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Outlook 2021: How to Prepare for the Year Ahead

After a tumultuous 2020, these insights could help you position your investments for economic recovery

Outlook 2021: How to Prepare for the Year Ahead image

WHILE THE PAST YEAR SHOOK THE ECONOMY, the markets and our daily lives, and ultimately proved the resilience of all three, “2021 is shaping up as our gateway to a new frontier,” says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.


“We need to see constant improvement in testing and access to testing, better treatments for people who have the disease and effective vaccines.”
—Chris Hyzy,
Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

While that post-pandemic frontier—a time of growth, innovation and relative stability—won’t fully emerge until 2022, the year ahead should bring major progress on several fronts, Hyzy believes. Look for an economy moving into full recovery, ongoing growth in industries that thrived during the pandemic and a surge in pent-up demand for air travel and other services as society reopens.

Still, there will be risks for investors to navigate as well. “There are enough open questions about what’s ahead to keep market volatility elevated, especially early in 2021,” says Niladri Mukherjee, head of CIO Portfolio Strategy, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank. Below, Hyzy, Mukherjee and Marci McGregor, senior investment strategist, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank, discuss what to expect in the year ahead and share ideas for how you could prepare.  For more on the CIO’s outlook for the year ahead, read “The Gateway to the New Frontier.

A pandemic that (finally) loosens its grip

Promising vaccines heighten the chance the coronavirus will be contained in 2021, Hyzy says. Yet as the late-2020 spike in cases has reaffirmed, even in the best case the pandemic won’t go quietly or easily. “We need to see constant improvement across all three major areas of the healthcare recovery,” Hyzy says. “That means enhanced testing and access to testing, better treatments for people who have the disease and effective vaccines.”

Investing implications: Though the outlook is positive, the likelihood of periodic volatility in 2021 underscores the importance of a disciplined investing process. Investors should focus on diversifying across and within different asset classes, as well as geographically, and rebalancing their portfolios as necessary, Hyzy says.

: On the left is a photo of the ocean at dawn, with birds flying in the sky, and the numbers “2021” overlayed on the horizon line. On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “Year-Ahead Forecast,” “Key projections on the economy and the markets from BofA Global Research.”
On the left is an American flag on a pole, flying through the air. On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “4.5%,” “How much the U.S. economy is projected to grow in 2021 – a nice change after 2020’s 3.5% decline*,” “*2020 figures are estimates,” “Source: ‘2021 – the year ahead: Once more into the breach,’ BofA Global Research, Nov. 22, 2020.”
On the left is a graphic of a globe with various numbers, percentages, and dollar signs imbedded in it. On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “5.4%,” “How much the global economy is expected to grow in 2021— bouncing back from shrinking by 3.7% in 2020*,” “*2020 figures are estimates,” “Source: ‘2021 – the year ahead: Once more into the breach,’ BofA Global Research, Nov. 22, 2020.”
On the left is a close-up of a printed fever graph with “inflation” written underneath a peak. On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “1.9%,” “Projected 2021 inflation rate, a bit above the projected 2020 rate of 1.2%*,” “*2020 figures are estimates,” “Source: ‘2021 – the year ahead: Once more into the breach,’ BofA Global Research, Nov.”
On the left is an aerial photo of a suburban neighborhood. On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “4.0%,” “Expected increase in home prices in 2021, down a bit from 2020’s anticipated 5.9% increase*,” “*2020 figures are estimates,” “Source: ‘Housing: well supported in 2021,’ BofA Global Research, Nov. 24, 2020.”
On the left is an image of several people on their way to work in the morning. On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “5.1%,” “Forecasted rate of unemployment at the end of 2021, after peaking at 14.7% in April 2020,” “Source: ‘2021 – the year ahead: Once more into the breach,’ BofA Global Research, Nov. 22, 2020.”
On the left is a close-up of the stock exchange, showing the pixelated number “55.7.” On the right is the text, “OUTLOOK 2021,” “3,800,” “Year-end projection for 2021 for the S&P 500, around 5% higher than it was at the end of November 2020,” “Source: ‘U.S. Equity Strategy Year Ahead – 20/20 perfect vision? We’ll settle for 2021,’ BofA Global Research, November 24, 2020.”

New stimulus gives a boost to consumer spending

“Consumers have been so resilient throughout this recovery and we think they will be a big factor driving growth in 2021,” McGregor says. “They have a high savings rate and household net worth is at an all-time high.” To maintain that momentum, the incoming Biden administration and a potentially split Congress (pending Georgia runoffs for two U.S. Senate seats in January) have strong incentives to overcome differences and work together, McGregor says. A major priority will be another fiscal stimulus package that could potentially provide between $500 billion and $1 trillion in spending and is likely to include additional aid for unemployed workers and small businesses, in particular.

Investing implications: Additional stimulus, combined with low interest rates and a subsiding pandemic, could unleash pent-up consumer demand in the second half of 2021 for service industries battered by the shutdowns. McGregor suggests looking for potential investment opportunities in areas that are most exposed to an improving economy.


“There are enough open questions about what’s ahead to keep market volatility elevated, especially early in 2021.”
—Niladri Mukherjee,
head of CIO Portfolio Strategy, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

A more unified approach to trade tensions

During the past four years, as American tariffs and other trade policies roiled international commerce, many traditional U.S. allies were affected. Now, McGregor expects trade tensions with Europe, Mexico and Canada to subside, as the U.S. is poised to take a more multilateral approach to ongoing disputes with China over intellectual property, technology and environmental and climate issues.

Investing implications: One effect of that change will be an increasing focus on rerouting supply chains away from China. “Where the components for technology, healthcare equipment and pharmaceuticals are produced has become a national security issue,” McGregor says. “For example, more than 90% of components for some drugs are manufactured in China.” Efforts to alleviate that kind of dependence by switching to suppliers closer to home could mean a surge of new business for U.S. companies and help bring back manufacturing jobs for American workers, says McGregor.

Low interest rates and little inflation

Extraordinary efforts by the U.S. Federal Reserve helped keep markets functioning and businesses operating in 2020. Now, the Fed is expected to keep interest rates near zero for several years, even if inflation rises toward or past the Fed’s 2% target rate, says Mukherjee. “All of the stimulus that has gone into the system is unlikely to lead to runaway inflation,” he says. Indeed, the Fed could need to provide further help, increasing its bond purchases or taking other actions if the pace of recovery falters.


“Consumers have been so resilient throughout this recovery and we think they will be a big factor driving growth in 2021.”
—Marci McGregor,
senior investment strategist, Chief Investment Office, Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

Investing implications: With yields on U.S. Treasurys at historic lows, fixed income investors may find higher yields through investment-grade corporate bonds, Mukherjee says. And municipal bonds can be an important source of tax-exempt income. “Still, holding some Treasurys in your portfolio will provide needed ballast against riskier assets like equities,” which tend to be more volatile than many bonds, he adds.

Surging technology and health care

Those low interest rates help create an environment that’s better for stocks than for bonds, Mukherjee notes, “and the pandemic has supercharged several major trends.” For example, companies that had already transformed themselves to serve consumers or businesses digitally—or that quickly improved their capabilities—have thrived during the past year. “Now, any company not keeping up on digitalization runs the risk of becoming irrelevant very quickly,” he says. “And as trends such as working from home become more entrenched, the need for bandwidth and communication infrastructure will become paramount.” In the wake of the pandemic, spending on health care is likely to rise, especially in developing countries.

Investing implications: The “e-everything” economy should favor artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, factory automation and digital platforms, Mukherjee says. Investors may also find opportunities in all areas of health care. Regardless of industry, it’s important to emphasize high-quality companies with solid balance sheets and good cash flow, Mukherjee adds.

A greater focus on sustainability

The challenges of 2020 have also accelerated the rise of sustainable investing and stakeholder capitalism—the idea that businesses must support not just stockholders but employees, communities and the environment. Mukherjee points to growing evidence that companies with better environmental, social and governance (ESG) records may perform better financially.1

“It’s not always clear what’s going to happen next. But you do have the power to adjust and move forward.”
—Chris Hyzy,
Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank

Investing implications: Taking sustainability into account could help investors find companies likelier to prosper through times of transition and change, Mukherjee notes. Depending on your situation and investing needs, that could mean investing in companies with strong ESG records, regardless of industry, or even investing directly in ESG-related areas such as renewable energy.

What you can do to prepare

The start of a new year is always a good time to speak with your advisor—and especially for 2021, Hyzy believes. “Ask about market and economic cycles, what’s driving growth, where yields may be headed and what the key economic trends are,” he suggests. “Then, discuss whether your portfolio is prepared to capture these emerging opportunities, while helping protect against what worries you.”

According to Mukherjee, “investors will need to adopt a new mindset to portfolio strategy in a post-coronavirus world.” That means looking closer than ever at your portfolio to ensure you have the right mix of assets to achieve your long-term goals, making adjustments as needed and, above all, having the discipline to stick to your strategy, he says.

And keep in mind some valuable lessons from 2020, Hyzy suggests. “The first thing we learned is that the economy is much more nimble than people thought.” That idea extends to individual investors, he adds. “It’s not always clear what’s going to happen next. But you do have the power to adjust and move forward.”


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