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How Did Investors React to the COVID-19 Outbreak?

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Fund Flows Q1 2020

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How Did Investors React to the COVID-19 Outbreak?

Throughout Q1, investors faced a truly remarkable period of volatility.

For starters, the S&P 500 fell by 30% from its record high in February, achieving the feat in just 22 trading days—the fastest such decline in history. Outside of capital markets, economic damage was abundant. Lockdown orders left entire industries struggling to survive, and unemployment claims across America skyrocketed.

In today’s Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we analyze Q1 fund flow data to find out how U.S. investors navigated these highly uncertain times.

Seeking Shelter

A key theme of Q1 2020 was risk aversion, as evidenced by the $670B net inflow to money markets. Money market securities are an ideal investment during volatile periods, thanks to their relatively low risk and high liquidity.

Also of significance was the flow differential between the two main types of investment vehicles. By the end of March, net flows to mutual funds reached $400B, compared to just $58B to ETFs. This difference was fueled by the aforementioned demand for money markets, as mutual funds are the predominant vehicle used to access this asset class.

Below, we break down net flows by asset class, between ETFs and mutual funds:

Asset Class ETF FlowsMutual Funds FlowsNet Flows (Q1 2020)
Money Market--+$670B+670B
International Equity-$1B+$21B+$20B
Commodities+$9B-$1B+$8B
Alternatives+$7B-$7B-$0.1B
Sector Equity-$4B-$7B-$11B
Municipal Bonds+$1B-$21B-$20B
U.S. Equity+$37B-$59B-$22B
Allocation-$0.2B-$33B-$33B
Taxable Bonds+$9B-$163B-$154B
Total+$58B+$400B+$458B

Source: New York Life Investments (March 2020)

Taxable bonds fared the worst in terms of net flows, with -$154B pulled from both corporates and governments. This may come as a surprise, as these investments are generally considered to be safer than equities—so why were they sold off in such large amounts?

One trigger was the economic shock of COVID-19, which brought the creditworthiness of many U.S. companies into question. This issue is likely exacerbated by the record levels of corporate debt amassed prior to the disease hitting American shores.

The U.S. government’s rapidly rising fiscal deficit may be another trigger. If the supply of government debt were to overwhelm markets, the value of government bonds would fall, and investors would lose capital. It’s estimated that $4.5T will need to be borrowed to fund the government’s numerous COVID-19 support programs.

U.S. Equities Divided

Although U.S. equities saw net outflows in Q1, a deeper dive into the flow data uncovers a much more nuanced story. For example, with the exception of February, U.S. equity ETFs and mutual funds saw opposing net flows.

Vehicle TypeJanuary FlowsFebruary FlowsMarch Flows
ETFs+$14B-$2B+$25B
Mutual Funds-$28B-$11B-$20B
Total-$14B-$13B+$5B

Source: New York Life Investments (March 2020)

Overall, ETFs saw net inflows of $37B, while mutual funds saw net outflows of $59B. These findings suggest a strong investor preference for passively-managed products. Breaking down U.S. equity flows by investment style highlights another inequality.

Investment StyleNet Flows (Q1 2020)
Blend+$27B
Growth-$35B
Value-$14B

Source: New York Life Investments (March 2020)

Growth strategies prioritize capital appreciation, while value strategies seek stocks that pay dividends and are trading at a discount. Blend strategies, the only style to attract net inflows in Q1, offer investors a mix of both.

Betting on Oil

Within commodities, investors added $7B to precious metals funds. These inflows were not a surprise, given gold and silver’s status as safe-haven assets.

The only other subcategory to attract net inflows was energy—investors bet on a rise in the price of oil, adding $3B to energy funds over the quarter. Of this amount, $2B was added in March. Since then, oil prices have continued to slide (even falling below zero) due to plummeting demand and oversupply.

What’s in Store for the Rest of 2020?

Volatility is likely to continue throughout 2020. Uncertainty surrounding the duration of the pandemic remains, with countries such as South Korea and China reporting a resurgence in cases. Further questions arise as central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, continue to provide unprecedented levels of stimulus.

Nevertheless, sticking to a long-term investment plan, and avoiding common psychological pitfalls, can help investors prepare for whatever comes next.

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Markets in a Minute

Charted: The Rise of Stock Buybacks Over 20 Years

Unlike the last two downturns, stock buybacks could hit a record $1.3T in 2022. We chart their growth over the last two decades.

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Stock Buybacks

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Chart: The Rise of Stock Buybacks Over 20 Years

Despite market turbulence, stock buybacks are on track to hit record levels by year-end.

Spurring this wave of buybacks are strong corporate cash flows⁠—sitting near $2 trillion—and a 1% excise tax on buybacks approaching in 2023. This signals a vote of confidence from corporations on their financial health even as a recession looms large.

In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we chart the growth of buybacks over the last two decades and the implications for investors looking ahead.

How Stock Buybacks Work

In stock buybacks, corporations buy their own shares from existing shareholders. This reduces the number of shares in the market and boosts earnings per share. Often, this can increase share prices given the rise in earnings growth.

It was not until 1982 that share repurchases became legal, driving wider usage among corporations as a capital allocation tool.

By comparison, dividends are another common form of distributing capital back to shareholders.

Dividends are bound by strict policies and do not offer the same tax advantages and flexibility as buybacks. While dividends are taxed as income, buybacks are taxed as capital gains—making them a preferential choice for investors. Given these advantages, stock buybacks have outpaced dividends over the last two decades.

In fact, in the third quarter of 2022, an estimated one in five companies in the S&P 500 Index conducted buybacks that in turn increased their earnings per share by at least 4% year-over-year.

Stock Buyback Trends

As the below table shows, stock buybacks in the S&P 500 Index outnumber dividends by about double in 2022:

YearS&P 500 Stock BuybacksS&P 500 Dividends
2022*$1.00T$0.54T
2021$0.88T$0.51T
2020$0.52T$0.48T
2019$0.73T$0.49T
2018$0.81T$0.46T

Source: S&P Dow Jones Indices (Sep 2022). *For the 12-months ending June 2022.

However, stock buybacks fluctuate more often than dividends since corporations can turn them on or off. For example, in 2020, buybacks sharply declined given growing financial uncertainty. Meanwhile, companies issued dividends at a steady pace.

In this way, when share prices decline, buybacks typically decrease.

Yet unlike the last two recessions in 2008 and 2020, buybacks have shown notable strength in 2022 in spite of falling share prices.

What Are the Top Sectors for Stock Buybacks?

We can see in the table below that the biggest share repurchasers are in the tech sector, with $2.1 trillion in buybacks since 2009.

SectorCumulative Buybacks Since 2009Q2 Buybacks
Information Technology$2,060.4B$72.0B
Financials$1,265.0B$21.2B
Consumer Discretionary $941.7B$27.6B
Health Care$929.1B$17.2B
Industrials$717.6B$17.4B
Consumer Staples$548.1B$10.7B
Communication Services$369.6B$29.4B
Energy$337.9B$13.4B
Materials$187.0B$8.7B
Utilities $26.8B$0.5B
Real Estate$16.9B$1.1B
Total$7,382.6B$219.6B

Source: Yardeni Research (Nov 2022). Represents stock buybacks for S&P 500 Index sectors.

On the other hand, utilities and other capital-intensive sectors tend to spend less on buybacks in contrast to asset-light sectors such as tech and financials.

What is also characteristic to share buybacks is their concentration. As we have seen in the second quarter this year, the top 20% of buybacks make up 47% of all repurchases across the S&P 500 Index.

New Tax On Stock Buybacks

Stock buybacks have drawn criticism for using cash to benefit shareholders instead of boosting production or improving the quality of the business.

In response, beginning in 2023, the Inflation Reduction Act puts a 1% excise tax on buybacks.

What this means is that public companies based in the U.S. must now pay a 1% tax on share repurchases, which could result in millions of additional expenses. Given this new tax rule, corporations may be accelerating buybacks ahead of year-end.

Implications for Investors

As stock buybacks have grown in prominence, it’s worth noting that not all are equal.

When a buyback aligns with a company’s long-term plan, and the company can cover their operational expenses, it can support the stability and growth of the company. When stock prices are volatile, companies can repurchase shares when they are undervalued.

By contrast, if a company takes on excess leverage in order to buyback shares, it can contribute to lower financial resilience. When a company uses a buyback to opportunistically repurchase shares, the boost in share prices may be short-lived.

In addition, it could also prevent capital from being directed to growth initiatives. In this way, it’s important to consider stock buybacks on a case-by-case basis.

With this in mind, investors can look to companies with healthy balance sheets that can weather economic storms. Here, companies that illustrate price discipline and buy back shares at a discount may help build long-term value, providing benefits to investors who stay the course.

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Mapped: Global Energy Prices, by Country in 2022

Energy prices have been extremely volatile in 2022. Which countries are seeing the highest prices in the world?

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Energy Prices

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Mapped: Global Energy Prices, by Country in 2022

For some countries, energy prices hit historic levels in 2022.

Gasoline, electricity, and natural gas prices skyrocketed as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ruptured global energy supply chains. Households and businesses are facing higher energy bills amid extreme price volatility. Uncertainty surrounding the war looms large, and winter heating costs are projected to soar.

Given the global consequences of the energy crisis, this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments shows the price of energy for households by country.

1. Global Energy Prices: Gasoline

Which countries and regions pay the most for a gallon of gas?

RankCountry/ RegionGasoline Prices
(USD per Gallon)
1🇭🇰 Hong Kong$11.1
2🇨🇫 Central African Republic$8.6
3🇮🇸 Iceland$8.5
4🇳🇴 Norway$8.1
5🇧🇧 Barbados$7.8
6🇩🇰 Denmark$7.7
7🇬🇷 Greece$7.6
8🇫🇮 Finland$7.6
9🇳🇱 Netherlands$7.6
10🇧🇪 Belgium$7.4
11🇬🇧 United Kingdom$7.2
12🇪🇪 Estonia$7.2
13🇨🇭 Switzerland$7.2
14🇸🇬 Singapore$7.2
15🇸🇪 Sweden$7.1
16🇸🇨 Seychelles$7.1
17🇮🇱 Israel$7.0
18🇩🇪 Germany$7.0
19🇺🇾 Uruguay$7.0
20🇼🇫 Wallis and Futuna$7.0
21🇱🇮 Liechtenstein$6.9
22🇮🇪 Ireland$6.8
23🇵🇹 Portugal$6.8
24🇱🇻 Latvia$6.7
25🇧🇿 Belize$6.7
26🇦🇱 Albania$6.6
27🇦🇹 Austria$6.6
28🇲🇨 Monaco$6.6
29🇪🇸 Spain$6.6
30🇨🇿 Czech Republic$6.5
31🇲🇼 Malawi$6.5
32🇰🇾 Cayman Islands$6.4
33🇸🇰 Slovakia$6.4
34🇲🇺 Mauritius$6.3
35🇱🇺 Luxembourg$6.3
36🇱🇹 Lithuania$6.3
37🇦🇩 Andorra$6.3
38🇮🇹 Italy$6.3
39🇺🇬 Uganda$6.2
40🇭🇺 Hungary$6.2
41🇯🇴 Jordan$6.2
42🇸🇾 Syria$6.1
43🇫🇷 France$6.0
44🇧🇮 Burundi$6.0
45🇧🇸 Bahamas$6.0
46🇳🇿 New Zealand$5.8
47🇸🇲 San Marino$5.8
48🇭🇷 Croatia$5.8
49🇷🇴 Romania$5.7
50🇾🇹 Mayotte$5.7
51🇷🇼 Rwanda$5.7
52🇿🇲 Zambia$5.7
53🇷🇸 Serbia$5.7
54🇱🇦 Laos$5.6
55🇲🇳 Mongolia$5.6
56🇰🇪 Kenya$5.6
57🇨🇾 Cyprus$5.6
58🇯🇲 Jamaica$5.5
59🇲🇰 Northern Macedonia$5.5
60🇨🇱 Chile$5.5
61🇧🇦 Bosnia$5.5
62🇱🇨 Saint Lucia$5.5
63🇵🇱 Poland$5.4
64🇩🇴 Dominican Republic$5.4
65🇨🇦 Canada$5.4
66🇲🇦 Morocco$5.4
67🇦🇼 Aruba$5.4
68🇸🇮 Slovenia$5.4
69🇧🇬 Bulgaria$5.3
70🇵🇪 Peru$5.3
71🇱🇰 Sri Lanka$5.3
72🇨🇷 Costa Rica$5.2
73🇲🇬 Madagascar$5.2
74🇬🇳 Guinea$5.2
75🇳🇵 Nepal$5.2
76🇲🇿 Mozambique$5.2
77🇳🇮 Nicaragua$5.2
78🇲🇱 Mali$5.1
79🇸🇳 Senegal$5.1
80🇺🇦 Ukraine$5.2
81🇩🇲 Dominica$5.0
82🇲🇪 Montenegro$5.0
83🇲🇹 Malta$5.0
84🇲🇩 Moldova$5.0
85🇨🇩 DR Congo$5.0
86🇨🇼 Curacao$5.0
87🇨🇻 Cape Verde$4.9
88🇧🇩 Bangladesh$4.9
89🇱🇷 Liberia$4.9
90🇰🇭 Cambodia$4.8
91🇮🇳 India$4.8
92🇨🇺 Cuba$4.8
93🇭🇳 Honduras$4.7
94🇬🇪 Georgia$4.7
95🇿🇦 South Africa$4.7
96🇹🇿 Tanzania$4.7
97🇫🇯 Fiji$4.7
98🇨🇳 China$4.7
99🇲🇽 Mexico$4.6
100🇬🇹 Guatemala$4.6

Source: GlobalPetrolPrices.com. As of October 31, 2022. Represents average household prices.

At an average $11.1 USD per gallon, households in Hong Kong pay the highest for gasoline in the world—more than double the global average. Both high gas taxes and steep land costs are primary factors behind high gas prices.

Like Hong Kong, the Central African Republic has high gas costs, at $8.6 USD per gallon. As a net importer of gasoline, the country has faced increased price pressures since the war in Ukraine.

Households in Iceland, Norway, and Denmark face the highest gasoline costs in Europe. Overall, Europe has seen inflation hit 10% in September, driven by the energy crisis.

2. Global Energy Prices: Electricity

Extreme volatility is also being seen in electricity prices.

The majority of the highest household electricity prices are in Europe, where Denmark, Germany, and Belgium’s prices are about double that of France and Greece. For perspective, electricity prices in many countries in Europe are more than twice or three times the global average of $0.14 USD per kilowatt-hour.

Over the first quarter of 2022, household electricity prices in the European Union jumped 32% compared to the year before.

RankCountry/ RegionElectricity Prices
(kWh, USD)
1🇩🇰 Denmark$0.46
2🇩🇪 Germany$0.44
3🇧🇪 Belgium$0.41
4🇧🇲 Bermuda$0.40
5🇰🇾 Cayman Islands$0.35
6🇯🇲 Jamaica$0.34
7🇬🇧 United Kingdom$0.32
8🇪🇸 Spain$0.32
9🇳🇱 Netherlands$0.32
10🇧🇧 Barbados$0.32
11🇪🇪 Estonia$0.32
12🇱🇹 Lithuania$0.31
13🇦🇹 Austria$0.31
14🇮🇹 Italy$0.30
15🇨🇿 Czech Republic$0.29
16🇨🇻 Cape Verde$0.28
17🇮🇪 Ireland$0.28
18🇸🇪 Sweden$0.27
19🇧🇸 Bahamas$0.26
20🇬🇹 Guatemala$0.26
21🇱🇮 Liechtenstein$0.26
22🇨🇾 Cyprus$0.25
23🇷🇼 Rwanda$0.25
24🇭🇳 Honduras$0.24
25🇺🇾 Uruguay$0.24
26🇵🇹 Portugal$0.24
27🇸🇻 El Salvador$0.23
28🇱🇻 Latvia$0.22
29🇫🇮 Finland$0.22
30🇱🇺 Luxembourg$0.22
31🇧🇿 Belize$0.22
32🇯🇵 Japan$0.22
33🇨🇭 Switzerland$0.22
34🇵🇪 Peru$0.21
35🇰🇪 Kenya$0.21
36🇦🇺 Australia$0.21
37🇧🇷 Brazil$0.20
38🇲🇱 Mali$0.20
39🇸🇬 Singapore$0.19
40🇷🇴 Romania$0.19
41🇧🇫 Burkina Faso$0.19
42🇸🇮 Slovenia$0.19
43🇬🇦 Gabon$0.19
44🇸🇰 Slovakia$0.19
45🇦🇼 Aruba$0.19
46🇬🇷 Greece$0.19
47🇫🇷 France$0.18
48🇳🇿 New Zealand$0.18
49🇹🇬 Togo$0.18
50🇳🇮 Nicaragua$0.17
51🇻🇪 Venezuela$0.17
52🇵🇦 Panama$0.17
53🇵🇭 Philippines$0.17
54🇵🇱 Poland$0.17
55🇮🇱 Israel$0.16
56🇺🇲 U.S.$0.16
57🇺🇬 Uganda$0.16
58🇭🇰 Hong Kong$0.16
59🇸🇳 Senegal$0.16
60🇲🇴 Macao$0.15
61🇨🇱 Chile$0.15
62🇰🇭 Cambodia$0.15
63🇿🇦 South Africa$0.14
64🇲🇺 Mauritius$0.14
65🇲🇬 Madagascar$0.14
66🇭🇷 Croatia$0.14
67🇮🇸 Iceland$0.14
68🇳🇴 Norway$0.13
69🇲🇹 Malta$0.13
70🇲🇿 Mozambique$0.13
71🇨🇴 Colombia$0.13
72🇧🇬 Bulgaria$0.12
73🇲🇻 Maldives$0.12
74🇨🇷 Costa Rica$0.12
75🇨🇦 Canada$0.11
76🇲🇼 Malawi$0.11
77🇨🇮 Ivory Coast$0.11
78🇳🇦 Namibia$0.11
79🇲🇦 Morocco$0.11
80🇹🇭 Thailand$0.10
81🇦🇲 Armenia$0.10
82🇯🇴 Jordan$0.10
83🇹🇿 Tanzania$0.10
84🇸🇿 Swaziland$0.10
85🇪🇨 Ecuador$0.10
86🇧🇼 Botswana$0.10
87🇩🇴 Dominican Republic$0.10
88🇲🇰 Northern Macedonia$0.10
89🇦🇱 Albania$0.10
90🇱🇸 Lesotho$0.09
91🇸🇱 Sierra Leone$0.09
92🇮🇩 Indonesia$0.09
93🇧🇾 Belarus$0.09
94🇭🇺 Hungary$0.09
95🇧🇦 Bosnia & Herzegovina$0.09
96🇹🇼 Taiwan$0.09
97🇰🇷 South Korea$0.09
98🇲🇽 Mexico$0.09
99🇷🇸 Serbia$0.09
100🇨🇩 DR Congo$0.08

Source: GlobalPetrolPrices.com. As of March 31, 2022. Represents average household prices.

In the U.S., consumer electricity prices have increased nearly 16% annually compared to September last year, the highest increase in over four decades, fueling higher inflation.

However, households are more sheltered from the impact of Russian supply disruptions due to the U.S. being a net exporter of energy.

3. Global Energy Prices: Natural Gas

Eight of the 10 highest natural gas prices globally fall in Europe, with the Netherlands at the top. Overall, European natural gas prices have spiked sixfold in a year since the invasion of Ukraine.

RankCountry/ RegionNatural Gas Prices
(kWh, USD)
1🇳🇱 Netherlands$0.41
2🇸🇪 Sweden$0.24
3🇩🇪 Germany$0.21
4🇧🇷 Brazil$0.20
5🇩🇰 Denmark$0.19
6🇪🇸 Spain$0.17
7🇮🇹 Italy$0.16
8🇦🇹 Austria$0.16
9🇸🇬 Singapore$0.15
10🇧🇪 Belgium$0.15
11🇭🇰 Hong Kong$0.14
12🇨🇿 Czech Republic$0.14
13🇬🇷 Greece$0.12
14🇫🇷 France$0.12
15🇯🇵 Japan$0.11
16🇬🇧 United Kingdom$0.10
17🇨🇭 Switzerland$0.10
18🇨🇱 Chile$0.10
19🇵🇹 Portugal$0.09
20🇧🇧 Barbados$0.09
21🇵🇱 Poland$0.09
22🇧🇬 Bulgaria$0.09
23🇮🇪 Ireland$0.08
24🇦🇺 Australia$0.07
25🇲🇽 Mexico$0.07
26🇳🇿 New Zealand$0.06
27🇸🇰 Slovakia$0.06
28🇺🇲 U.S.$0.05
29🇰🇷 South Korea$0.04
30🇨🇴 Colombia$0.04
31🇨🇦 Canada$0.03
32🇷🇸 Serbia$0.03
33🇹🇼 Taiwan$0.03
34🇺🇦 Ukraine$0.03
35🇲🇾 Malaysia$0.03
36🇭🇺 Hungary$0.03
37🇹🇳 Tunisia$0.02
38🇦🇿 Azerbaijan$0.01
39🇧🇭 Bahrain$0.01
40🇧🇩 Bangladesh$0.01
41🇹🇷 Turkey$0.01
42🇷🇺 Russia$0.01
43🇦🇷 Argentina$0.01
44🇧🇾 Belarus$0.01
45🇩🇿 Algeria$0.003
46🇮🇷 Iran$0.001

Source: GlobalPetrolPrices.com. As of March 31, 2022. Represents average household prices.

The good news is that the fall season has been relatively warm, which has helped European natural gas demand drop 22% in October compared to last year. This helps reduce the risk of gas shortages transpiring later in the winter.

Outside of Europe, Brazil has the fourth highest natural gas prices globally, despite producing about half domestically. High costs of cooking gas have been especially challenging for low-income families, which became a key political issue in the run-up to the presidential election in October.

Meanwhile, Singapore has the highest natural gas prices in Asia as the majority is imported via tankers or pipelines, leaving the country vulnerable to price shocks.

Increasing Competition

By December, all seaborne crude oil shipments from Russia to Europe will come to a halt, likely pushing up gasoline prices into the winter and 2023.

Concerningly, analysis from the EIA shows that European natural gas storage capacities could sink to 20% by February if Russia completely shuts off its supply and demand is not reduced.

As Europe seeks out alternatives to Russian energy, higher demand could increase global competition for fuel sources, driving up prices for energy in the coming months ahead.

Still, there is some room for optimism: the World Bank projects energy prices will decline 11% in 2023 after the 60% rise seen after the war in Ukraine in 2022.

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