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Forget the Great Depression of 1929, the Russian default of 1997 and the financial crisis of 2008—few years compare to 2020. At times, the global economy seemed poised to collapse. Risk, ruin and enormous opportunity were the big stories of the year. While some poorly managed firms like WeWork fell by the wayside and already-declining industries like movie theaters and brick-and-mortar retail saw their fates sealed, the year was marked by change and resilience.
In the financial markets, winners dramatically outweighed the losers. Almost overnight, new fortunes that would impress a Rockefeller were born in communications, technology, lodging and investments. Innovative technology companies in the S&P 500 Index propelled U.S. markets higher. Vaccine stocks like Pfizer and Moderna were the darlings of the year. Industries like restaurants, hotels, travel and entertainment proved to be far more resilient than expected, in part because of an unprecedented response in Washington.
Every step of the way, Forbes chronicled a year in business, investing and markets that was defined by change. Here are our top Finance & Investing stories of 2020.
Early in the corona-crisis, we studied the sausage inside the average S&P 500 Index fund, where trillions of dollars in retirement savings are housed. Amid lockdowns and collapsing global markets, our verdict was unequivocal: Stay in the game! We examined the components of the S&P 500 and found index funds (and retirement accounts) loaded to the hilt with companies that would likely benefit from the changes brought by the pandemic. The call was spot-on. The S&P’s biggest constituents—Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix and Google—performed tremendously well in 2020.
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After telling the story of the tragic death of Alex Kearns, a team of Forbes reporters investigated the dramatic rise of Robinhood and its army of day traders. Behind the trading app’s Facebook-like ascent—as Millennials gorged on risk in hopes of earning a windfall—was a less-hyped reality. Our investigation uncovered how Robinhood profited handsomely by leading amateur traders into the hands of the savviest and wealthiest traders on Wall Street, in part by treating trading like a video game.
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The mania around SPACs, or special purpose acquisition companies, reached an unprecedented high in 2020. Our investigation found that the market’s incredible growth was actually being fueled by sophisticated hedge funds and well-paid promoters, milking a no-lose trade to the max. Now, hundreds of SPACs are hunting for deals that will make insiders and their backers tens of billions of dollars. As usual, retail investors will likely be left holding the bag on this bubble.
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When markets are plunging, there is no more seductive story than the few skeptical investors who are making bank. For years, we had been keeping tabs on Universa Investments’ Mark Spitznagel, the proud owner of what we deem to be Wall Street’s Doomsday Machine. Every day, Spitznagel deploys a strategy of dangling pennies in front of greedy traders for them to pluck for free. The catch? Every once in a while, the free penny turns out to be a ticking time bomb, a $1 or $2 liability. This strategy made Spitznagel and his investors about $3 billion of profit on $100 million in capital at the height of Covid. We caught up with Spitznagel as he was counting his coin from a goat farm in a remote corner of Michigan.
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Hidebound as reporters but suspecting the pandemic would bring about dramatic change, we profiled perhaps the best-performing large stock-picking firm on the planet, Edinburgh, Scotland’s Baillie Gifford. Its portfolios were loaded to the brim with companies keeping the global economy afloat. While our story was published early in the recovery, Baillie Gifford’s funds generally doubled in value, and top picks we identified like Sea Ltd., Denali Therapeutics, Adyen and Reliance Industries did even better.
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There’s nothing riskier than betting on a down-on-their luck investor. Entering 2020, SoftBank’s Masa Son was nursing any number of high-profile duds, from real estate calamity WeWork to flameouts with robotic pizza cooking and dog-walking apps. Forbes venture capital reporter Alex Konrad took stock of SoftBank’s embattled empire, finding more good than bad. In the end, big bets on companies like DoorDash and Slack made SoftBank billions as its stock skyrocketed to new records. Sometimes, a bullish story is the hardest one to tell.
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Nearly a century after the burning-down of the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, once known to many as Black Wall Street, we profiled the entrepreneurs who built one of the wealthiest areas for Black Americans during segregation. Our reporting also uncovered a critical connection. One of America’s foremost Black investors, John W. Rogers of $13 billion-in-assets Ariel Investments, traced his roots directly to Greenwood and its architect.
I’m a staff writer and associate editor at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, mergers, and
I’m a staff writer and associate editor at Forbes, where I cover finance and investing. My beat includes hedge funds, private equity, fintech, mutual funds, mergers, and banks. I’m a graduate of Middlebury College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and I’ve worked at TheStreet and Businessweek. Before becoming a financial scribe, I was a member of the fateful 2008 analyst class at Lehman Brothers. Email thoughts and tips to [email protected] Follow me on Twitter at @antoinegara