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Dec 31, 2021

We're #33!: TSX ekes out gain in pandemic-ravaged 2020

What worked in 2020 likely won't work in 2021: Mike O'Rourke


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2020 will go down in financial market history as one of the most dramatic years on record.

The global pandemic prompted unprecedented lockdowns, a tsunami of fiscal and monetary stimulus, and the most volatile swings on equity markets in a generation. Toronto’s benchmark S&P/TSX Composite Index plunged 37 per cent from peak to trough, then clawed its way back to post a 2.17 per cent gain in 2020. That’s good for 33rd out of 92 major global indices, with the TSX sandwiched between Malaysia and Norway in terms of total 2020 returns, but badly lagging the 16 per cent return on the S&P 500 as surging tech stocks turbocharged the bounceback south of the border.

Here’s a look at how things played out on the TSX in the most tumultuous year in recent memory. Returns are as Dec. 30 closing levels.

Top Sectors:

Information Technology: +80.3 per cent
Materials: +19.5 per cent
Industrials: +15.3 per cent
Consumer Discretionary: +14.4 per cent
Utilities: +10.6 per cent

Information Technology

Canadians worked from home, if they could. They shopped from home. They did pretty much everything from home. That “from home” trend drove the Information Technology subgroup to a whopping 83 per cent gain, following the trend south of the border. Shopify Inc. and payment platform provider Lightspeed POS Inc. were unsurprisingly the top performers, up 178 per cent and 149 per cent respectively, but they were far from the only notable gainers in the group. Kinaxis Inc., which makes supply-chain optimization software, was boosted by demand for its logistics products as companies rushed to figure out how to navigate the pandemic-era economy. In all, eight of the group’s 10 members finished the year higher, with only Celestica Inc. and CGI Inc. capping the year modestly lower. Celestica’s results suffered somewhat as a result of the grounding of the 737 MAX jet, since Boeing is a significant customer, and the overall slowdown in aerospace demand.


The surge in gold prices above US$1,800 an ounce on pandemic concerns was a big driver for the group, but far from the only factor. While New Gold Inc.’s 143.5 per cent surge and Teranga Gold Corp.’s 94.6 per cent gain paced the group – the latter is in the process of selling itself to Endeavour Mining Corp. for $2.44 billion – some noticeable commodity producers outside the gold group also posted outsized gains. Canfor Corp. was the fourth-best performer in the group, up 89 per cent as the pandemic-driven renovation boom drove U.S. softwood lumber demand north of 50 billion board feet in 2020. Base metals miners also rebounded into the back half of the year as Chinese factory activity came back online earlier than in much of the rest of the world, helping to send shares of First Quantum Minerals Ltd. to a 73.5 per cent gain and lifting shares of HudBay Minerals Inc. 65.6 per cent.

Consumer Discretionary

The work from home movement sparked another trend for Canadians: the desire to get outside in a physically-distanced manner. That was a boon for recreational vehicle maker BRP Inc., which led the group with a 42.2 per cent rise through 2020. Though known for its snowmobile business, the company’s side-by-side offroad vehicles were a major hit with consumers even before the pandemic hit, helping to drive powersport segment sales 23 per cent higher year-to-date. Aritzia Inc. was among the other big gainers on the year, with shares up 35.4 per cent after an initial swoon when lockdown measures were put in place. At the end of the company’s most recent fiscal quarter, 96 per cent of its storefronts were open, more than triple the 31 per cent at the beginning of the quarter.

Top stocks:

Trillium Therapeutics Inc.: +1,308.3 per cent
Ballard Power Systems Inc.: +220.9 per cent
Shopify Inc.: +178.4 per cent

Trillium Therapeutics Inc.

Trillium was Canada’s top stock performer in 2020, and it wasn’t even remotely close. Shares in the clinical-stage developer of cancer treatments surged more than 1,300 per cent during the year, transforming the company from a penny stock to a pharma firm worth about $1.7 billion. The company has reported some positive developments in a pair of immunotherapy treatments that help disable a specific part of the cancer cell called CD47 – essentially the part of the cancer cell that sends out a “don’t kill me” message to a body’s immune system. It’s also drawn some attention from pharma giant Pfizer Inc., which invested $25 million in Trillium in September. Of note, Gilead Sciences Inc. snapped up Forty Seven Inc., which develops the same kinds of CD47 treatments as Trillium, for US$4.9 billion in March, signaling potential M&A appetite in the sector.

Ballard Power Systems Inc.

Ballard Power was a beneficiary of the boom in interest in alternatives to fossil fuels in 2020, driving a more than tripling of its stock price. The company, which develops and builds hydrogen fuel cells mainly for trucks and busses, is betting increased demand in China, Europe and California could lead to a US$130 billion a year hydrogen transit industry. The company could also benefit from the Government of Canada’s recent introduction of its pan-national hydrogen strategy, which sees the fuel as a key component to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.

Shopify Inc.

Canada’s latest tech darling just keeps pushing higher. Shopify’s surge in 2020 saw it surpass Royal Bank of Canada as this country’s largest publicly-traded company, with the ecommerce platform provider now worth about $180 billion. The seismic shift to online shopping helped drive a 96 per cent increase in third quarter revenue, and the company has been branching out from its core business, offering loans to merchants using its platform.

Worst Performing Sectors:

Energy: -30.8 per cent
Health Care: -23.6 per cent
Real Estate: -13.1 per cent
Communications Services: -8.3 per cent
Financials: -2.9 per cent


There’s no way around it: it was an ugly year for oil, and that meant major pain for Canada’s energy patch. When the world ground to a halt, so too did demand for crude. Russia and Saudi Arabia engaged in a brief yet bitter price war, further pressuring crude; and prices briefly turned negative in late April in a shocking twist that forced a major oil fund to rebalance the way crude oil futures are rolled from month to month. That carnage left 21 of the subgroup’s 23 members in negative territory, with only uranium producer Cameco Corp. and natural-gas focused Tourmaline Oil Corp. posting positive returns.

Health Care

Trillium’s run higher wasn’t nearly enough to offset the broad weakness in the health care sector. Six of the nine members of the group finished in negative territory, led lower by Aurora Cannabis Inc., Bausch Health Companies Inc. and Aurinia Pharmaceuticals Inc. The group was also hurt by the performance of Sienna Senior Living Inc. as the dire COVID situation in Canada’s long-term care facilities forced the Canadian military to deploy members to a pair of Sienna properties in the spring to aid with containing outbreaks.

Real Estate

What the work from home and shop from home movement gave to the tech sector, it took from real estate. With shops closed, gyms closed and a smoother-than-expected transition to digital work prompting companies to rethink their office space needs, much of the real estate sector found itself under water in 2020. Adding to the pain was some difficulty in collecting rents in the early stages of the pandemic as retailers looked to preserve any cash on hand to try to survive the first lockdowns. Diversified real estate investment trusts with exposure to office and retail properties were hardest hit, including Cominar Real Estate Investment Trust and RioCan Real Estate Investment Trust.

Worst Performing Stocks:

Vermilion Energy Inc.: -73.3 per cent
Aurora Cannabis Inc.: -68.3 per cent
Enerplus Corp: -57.0 per cent

Vermilion Energy Inc.

No Canadian company was harder hit by the plunge in energy prices than Vermilion Energy, with shares plunging in March and never seeing the recovery of some of its peers. The company, which has a diversified footprint including operations in Canada, France and Australia, was twice forced to cut its dividend before scrapping the payout entirely in April due to depressed prices. It was also a year of turmoil in the C-Suite at Vermilion, with Chief Executive Officer Anthony Marino abruptly stepping down in May, followed by its chief operating officer in November. Vermilion is also carrying a significant amount of debt, sitting at about $2.1 billion at the end of the fiscal third quarter.

Aurora Cannabis Inc.

Aurora Cannabis suffered through a miserable year in which it cut hundreds of jobs, closed several facilities and continually pushed out its timeline for profitability. The pot producer announced in June that it was cutting about 700 jobs, shut down operations at five facilities and took a $140-million charge on unsold inventory. But that wasn’t the end of the retrenchment, with the company announcing in December it would shutter its Aurora Sun facility and will slash production at its Aurora Sky operations by 75 per cent.

Enerplus Corp

The depressed commodity price environment has exacted a heavy toll on Enerplus, resulting in a share price that’s been more than halved. The company has repeatedly cut its capital budget for 2020. Production, too, has come down about 15 per cent from a year ago. The Calgary-based energy producer has been shifting the bulk of its operations to the United States, and Chief Executive Officer Ian Dundas has been vocal in his criticism of the Canadian energy regulatory regime.

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