Mark Lister, 29 October 2020

This year financial markets have been dominated by what has been described as the ‘pandemic trade’. The best performing companies and sectors have been those which have benefitted from lockdowns, social distancing, increased online activity and working from home.

‘Stay at home’ stocks like Microsoft and Zoom have seen their products and services become even more popular, while businesses selling healthcare and cleaning products have also been very strong.

This has seen the likes of Fisher & Paykel Healthcare and Resmed in New Zealand and Australia do very well, while consumer staples giants like Unilever and Reckitt Benckiser have also been huge beneficiaries.

Companies involved in e-commerce or online shopping have done well, such as Amazon, Alibaba and PayPal, while entertainment streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ have also won many new subscribers.

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At the other end of the spectrum, businesses that haven’t been able to operate to the same degree before have suffered substantially. This includes airlines and travel companies, tourism operators, retailers and hospitality venues.

Generally, we have also seen those companies which are more sensitive to the pace of economic growth perform poorly, given the much weaker economic activity that has prevailed in 2020.

However, as 2021 approaches ever closer, many investment strategists and forecasters are turning their attention to what is commonly referred to as the ‘reopening trade’.

This is a term used to describe those companies and sectors which could benefit from the easing of restrictions, the gradual opening of borders and a general move back to something closer to normal.

New Zealand has been an early mover in this regard, with our initially harsh lockdown paving the way for a much swifter resumption of normal service. Being an island nation with a relatively small population made this an easier task than it would’ve otherwise been.

Australia took a less draconian approach, which saw Victoria face a resurgence in cases and require ongoing lockdowns. There is light at the end of the tunnel for our friends across the Tasman, with Melbourne set to ease restrictions and state borders likely to be open by Christmas.

China has largely returned to normal and Singapore has seen new daily cases fall to zero. In contrast, Europe, the UK and US are finding it much more difficult to contain new waves of COVID-19.

It is expected that over the coming twelve months, we will gradually see progress toward a reopening of many economies. This should allow some of the more economically sensitive businesses, and those that have been hurt most by the pandemic, to recover.

As the prospects for these sectors and companies improves, investors will begin to see recovery on the horizon and view them more favourably. This could ultimately see the ‘pandemic trade’ give way to the ‘reopening trade’.

This certainly doesn’t mean we should abandon all the investments that have served us so well in 2020, in favour of chasing beaten up airlines and retailers.

Companies in the technology, healthcare and consumer staples sectors were favourites of ours long before there was any sign of a pandemic, and many of these companies have long-term structural growth drivers that are not going away.

If anything, competitive positions and growth prospects for a lot of these great businesses have only improved as a result of this year’s events. Despite the possibility for other sectors to rebound more strongly as the normal course of business resumes, we remain very confident about the long-term opportunities ahead of many of 2020’s winners.

Having said that, the reopening of many economies provides an opportunity for us to take a more positive view on some of the good quality companies that have faced a challenging year in 2020, and selectively add some of these to portfolios.