2020 was a year of opportunities and challenges as the world faced continued geopolitical uncertainty against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic. As economic growth starts to normalise after the pandemic-induced shock in 2020, we have identified five investment opportunities and potential risks that should be carefully monitored in 2021. 

Opportunity one: Covid-19 could be crushed. The vaccination programme could be more successful than expected. With more supply coming onto the market in Q1 if Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccination is successful, a 90% efficacy for a number of vaccines might bring herd immunity faster than expected. The economies of Europe, the UK and the US would be the most notable beneficiaries if this were the case. 

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Opportunity two: Investment opportunities could broaden. A weak US dollar and a global cyclical recovery could create tailwinds for Europe and Asia. Europe could benefit from increased fiscal spending while Asia could benefit from more successful disease control relative to the rest of the world. 

Opportunity three: We could return to the Roaring Twenties. All developed countries have had unusually high savings rates during the pandemic. In the spring of 2020, many governments enacted strong fiscal support, but there was nowhere to use it. A successful vaccine protocol could lead to greater spending and pent-up demand could carry the global economy forward. 

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Opportunity four: Inequality could fall. Fiscal support and renewed economic activity – coupled with a revival of the small business segment – could help narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. Small- and mid-cap stocks could rally as a result and benefit from the cyclical recovery and risk-on investor sentiment. 

Opportunity five: Inflation could stay low. Inflation is likely to remain subdued because the recovery in demand is likely to lag that of supply. We expect this is the most likely scenario where despite massive fiscal and monetary stimulus, inflation is unlikely to be a big issue in 2021, especially in developed markets. 

Risk one: New president in the US White House. A new president inevitably brings uncertainty to the market. In terms of what  that means for investors, there is a risk that there could be a rotation across investment sectors in the coming months and we expect Democrats to use the budget reconciliation process to allocate more spending to climate change, infrastructure, healthcare, state government aid and education. There could be winning and losing sectors following the transition and investors will need to tread carefully.    

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Risk two: The vaccine rollout could stumble. There is a high level of uncertainty still surrounding the vaccine roll out. There are many logistical challenges to mass vaccination, including manufacturing sufficient quantities in the next six months. Cyclical trading strategies are predicated on more normal life by the summer of 2021. Any sign that this timeline is too ambitious could cause volatility. 

Risk three: Fiscal support could be further delayed. The time for fiscal spending is now, before there is permanent scarring in the labour market, particularly as individual states are starting to restrict activity in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19. Biden will have political capital to unify his party in areas such as fiscal spending and taxes. 

Risk four: Globalisation could retreat. Conflict with China could morph from one of trade deficit and tariffs to one that is more existential and security related. Europe and Asia could be forced to line up with either the US or Chinese spheres of influence. Additionally, any movement toward supply chain nationalism could shave corporate profit opportunities. 

Risk five: Markets could go back to square one. We could witness a repeat of 2019’s sell-off in the new year as price action became extreme going into year-end. Bad Covid-19 data could slow the recovery, prompting a headlong rush into tech and growth names once more if markets exhibit a risk-off tone.

Shamik Dhar is chief economist of BNY Mellon Investment Management