What if one had been told in advance key facts about 2020 — that the year would bring the most widespread pandemic in a century and the most abrupt and severe quarterly economic downturn on record? What if additional crucial information were shared — a lockdown would precipitate unprecedented sales gains for consumer packaged foods? Given that staple food companies are viewed as a haven for investors in uncertain times, these central developments would seem to augur a year in which shares of food companies would outperform the overall stock market.
Instead, exactly the opposite occurred in markets. The Grain-Based Foods Share Index calculated by Milling & Baking News experienced one of its worst years of underperformance ever, gaining only 3.7% versus a 16.3% jump in the S&P 500 and an eye-popping 43.6% in the Nasdaq. The advanced intelligence would have failed to account for the equity inflating value of fiscal and monetary intervention by the federal government or for the boost the pandemic would provide digital-economy companies like Amazon, Apple and Netflix. And it would have ignored the launch of Tesla from a nearly bankrupt company to one with a $700 billion market capitalization.
Notwithstanding the underperformance, grain-based foods shares have risen in 12 of the last 13 years, a remarkable record. Food companies face risks in the new year, but given the risk of a technology market bubble burst, it’s highly possible investors will find appeal in the food sector in 2021.