The outlook for the global economy continues to hinge on health outcomes. In our annual economic and market outlook published at the end of 2020, Approaching the Dawn, Vanguard economists expected that the path to recovery would be uneven and varied across industries and countries, even once effective vaccines for COVID-19 became available.
Fast forward half a year. The pandemic is still far from over as new virus variants surface where vaccination rates lag and as the human toll continues to mount, especially in less developed economies. Yet macroeconomic indicators signal that the global economy is rebounding faster than many had expected from its sharpest contraction in modern history. That rebound is reflected in our current full-year GDP growth forecasts, which remain roughly in line with our optimistic projections at the start of 2021. In some places, we’ve upgraded our forecasts; in others, we’ve downgraded them.
Countries that have contained the virus more successfully, whether through vaccinations, lockdowns, or both, have tended to see their economies hold up better, said Andrew Patterson, senior international economist in Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group. As economies open up, demand—supported in many countries by government spending—will promote growth and, by extension, underlie our outlooks for inflation and monetary policy. Given Vanguard’s focus on return expectations over the long term, revisions to our investment return outlooks remain a function of valuations and risks informed by current and expected future macroeconomic conditions and policy.
Vaccination rates and fiscal support are driving the economic recovery
The extraordinary global response to the pandemic has set the stage for a strong economic recovery. Vaccines were developed, tested, and made available faster than many anticipated. By our estimates, shown in the chart below, about 75% of the world’s population will have received at least one vaccine dose by the end of 2021, putting herd immunity in the largest economies within reach.1 The reaction of governments and central banks has also been impressive, as many moved swiftly to provide unprecedented levels of fiscal and monetary support.
Percentage of population with at least one vaccine dose
At the same time, the chart shows that vaccination rates have differed significantly by country and region. So have outcomes from policymakers’ efforts to blunt COVID-19’s economic impact. Both factors are likely to contribute to the recovery’s continued unevenness for the rest of this year and beyond.
Our full-year GDP growth forecasts still reflect how far we’ve had to climb back to approach pre-pandemic growth. In the United States, for example, where positive health care developments and strong fiscal support are driving growth, we’ve raised our full-year forecast to at least 7%. Vaccination programs accelerated after a somewhat slow start, paving the way for the reopening of segments of the economy that depend heavily on face-to-face interaction. Government programs, including enhanced unemployment benefits and stimulus checks delivered directly to lower-income earners, have supported consumer spending.
How faster growth could affect inflation and monetary policy
Various factors are fanning concerns about higher inflation, including the stronger-than-expected rebound in global growth, extraordinary and unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus, and a jump in demand for goods and services as economies reopen and supply gradually comes back online. Although we expect the effects to be largely transitory, our outlook is for a modest but eventually persistent increase in inflation.
Improving economies and somewhat higher inflation are, in turn, spurring questions about monetary policy. Some central banks have already begun slowing the pace of asset purchases put in place at the start of the pandemic, and others are contemplating doing so. Such moves constitute a gradual removal of accommodative monetary policy. We nevertheless expect that initial increases in central bank short-term rates won’t occur broadly before 2023.
U.S. inflation risks are higher than those in other countries given some supply-and-demand imbalances. Diminished supply of goods including new and used cars and of labor amid demand rebounds in some sectors might take time to unwind. Our baseline scenario, shown in the chart below, is that core inflation (which excludes volatile food and energy prices) will persist above the Federal Reserve’s 2% target in the second half of 2021 before moderating in 2022.
There is a risk, however, that significantly more fiscal spending on the order of $2 trillion to $3 trillion—our “go big” scenario in the chart below—could lead inflation to significantly overshoot the Fed’s target later this year and into 2022. Such a development could affect inflation psychology, in which higher expected inflation can lead to higher actual inflation.
Inflation: Up, up … but not away in 2021
With its 2020 adoption of “average inflation targeting,” which makes 2% a longer-term goal rather than an upper limit, the Fed may be more comfortable letting inflation run reasonably above 2% for some time. We foresee accommodative policy persisting for the rest of 2021, though plans for reducing the pace of asset purchases are likely to be disclosed in the second half. We currently don’t foresee conditions meeting the Fed’s rate-hike criteria of price stability and maximum sustainable employment until the second half of 2023.
Where our 10-year return forecasts stand
Starting valuations matter. Global stocks this year have continued to rally from pandemic lows, and that will make further gains harder to come by. In fact, our 10-year annualized return forecasts for some developed markets are nearly 2 percentage points lower than they were at the end of 2020.
The news is better for bond investors. Because we expect bond portfolios of all types and maturities to earn returns close to their current yield levels, the recent increase in market interest rates has led us to raise our 10-year annualized return forecasts by a half to a full percentage point for a number of markets.
Our forecasts, in local currencies, are derived from a May 31, 2021, running of the Vanguard Capital Markets Model®. The figures are based on a 1-point range around the 50th percentile of the distribution of return outcomes for equities and a 0.5-point range around the 50th percentile for bonds.
Here are our current 10-year annualized return forecasts:
U.S. stocks: 2.4% to 4.4%; ex-U.S. stocks: 5.2% to 7.2%.
U.S. bonds: 1.4% to 2.4%; ex-U.S. bonds: 1.3% to 2.3% when hedged in U.S. dollars.
IMPORTANT: The projections and other information generated by the VCMM regarding the likelihood of various investment outcomes are hypothetical in nature, do not reflect actual investment results, and are not guarantees of future results. Distribution of return outcomes from VCMM are derived from 10,000 simulations for each modeled asset class. Simulations as of May 31, 2021. Results from the model may vary with each use and over time. For more information, please see important information below.
A final word about bonds and portfolios
Even with our upward revisions, returns from bonds in most markets are likely to be modest. We nonetheless still see their primary role in a portfolio as providing diversification from riskier assets rather than generating returns.
Keep in mind that return forecasts change in response to evolving assessments of economic and market conditions, but that doesn’t mean your investment plan should change. In fact, long-term investors often have the best chance of investment success by staying the course if their investment plan is diversified across asset classes, sectors, and regions and is in line with their investment goals and tolerance for risk.
1Herd immunity is the point at which a virus’ spread becomes harder because numbers of vaccinated and already-infected people have reached a certain threshold.
All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market. There is no guarantee that any particular asset allocation or mix of funds will meet your investment objectives or provide you with a given level of income.
International investing is subject to additional risks, including the possibility that returns will be hurt by a decline in the value of foreign currencies or by unfavorable developments in a particular country or region. Stocks and bonds of issuers based in emerging markets are subject to national and regional political and economic risks and to the risk of currency fluctuations. These risks are especially high in emerging markets.
Bond funds are subject to the risk that an issuer will fail to make payments on time, and that bond prices will decline because of rising interest rates or negative perceptions of an issuer’s ability to make payments.
About the Vanguard Capital Markets Model:
IMPORTANT: The projections and other information generated by the Vanguard Capital Markets Model regarding the likelihood of various investment outcomes are hypothetical in nature, do not reflect actual investment results, and are not guarantees of future results. VCMM results will vary with each use and over time.
The VCMM projections are based on a statistical analysis of historical data. Future returns may behave differently from the historical patterns captured in the VCMM. More important, the VCMM may be underestimating extreme negative scenarios unobserved in the historical period on which the model estimation is based.
The Vanguard Capital Markets Model® is a proprietary financial simulation tool developed and maintained by Vanguard’s Investment Strategy Group. The model forecasts distributions of future returns for a wide array of broad asset classes. Those asset classes include U.S. and international equity markets, several maturities of the U.S. Treasury and corporate fixed income markets, international fixed income markets, U.S. money markets, commodities, and certain alternative investment strategies. The theoretical and empirical foundation for the Vanguard Capital Markets Model is that the returns of various asset classes reflect the compensation investors require for bearing different types of systematic risk (beta). At the core of the model are estimates of the dynamic statistical relationship between risk factors and asset returns, obtained from statistical analysis based on available monthly financial and economic data. Using a system of estimated equations, the model then applies a Monte Carlo simulation method to project the estimated interrelationships among risk factors and asset classes as well as uncertainty and randomness over time. The model generates a large set of simulated outcomes for each asset class over several time horizons. Forecasts are obtained by computing measures of central tendency in these simulations. Results produced by the tool will vary with each use and over time.
Indexes used in Vanguard Capital Markets Model simulations
The long-term returns of our hypothetical portfolios are based on data for the appropriate market indexes through May 31, 2021. We chose these benchmarks to provide the most complete history possible, and we apportioned the global allocations to align with Vanguard’s guidance in constructing diversified portfolios. Asset classes and their representative forecast indexes are as follows:
U.S. equities: MSCI US Broad Market Index.
Global ex-U.S. equities: MSCI All Country World ex USA Index.
U.S. aggregate bonds: Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond Index.
Global ex-U.S. bonds: Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate ex-USD Index.