From the depths of despair to an adrenaline-pumping ascent, equity investors traversed the whole gamut of emotions in 2020 as a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic followed by equally unprecedented stimulus measures whiplashed global stock markets, upended conventional wisdom and blurred the lines between investing and speculation. Dalal Street witnessed gut-churning fluctuations, with the BSE Sensex swinging between historic losses and eye-popping gains, sometimes in the same session, and confounded veterans and rookies alike. No one had anticipated that the Sensex and Nifty would be bludgeoned in late March, or that they will stage a remarkable recovery almost immediately and soar to all-time highs by the end of the year. But, 2020 has been a year full of events outside the realm of imagination. The year started off on an ominous note for financial markets when on January 3 top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq, ratcheting up tensions in the Middle East. The Sensex tumbled more than 900 points over two sessions but resumed its upward march to hit life highs later that month. Equities largely shrugged off initial reports of a coronavirus outbreak in China, in tandem with the global bourses, and looked ahead to the Budget.
However, the Sensex logged one of its biggest single-day declines on February 1 after the Union Budget failed to live up to market expectations of growth-boosting measures and fiscal discipline. The real test, alas, was ahead. From mid-February, world stocks started getting skittish as it became clear that the COVID-19 crisis would not be limited to China. To add to the woes, Yes Bank was placed under a moratorium in a rare move, triggering a crisis of confidence in the domestic banking sector. The explosive cocktail of a global market meltdown and domestic troubles proved too much to take for Dalal Street. Four of the biggest single-day declines in the history of BSE Sensex came in March 2020, leaving participants shell-shocked. Its biggest-ever plunge (in absolute terms) was on March 23, when the benchmark crashed 3,934.72 points or 13.15 per cent. Astonishingly, March also saw some of the index’s biggest up-moves amid the RBI stepping in with emergency liquidity support. The Sensex’s largest-ever single-session gain came a little later on April 7, when it zoomed 2,476.26 points as investors wagered on more stimulus measures from the government to battle the economic fallout of the pandemic. The turbulence on the domestic bourses also mirrored global market turmoil. The Dow Jones suffered its worst fall, emerging market assets were routed and in a mind-boggling moment, US oil futures turned negative for the first time in history. For a while, the world stopped making any sense.
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With the world economy comatose and governments overwhelmed by a cataclysmic health crisis, the task of propping up the financial markets and restoring investor confidence fell to the global central banks. “2020 will probably go down in history as a year when global central bankers injected close to USD 11 trillion as stimuli to combat the COVID pandemic, said S Ranganathan, Head of Research at LKP Securities. The massive money printing by the US Federal Reserve and its peers sparked a breathtaking turnaround in global stock markets. Never bet against the Fed, as the saying goes. Flush with funds, foreign portfolio investors (FPIs) poured in billions of dollars into emerging markets, with India topping the chart in Asia. FPI net inflows into Indian equity markets have crossed Rs 1.5 lakh crore (over USD 20 billion) this year — a lifetime peak. The Sensex erased its 2020 losses on November 5, while global investors monitored the results of the tightly-contested US elections. The next booster dose for world markets came over the following few days as companies like Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca began announcing positive results from their COVID-19 vaccine trials. Human innovation once again triumphed against all odds, setting off a record-shattering relief rally in equities. From November 9 to December 18, the Sensex hit fresh record highs in 22 out of the 29 sessions. For the calendar year (till December 24), the Sensex has gained 13.86 per cent, while the Nifty has delivered returns of 12.99 per cent. Compared to the March lows, both the indices are up by a hefty 80 per cent. Benchmarks had another engine propelling them higher this year Reliance Industries (RIL), which became the first Indian company to reach a market capitalisation of Rs 15 lakh crore (USD 200 billion) in September.
Beginning April, the Mukesh Ambani-led conglomerate announced a slew of deals to sell minority stakes in its telecom and retail arms to marquee investors like Facebook, Google, Silver Lake, KKR, Mubadala, and Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. The company has raised around USD 25 billion so far this year as it seeks to ramp up its consumer-facing businesses. For a good part of the year, RIL almost single-handedly drove the domestic benchmarks higher in the absence of any buying triggers. The COVID-19 crisis also forced investors to take a relook at their sectoral allocations. “From the lows, markets started stabilising and pandemic sectors like FMCG, IT, pharma and chemicals benefitted. As the economy further opened up, growth and cyclical sectors reversed positively,” said Vinod Nair, Head of Research at Geojit Financial Services. However, while stocks seem to have found their animal spirits back, there are also some murmurs of discontent. Analysts say world stock markets have developed a dangerous addiction to endless money printing by central banks, and show withdrawal symptoms of a junkie at the slightest indication of a moderation in monetary stimulus. Back home too, around half of the government’s Rs 20.97 lakh crore economic stimulus package comprised RBI’s liquidity measures. This glut of global liquidity has pushed markets so far ahead of economic fundamentals that some are beginning to question whether the real economy matters in equity investing at all. For example, no one would be able to tell looking at the Sensex chart that the Indian economy shrank 23.9 per cent in the first three months of FY21, and 7.5 per cent the next quarter.
Globally too, markets have been on a manic upswing even as millions have lost their jobs, small businesses are battling for survival and entire industries have been decimated. While the real economy has been ravaged by the pandemic, most financial market indicators are ruling at stratospheric levels. The BSE Sensex is currently trading at a price-to-earnings (PE) ratio of 32.89, the highest on record. To put it differently, investors are paying Rs 32.89 for every rupee of future earnings of the 30 Sensex firms, compared to the previous 20-year average of around Rs 19. Global market capitalisation — the value of all the listed stocks in the world topped USD 100 trillion for the first time ever in December. And in a classic sign of market mania, there’s a rush of first-time investors eager to make a quick buck. A record 68 lakh new dematerialised (or demat) accounts were opened in India between April and October 2020, compared to nearly 49 lakh in the entire FY20, which was the highest in a decade. Experts attribute this trend to factors like increased time at home due to the lockdown, efforts to make up for lost jobs or incomes, and also FOMO, or the fear of missing out on this rally. This is also reflected in the growing popularity of discount broking apps like Zerodha and Upstox, which have dislodged traditional broking houses in terms of active clients. Like the Robinhood app in the US, such platforms have attracted the tech-savvy crowd with their slick interface and mobile-first approach which has ‘gamified’ the once-stodgy field of stock market investing. With Fed and FOMO playing in tandem, many questioned technicalities like PE and PB ratios. But, some analysts also maintain that 2020 was an outlier in terms of corporate earnings and hence valuation metrics like PE ratios this year are not strictly comparable to historical averages. However, even they agree that every segment of the economy would have to stage a synchronous and sensational comeback to catch up with the market projections. And if that comes to pass, 2021 would be an even more incredible year for the bourses.