The year 2020 will stand as the time when the coronavirus crisis almost broke the financial markets.
Investors watched with growing horror in March as a stock sell-off turned into a liquidity crisis where even the ultra-safe US government bond market was straining to match buyers and sellers — challenging the most basic assumptions of risk and threatening the underpinnings of the financial system.
Central banks and governments initially struggled to stop the rot, before providing unprecedented programmes of bond-buying and rate cuts that laid the ground for a record-breaking “everything rally”.
Here is the story of a tumultuous year, through the words of those seeing the events unfold first-hand.
‘What makes this concerning . . . is that nobody really knows exactly how this is going to turn out’
Timothy Moe, Goldman Sachs
January 23: Chinese stocks fall on the last day of trading before the lunar bank holiday, after Wuhan, the city at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak, is put under lockdown measures. When markets reopen on February 3, the benchmark CSI 300 has its worst day since mid-2015.
‘This is no longer solely an Asia issue’
Robert Carnell, ING
February 24: Global stocks have their worst day in two years after Italy’s move to quarantine towns brings home that the virus has spread to Europe.
‘Rate cuts will not help restock emptying grocery shelves’
Seema Shah of Principal Global Investors
March 3: The US Federal Reserve makes a 0.5 percentage point cut to its policy rate, hoping to reassure a market panicked by the spreading virus. It has the opposite effect, as investors queried the scale of the move and the effectiveness of monetary easing to deal with a demand shock.
‘It is very rare for a demand collapse to coincide with a supply surge . . . The price collapse has just begun’
ROBERT McNally at Rapidan Energy Group
March 9: Brent crude falls a quarter, having dropped 30 per cent at the opening of Asia trading, after Saudi Arabia responds to Russia’s refusal to take barrels off the market by starting a price war.
‘The market has been jolted to the point of breaking’
Masanari Takada at Nomura
March 12 was a bruising day for markets. President Donald Trump’s ban on most European flights, announced the previous evening, spooked stock investors, and the Fed’s liquidity injection did not manage to restore the mood. Wall Street has its worst day since the 1987 crash.
‘There’s a fundamental problem in the Treasury market. It’s just not functioning’
Gregory Peters of PGIM Fixed Income
Strategists struggle to work out what is going on in what is typically considered the world’s deepest and most liquid market, US government bonds, which had begun to seize up on March 11. “In a crisis like this, all the weak spots get revealed,” William Dudley, former head of the New York branch of the Fed, later said.
‘The market had been primed for a 2008-style response. Instead what we got was the impression of the ECB not being in control’
Richard McGuire of Rabobank
And Christine Lagarde — fresh to the top job at the European Central Bank — triggered a sovereign bond sell-off when she told investors “we are not here to close spreads”, referring to the additional interest rates paid by weaker eurozone borrowers.
‘I would think there are a lot of people on Wall Street that are very happy. And I can tell you that I’m very happy, I didn’t expect this. And I like being surprised’
DONALD TRUMP, US PRESIDENT
March 15: The Fed delivers a surprise Sunday cut to near-zero in its main policy rate. Investors question whether that means monetary policy had reached its limit.
‘A lot of people need cash and they’re liquidating the only thing that they can’
Mike Riddell of Allianz Global Investors
March 18: Supposedly safe government bonds endure periods of indiscriminate selling, as global volatility worsens. Oil prices hit their lowest in almost 17 years and sterling touches its weakest point since the 1980s. “Hell is coming,” said hedge fund manager Bill Ackman in a CNBC interview, warning of the devastating impact of the virus and calling for an immediate lockdown.
‘It’s a bazooka and it was needed. The programmes that had been announced were good but didn’t go far enough. This goes far enough’
Jim Shepard, Mizuho
March 23: The Fed pledges to buy government bonds in unlimited amounts, and to buy corporate debt for the first time, in a dramatic intervention that would calm markets and mark the bottom for US stocks. This came just days after the ECB promised to buy €750bn more bonds with a “no limits” commitment to the eurozone.
“While this is a public health crisis first, there is a real and looming potential for it to spill over into a full-on credit and liquidity crisis,” wrote Alan Waxman, Sixth Street Partners, typifying the mood.
‘This is a high investment-grade company that is now borrowing at usury rates’
John McClain of Diamond Hill Capital Management
April 1: Coronavirus-hit cruiser operator Carnival has to pay double-digit interest rates for its debt lifeline but manages to get the deal away, signalling that the Fed’s grand interventions had restored sentiment.
‘Trump essentially became the de facto Opec president’
Helima Croft of RBC Capital Markets
April 13: The Opec cartel of oil-producing nations sign a historic deal to curb their oil output and end a bruising price war — under pressure from the US president, concerned to protect America’s shale sector.
‘Too much oil, with nowhere to put it’
Kit Juckes, a senior strategist at Société Générale
April 21: The deal was not enough to offset the coronavirus hit to demand. US crude oil prices crash below zero for the first time ever, after the oil glut left buyers with nowhere to put their oil. “It is probably the most volatile and challenging market we’ve ever seen,” said Douglas King of RCMA Capital, reflecting on the turmoil.
‘The markets are on a sugar high right now. They’re not making much sense to me’
Andrew Left, Citron Research
April 30: US stocks cap their biggest monthly rally since 1987, up almost 13 per cent, as a “fear of missing out” drags buyers back into the market despite the unfolding crisis. Oil prices also rebound.
‘The history of markets is that they always overshoot both ways’
Lee Spelman, JPMorgan Asset Management
June 8: The blue-chip S&P 500 stock index turns positive for the year, having risen more than 40 per cent from its March low.
‘We see the recovery fund . . . as a game changer for Europe’
Reza Moghadam, Morgan Stanley
July 21: Investors hail a €750bn Covid-19 recovery fund that will bring greater financial integration to the EU and make Brussels a significant borrower in bond markets.
‘Gold has finally come on to Main Street as an asset people actually need to have’
Peter Grosskopf at Sprott
July 27: The precious metal hits a record high, driven by coronavirus worries and yields on other assets being driven lower by central bank intervention.
‘It’s hard to believe but the 2020 bear market is officially over’
Solita Marcelli, UBS Global Wealth Management
August 18: The S&P 500 finally exceeds its previous record high, set in February. It marks a contrast with the US dollar, which has tumbled to a two-year low, as interest rate cuts and concerns over the American economy deter investors from dollar assets.
‘Equities were priced to perfection. That was always going to be difficult to sustain when you have a disconnect between how markets are performing and what global economies are doing’
Alexis Gray OF Vanguard
September 9: Tech stocks suffer a late-summer correction, with hot stock Tesla losing a fifth of its value in a single day. Market nerves had grown over valuations stoked by big bets made in the options market by Japanese group SoftBank.
‘This is outrageous demand, which they are going to need for the huge wave of supply on the way’
Peter Goves, MFS Investment Management
October 20: The EU receives the biggest ever order book in global bond markets for the first tranche of its coronavirus-related borrowing. Investors put in bids of €233bn for the €17bn of debt on offer.
‘After the US election, the focus for investors turned back to Covid versus a vaccine. Today, the vaccine is winning’
Mohammed Kazmi at Union Bancaire Privée
November 9: BioNTech/Pfizer’s announcement that its Covid-19 vaccine is more than 90 per cent effective adds to market optimism over Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election. Similar announcements from other drug groups would lead global stock markets to their best monthly performance in decades, with economically sensitive stocks leading the way.
‘I don’t know what else to say. I’m very humbled by it’
Brian Chesky of Airbnb, on CNBC
December 10: A rollercoaster year was topped off by fresh record highs for tech stocks and a flurry of IPOs that drew parallels with the dotcom boom and bust of two decades earlier. Holiday rental company Airbnb’s shares more than doubled on their first day of trading, after Doordash’s first-day pop earlier in the week.
“We’ve all been around markets for enough time to know this doesn’t end well,” said Jim Tierney of AllianceBernstein.
‘It has never been like this’: US house price spiral worries policymakers
House prices are rising in many major economies. This FT series explores whether these increases are sustainable.
A decade ago, the average house in Ohio’s leafy state capital Columbus would sit on the market for almost 100 days before being sold. Today, a similar property sells in just 10 days.
“It has never been like this,” said Michael Jones, a real estate agent at Coldwell Banker Realty with more than 20 years’ experience in central Ohio. “It’s unprecedented.”
US policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the rising price of housing for both homeowners and renters, as the broadest global house price boom for at least two decades drives up living costs.
“Today, it is harder to find an affordable home in America than at any point since the 2008 financial crisis,” Marcia Fudge, US housing and urban development secretary, said at a recent congressional hearing.
Nationally, house prices in May were 16.6 per cent higher than the year before, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index update — the biggest jump in more than 30 years of data and up from 14.8 per cent in April.
“A month ago, I described April’s performance as ‘truly extraordinary’, and [now] I find myself running out of superlatives,” said Craig Lazzara, global head of index investment strategy at S&P Dow Jones Indices.
The pace of price growth and sales has been particularly fast in smaller cities, suburban enclaves and towns.
Columbus’s housing market has exploded since the start of the pandemic, as historically low interest rates, remote working, increased demand for larger homes and a relatively limited supply of houses for sale sparked a feeding frenzy among prospective homebuyers and a windfall for sellers.
Homes in Columbus sold more quickly than in any other large metropolitan US area, according to Zillow, the property website. Almost three-quarters of Columbus properties were under contract in less than a week in April. Other fast-moving areas included Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
The fierce competition means many properties are selling at a significant premium to their listing price, favouring those on higher incomes or younger first-time buyers whose parents are willing to stump up the cash required to win a bidding war.
FT Series: Global house prices — raising the roof
House prices are rising in many major economies — but is it sustainable?
Part 1: How the pandemic has triggered the broadest global house price boom in more than two decades
Part 2: Buyers flock to smaller US cities, renewing policymakers’ concerns about affordability and risk
Part 3: Netherlands grapples with the social consequences of rapidly rising house prices
Part 4: Why Berlin’s renters want to expropriate their homes from Germany’s publicly listed landlords
Part 5: Should house prices count in inflation data, and what can central banks do about the economic effects?
Columbus’s average sale price has jumped 15.8 per cent in the past year, according to Columbus Realtors, the local industry body of which Jones is president.
“People say to me, ‘Don’t you love this market?’” he said at a recent open house for an almost 6,000 square foot family home with a listing price of just under $1m in a residential neighbourhood east of downtown Columbus.
“I say, ‘Not especially, because I represent buyers and sellers alike’,” he added. “Somebody is a loser here.”
Other places have experienced even more frenetic sales. Median home prices in Austin, Texas, have risen 40 per cent year on year, according to online real estate brokerage Redfin. Buyers have also flocked to Phoenix, Arizona, where prices are almost 30 per cent higher in the same period. In Detroit, Michigan, they have risen 56 per cent.
Suburban enclaves and smaller towns have also benefited. Redfin reported last month that median home prices in “car-dependent” US areas had surged at twice the pace of those in “transit-accessible” cities since the start of the pandemic — with the former gaining 33 per cent while the latter increased 16 per cent.
Across the 30 largest metropolitan areas in the US, Columbus, along with St Louis, Missouri, and Tampa, Florida, logged some of the biggest net increases in people arriving in the area, according to an analysis of US Postal Service records of mailing address changes by commercial real estate and investment firm CBRE.
Most moves came from the “surrounding area”, defined as a few hours’ drive from the householder’s previous address, the analysis suggested.
The house price spiral is feeding into the rental market too. According to Apartment List, a listings website, national median rent has risen 11.4 per cent so far this year, more than three times the average increase in the same period in the previous three years.
“The high cost of housing keeps millions of families up every night,” Fudge warned. “They wonder if they can afford to keep a roof over their head — and still manage to keep their lights on, to pay for their prescriptions, to put food on their tables.”
Industry experts say the pace of price growth is set to slow as supply begins to catch up with demand.
The number of existing-home sales rose 1.4 per cent month on month in June, according to the National Association of Realtors. Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the industry body, said supply had “modestly improved in recent months due to more housing starts and existing homeowners listing their homes, all of which has resulted in an uptick in sales”.
Real estate experts and economists surveyed by Zillow expect price growth to peak this year and then ebb.
“At a broad level, home prices are in no danger of a decline due to tight inventory conditions, but I do expect prices to appreciate at a slower pace by the end of the year,” Yun said.
Daryl Fairweather, chief economist at Redfin, said “homes that would have gotten 20 offers are now getting only two or three”.
But she added that while “we are already seeing demand start to stagnate”, prices were not coming down significantly — suggesting that policymakers’ concerns about affordability are likely to persist.
Federal Reserve chair Jay Powell recently said that today’s trend looked distinctly different to the one a decade ago that pre-empted what was at the time the worst recession since the Great Depression — but he called the problem of housing affordability “a big one”.
“Housing prices are moving up across the country at a high rate,” he told a congressional committee last month.
Although he acknowledged that it was “not being driven by the kind of reckless, irresponsible lending that led to the housing bubble that led to the last financial crisis”, he warned that it “makes it more difficult for entry-level buyers to get into the housing market, so that is a concern”.
Square’s $29bn bet on Afterpay heralds future for ‘buy now, pay later’ trend
Jack Dorsey’s biggest gamble to date has sent ripples around the fintech and banking world, with investors betting that Square’s $29bn all-stock deal to acquire Afterpay signals the “buy now, pay later” trend has staying power.
BNPL relies on an emerging thesis that millennials and Gen Z consumers distrust traditional credit, but still want to borrow money to buy goods. Afterpay allows shoppers to split the cost of goods into four instalments with no interest — but a late fee if payments are missed.
“We think we’re in the early days of the opportunity facing us,” said Square’s chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja, speaking to the Financial Times. “From a buy now, pay later perspective, we see, with online payments alone, a large and growing opportunity representing $10tn in payments volume by 2024.”
The deal sees Square join an increasingly crowded space, alongside big players such as Sweden’s Klarna, Silicon Valley-based Affirm and PayPal, with Apple also exploring the market. The sector also faces a brewing regulatory battle, as legislators question an industry that lends money in an instant, often without a traditional credit check to ensure a consumer will be able to pay off their debt.
“This decade is going to be the upheaval of the banking industry,” Klarna’s chief executive Sebastian Siemiatkowski, said on CNBC on Monday. “I’m a little bit surprised to see consolidation happening this early, at this level, but at the same point in time I think this is directionally what we’re going to see.”
BNPL has exploded in popularity over the past year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic-driven boom in online shopping, but industry executives said it had shown strong growth well before the pandemic, alongside a broader trend for more flexible financing among traditional lenders.
Leading into 2020, banks including JPMorgan Chase, American Express and Citigroup each launched flexible payment options tied to existing credit cards as an answer to point-of-sale financing.
The past 18 months have seen a meaningful uptick in the number of retailers willing to adopt the extra financing option. “There’s a little bit of FOMO setting in,” said Brendan Coughlin from Citizens Financial Group.
Afterpay was among the pioneers in BNPL. It was founded by Sydney neighbours Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen in 2014, and today facilitates global annual sales of $15.6bn.
The company went public on the Australian Securities Exchange in 2016 at a valuation of A$165m (US$122m). In May 2020, Chinese tech giant Tencent paid about A$300m for a 5 per cent stake in the Australian group, which was by then worth about A$8bn.
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The Afterpay tie-up will enable Square to offer BNPL services to its millions of merchants, who processed payments worth $38.8bn in its most recent quarter, while also tapping into Afterpay’s clients, which include Amazon and Target.
The company will also integrate Afterpay into its Cash App, which has about 70m users and is slowly being built out as a one-stop financial services shop for payments, cryptocurrency, saving and investing.
“All of a sudden, you’ve got probably the most compelling super app outside of China,” said DA Davidson’s Chris Brendler, who is an investor in both companies.
Investors appear convinced. Despite the deal coming at a 30 per cent premium to Afterpay’s most recent stock price, the news sent Square’s share price up 10 per cent by Monday’s close.
“This is certainly a bull market deal,” said Andrew Atherton, managing director at Union Square Advisors. “People are rewarding Jack Dorsey for being bold and for making a big bet.”
Square’s entry into BNPL comes as the sector is becoming increasingly competitive.
Klarna increased its valuation from $11bn in September 2020 to $46bn in June of this year, making it the most valuable standalone company in the industry.
Shares in Affirm, the US online lender led by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin, rose 15 per cent on Monday following news of the Afterpay deal. Affirm, which went public in January and is now valued at $17bn, recently expanded its partnership with Shopify to offer BNPL services to the ecommerce platform’s US merchants.
PayPal first moved into BNPL back in 2008 when its then-parent eBay bought Bill Me Later. A year ago, PayPal launched Pay in 4, a six-week instalment offering that is free for both consumers and merchants, alongside its longer-term PayPal Credit service.
Earlier this year, Apple was recruiting staff for its payments division with experience in BNPL, as it looks to expand Apple Pay and its Wallet app. Bloomberg reported last month that the iPhone maker was working with Goldman Sachs to develop an Apple Pay Later service.
Industry executives warn, however, that the more crowded market could erode the businesses’ margins, while flustered consumers may also be put off by the rapidly growing number of checkout options.
“The current state of affairs, where you have seven buttons when you go to checkout, I don’t think is a sustainable state of affairs,” said one consumer finance executive at a top US bank. “I think we are in an interim period.”
A bigger threat still is the sector’s immature and inconsistent regulatory environment.
“It’s what everyone is calling the Wild West,” said Alyson Clarke, an analyst at Forrester. “There is no onus on them to make sure that you are of financial health to be able to repay that loan.”
Some companies do a “soft” credit check that briefly examines a person’s position but “not as much as they should be doing if they are lending you money”, Clarke said. “Afterpay doesn’t do any of that.”
A survey of Australian consumers, compiled by the country’s financial regulator in 2020, suggested 21 per cent of BNPL users missed a payment in the previous 12 months. Almost half of them were aged 18 to 29. Morgan Stanley analysts have estimated Afterpay makes about $70m a year on late fees.
The UK’s financial regulator has said BNPL players should be forced to adhere to its credit rules as a “matter of urgency”. In the US, a government consumer protection agency issued guidance urging caution around “tempting” BNPL deals.
In a hint at further possible tensions, Capital One in December became the first major credit card company to block its customers from using its cards to pay off BNPL purchases, calling the practice “risky for customers and the banks that serve them”, according to Reuters.
Afterpay board member Dana Stalder said the company welcomed regulation. “Buy now, pay later is just a friendlier consumer product,” he said. “Consumers understand that, they’re not dumb. This is why they are voting with their feet.”
Additional reporting by Richard Milne
UK pushes floating wind farms in drive to meet climate targets
In waters 15km south-east of Aberdeen, renewable energy companies are preparing to celebrate yet another landmark in the drive to end Britain’s reliance on fossil fuels.
Five wind turbines, each taller than the Gherkin building in the City of London, fixed to 3,000-tonne buoyant platforms have been towed to the UK North Sea from Rotterdam where they will form part of the Kincardine array, the world’s biggest “floating” offshore wind farm.
Wind farm developers have dabbled since the 2000s with floating technology to overcome the limitations of conventional offshore turbines. These are mounted on structures fixed to the seabed and are difficult to install beyond depths of 60m, which makes them unsuitable for waters further from shore where wind speeds are higher.
Floating projects, which are anchored to the seabed by mooring lines, are rapidly moving from the fringes to the mainstream as countries turn to the technology to help meet challenging climate targets.
Britain was the first country to install a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Peterhead, Scotland in 2017. But existing floating projects are modest in size. The Kincardine array has an electricity generation capacity of 50MW compared to 3.6GW for the world’s largest conventional offshore wind farm.
Now the bigger wind developers are stepping up a gear with plans to build more schemes on a larger scale.
Denmark’s Orsted, Germany’s RWE, Norway’s Equinor along with the UK’s ScottishPower and Royal Dutch Shell are some of companies on a long list of bidders vying to build floating schemes in an auction of seabed rights for about 10GW of offshore wind projects in Scottish waters. The bidding round closed in mid-July with the winners expected to be announced in early 2022.
The UK is separately examining an auction exclusively for floating wind in the Celtic Sea, the area of the Atlantic Ocean west of the Bristol Channel and the approaches to the English Channel and south of the Republic of Ireland.
Developers expect the costs of floating projects to fall rapidly as more projects are deployed. In 2018 floating wind costs were estimated at more than €200 per megawatt hour, nearly double the cost of nuclear power in the UK.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, a UK technology and research centre, is hopeful developers will be able to build “subsidy free” floating projects at prices below forecast wholesale electricity costs in auctions as early as 2029. Conventional offshore wind developers reached this inflection point in a UK government auction in 2019.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the UN’s COP26 climate summit later this year, has set a 1GW floating target out of a total 40GW offshore wind goal by 2030. He has underlined the importance of accessing the “windiest parts of our seas” as part of the UK’s goal to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Other countries including France, Norway, Spain, the US and Japan are pursuing the technology, which experts said would particularly appeal to countries with limited access to shallow waters, or where the geology of the seabed makes it impossible to install conventional “fixed-bottom” turbines.
WindEurope, an industry body, predicts one-third of all offshore wind turbines installed in Europe by 2050 could be floating.
Countries pursuing floating wind are interested in it “not just as an opportunity to deliver net-zero targets. It has a real potential to be a driver of economic growth as well,” said Ralph Torr, a programme manager at the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult.
Much like how the UK supply chain has lost out to foreign companies in the construction of conventional wind offshore farms — despite Britain having more than anywhere else in the world — there are concerns the mistakes will be repeated for floating technology. Manufacturing work for the Kincardine project was carried out in Spain and Portugal and the turbines and foundations assembled in Rotterdam.
Competition with other markets was already high as they all tried to gain a “first-mover advantage”, said Torr, who warned the UK government’s 1GW floating wind target by 2030 was not “going to unlock huge investment in the supply chain or infrastructure because it’s [just] a handful of projects”.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult and developers are urging the government to commit to a second target in 2040 for floating wind, which they believe would provide confidence to industry to invest in the necessary facilities in Britain.
“Because floating [wind] becomes economic in the 2030s, it’d be much better to understand what the longer term pipeline is,” said Tom Glover, UK country chair at RWE. He added that in the Scottish seabed rights auction, developers had to “provide a commitment and an ambition for Scottish content”, which should benefit the local supply chain.
Wind developers are conscious that UK suppliers need time to gear up. Christoph Harwood, director of policy and strategy at Simply Blue Energy, which is developing a 96MW floating scheme off the coast of Pembroke in Wales, said projects that were larger than the earliest floating schemes but were not yet at a full commercial scale would be important in that process.
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“If the UK supply chain is to benefit from floating wind, don’t rush into 1GW projects, take some stepping stones towards them,” he said.
Tim Cornelius, chief executive of the Global Energy Group, which carries out offshore wind assembly work at the Port of Nigg on the Cromarty Firth in north-east Scotland, said the size of floating wind turbines offered opportunities to UK suppliers.
The floating turbines are much bigger than their conventional offshore counterparts so need to be built closer to their point of installation, which precludes using the lowest cost manufacturers in China and the Middle East.
The floating turbines require “an astonishing amount” of deepwater quayside space at ports, Cornelius explained. His company is looking at creating an artificial island for quaysides in the Cromarty Firth in Scotland, which he says would require a “material investment but is entirely justifiable as long as developers are prepared to commit”.
But he warned that “as it currently stands, the [UK] supply chain isn’t in a position to be able to support the aspirations of the [floating offshore wind] industry”.
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