continue to drive market volatility, Fed rate hikes are normal and justified if the economy is doing well. Fed officials currently expect three rate hikes in 2022.
- Beware of cash in an inflationary environment
Rising inflation has a number of implications for the economy and investment portfolios. For many, however, the primary challenge is that inflation erodes the value of hard-earned cash savings. This underscores the need to properly invest this cash to generate a return in order to preserve purchasing power over time.
- Many parts of the economy are booming
The economy is doing well. Businesses are hiring at a rapid pace and job openings exceed the number of unemployed individuals. Over time, workers who had previously given up may re-join the labor force while others may receive new job training. Ultimately, this is a positive sign for the economy in the years to come.
The bottom line? Just as in 2020 and 2021, staying invested and disciplined are the best ways to achieve success in 2022 and beyond.