Mark Lister, 3 June 2021

Inflation pressures and the prospect of higher interest rates are top of mind for financial markets these days.

Against this backdrop, bond and fixed income investments have found themselves under pressure, while shares have generally held up well.

However, if we look under the hood, we find there has also been a lot of volatility across the sharemarket, with some distinct changes emerging.

During the worst of the pandemic, companies that were able to continue operating and those which proved resilient in recessionary conditions performed best.

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In New Zealand, demand for healthcare products increased, internet traffic surged, and digital businesses benefitted from lockdowns and social distancing and a number of companies in these sectors performed strongly .

Online meetings saw companies with online offerings in the US do very well, while e-commerce heavyweights benefitted from a further shift away from bricks and mortar retail.

Consumer giants sold plenty of household products and supermarket staples. Companies in “the business of necessity” often prove reliable during uncertain times.

Many companies also found themselves in favour as interest rates collapsed. As investors watched bank deposit rates fall off a cliff, they flocked to sectors with attractive dividend yields.

This included listed property (provided the landlord in question didn’t have too much exposure to deserted retail shops or half-empty office buildings) and predictable dividend payers.

Many non-dividend paying companies also benefited from these lower interest rates.

Rather than seeing increased interest from yield starved retirees, many companies were in vogue because of the way investors and analysts value them.

The real value in these businesses is in their future profits, rather than today’s earnings. For many of these high growth companies, these are still many years away.

Lower interest rates mean there is less opportunity cost while one waits for those future profits to appear. This means that in today’s terms those future profits are valued higher, which leads to higher share prices for these high growth businesses.

In contrast, for much of 2020 nobody was interested in the parts of the market that were under pressure. This included banks, travel companies, or anything else closely tied to the state of the economy.

All of that started to change in November, when news first broke of vaccine progress. The haze of ongoing lockdowns started to lift and people began to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Economies are gradually reopening, activity has picked up and labour markets have improved. We’re not using Zoom quite as much, but we’re catching flights and staying in hotels again like we used to.

Inflation is picking up, and combined with a dramatically better economic outlook, that has seen interest rates start moving back toward more normal levels.

At the expense of predictable, defensive companies, investors are favouring those businesses which are experiencing a recovery. Many companies in this second group still look reasonable value, having only partially recovered from 2020’s dramatic sell-off.

The reliable dividend paying companies aren’t desired quite as much with interest rates creeping up, while some high growth sectors have found their valuations come under pressure (as that valuation effect of low interest rates works in reverse).

If the world’s vaccine driven reopening continues and economic activity improves further, this dynamic could remain in place for some time yet.

That doesn’t mean investors should give up on all the great businesses that served them so well during the uncertainty of last year.

However, it does mean we need to think carefully about the mix of regions, sectors and companies we own, because the next couple of years could look quite different to what we’ve experienced in recent history.