Picture: 123RF/RATTANASIRI INPINTA
Picture: 123RF/RATTANASIRI INPINTA

London — The 21st century’s teen years, book-ended by a financial crisis at the start and the fintech revolution at the end, were a decade of disruption. From negative borrowing costs to bitcoin, here are 10 trends that have up-ended traditional economic and investment models in the past decade.

1. FAANG-tastic five: If they were a country, they would be the fifth largest in terms of economic output, outgunning Britain and snapping at Germany’s heels. With a $3.9-trillion market value (compared to about $100bn in January 2010), tech giants Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google-owner Alphabet — collectively known as the FAANGs — are not only at the vanguard of history’s longest share bull-run but have transformed how humans work, shop, consume news and relax.

FAANGs comprise 7% of the MSCI global equity index today, up from about 1.6% in early 2010. The savvy investor who sank $25,000 in Netflix in 2009 would now be sitting on $1m.

And in the slip stream of the five pioneers, other tech titans are rising, from China’s BAT grouping of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent to sector “disrupters” Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo. For better or worse, the world — and markets — have changed forever.

2. Paying to borrow: A defining feature of the years following the 2008/2009 meltdown was the slide of interest rates and government borrowing costs to below 0%, possibly for the first time in history. US and German 10-year borrowing costs collapsed by 200 to 400 basis points this decade; the latter to as low as minus 0.7%. Roughly $12-trillion in debt carries negative yields, almost a quarter of all bonds outstanding.

The drivers — central banks’ asset-buying, sub-zero interest rates, yield curve manipulation and the tech revolution’s deflationary effects — were in themselves groundbreaking, at least in terms of scale. The Bank of Japan holds assets collectively worth more than Japan’s economy. The European Central Bank’s balance sheet is a quarter the eurozone’s annual output but double the levels of a decade ago.

3. A century in bonds: With record-low rates and yield-starved investors, bonds with tenors longer than the average human lifespan have caught on.

A handful of 100-year bonds were around in 2010, but Mexico’s $1bn issue maturing 2110 started an issuance surge that saw US and British universities, Ireland, Belgium and Austria, US municipalities and corporations such as Coca-Cola and Petrobras sell century bonds. Even junk-rated serial defaulter Argentina drew huge bids for its 2117-maturity bond.

Just more than 1,400 century bonds, worth almost $170bn are now outstanding, according to Refinitiv.

But — caveat emptor. Buyers of the Argentinian century bond have watched it lose half its value. Austria’s issue, also sold in 2017, is up more than 60%. 

4. Coining it: In 2010, bitcoin was an idea causing ripples in niche online forums. Ten years later, crypto-currencies are intertwined with finance, business and politics.

Crypto-markets, non-existent in 2010, are now worth more than $200bn, having hit a $815bn peak at the apex of the bitcoin bubble. Having changed hands for just 3c in its first public trade, bitcoin now trades at more than $7,500. That’s off its peak near $20,000, though — a reminder of its volatility. Usage has also spread. Coin Metrics estimates that from 130 active bitcoin addresses a decade back, there are now nearly 750,000.

Crypto-things took many guises through the 2010s, from rebel technology to a tool for criminals, speculative token to the great hope for frictionless payments. While it never really shook off doubts over security, virtual money and blockchain tech have evolved at a dizzying pace, typified recently by Facebook’s push to launch its libra token and steps by central banks to create their own digital currencies.

5. Passive aggressive: Sometimes it’s better to be passive. The punter who opted to ride the past decade’s equity boom via an exchange-traded fund (ETF) tracking the S&P 500 would have earned 200% but at a fraction of the fee a mutual fund manager would have charged. Hence spectacular ETF growth — assets have swollen to almost $7-trillion, from below $2-trillion in 2010, consultancy ETFGI says. Low investment fees should help extend the boom: total ETF assets could hit $50-trillion in 2030, Bank of America predicts.

6. Investment climate: With the hottest four years on record occurring in the past four years (according to the World Meteorological Organisation), climate is shaping investor thinking in a way it did not a decade ago.

Crop failures, floods and wildfires can all inflict portfolio losses. More funds are reducing exposure to polluting industries, embracing renewables and water conservation technologies, or investing in the likes of fake-meat firm Beyond Meat, whose 2019 initial public offering (IPO) was greeted with rapture on Wall Street.

More than $30-trillion is held in sustainable or green investments, the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance estimates, more than doubling from 2011. Green bonds debuted in 2007 to fund projects with environment benefits. In 2019, issuance totaled more than a record $200bn.

7. Shale oil: Having learnt to wring oil from shale with fracking, the US has vaulted to the top of the oil producer rankings, with 12.5-million barrels per day (bpd) of output, double 2010 levels. Shale oil production exceeds 9-million bpd, from below 1-million bpd in 2010, making the US an oil exporter for the first time in 40 years.

The shale boom is partly why conversations around energy have switched from peak supply to peak demand. Surging output comes alongside environmental concerns, meaning an oil glut is likelier than shortages.

8. Electric dreams: Having relied for more than a century on the internal combustion engine, the global automotive industry is being up-ended by battery-powered cars. In 2010, electric vehicle (EV) maker Tesla went public and its shares, launched at $17, now trade at $380.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been pledged to develop a new generation of EVs. Industries supplying car batteries are booming and demand for their main component, lithium, could triple by 2025.

EV sales so far have disappointed — two out of 100 cars sold today are electric. Petrol and diesel vehicles are cheaper and EV charging infrastructure is limited. But growing alarm over climate change and government incentives to steer consumers away from petrol means the electric revolution looks unstoppable.

9. Flash boys, flash-crashes: Tech’s transformative power has not bypassed currency trading floors. Ten years ago, dealers did the buying and selling for banks and clients. Today, electronic trading comprises 90% of some products, doubling in this period. Another shift is towards “algos” — computer programmes that follow pre-set instructions, or algorithms, to trade, often at speeds impossible for humans.

From being largely non-existent a decade ago, algo trading now comprises a fifth of forex spot volumes on Refinitiv FXall, a platform for the buyside. On another venue, EBS, more than 80% of the order book is algo-driven, the Bank for International Settlements estimates.

One side effect is that flash-crashes — wild exchange rate swings — have become frequent, ostensibly due to algos that are programmed to turn off if markets become volatile.

The winners? Those who can afford the most sophisticated algos. Almost half of global currency trading is now with the top five banks, with smaller institutions — and of course, traders — having to exit.

10. Going to pot: Marijuana took a trip this decade from street corners to stock markets. The first pure-play US “pot-stock” — Tilray — debuted on Nasdaq in 2018, leaping 36% on the first day. And 18 months since Canada legalised recreational cannabis, hundreds of pot-stocks are trading.

Pot also spawned one of the decade’s asset bubbles. Dubbed the green rush, shares in firms such as Aurora Cannabis and Canopy Growth rose several-fold before peaking in October 2018. At their high, the 10 biggest components of a pot-stock benchmark, the Alternative Harvest ETF, were worth $50bn.

A year later, $30bn had gone up in smoke. Blame regulation and overproduction hitting weed prices. A sign of a maturing industry? The highs may have evaporated, but pot-stocks aren’t going anywhere. Except perhaps London, which may host the next set of cannabis listings in 2020.

Reuters

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