The A to Z of financial markets in 2021

Apple soared and Zoom slumped in a year that saw markets surge to record levels

Apple, whose shares soared by more than a third in 2021 amid booming demand for its new iPhone 13 and subscription services such as Apple TV+ and iCloud, was edging towards becoming the first publicly-quoted company to reach a $3 trillion (€2.65 trillion) market value in the dying days of 2021. Bullish investors in the stock are holding out that there's more to come in 2022 if the group shows progress on its bid to develop a self-driving electric car.

The remaining Irish banks saw their shares rally strongly in 2021 as they prepared to carve up the loan books of Ulster Bank and KBC Bank Ireland, who announced early in the year that they were exiting the market.

A global shortage of computer chips – or semiconductors – that are beneath the hood of everything from smartphones and game consoles to washing machines and cars was a major theme during the year. It resulted from a confluence of events, including supply bottlenecks as a result of Covid lockdowns, US sanctions against Chinese tech companies and rising demand for products. Deloitte recently estimated that the cumulative impact of the chips deficit, felt across consumer products, data centres and, especially, the auto sector, will result in $500 billion (€443 billion) of lost sales between 2020 and 2022.

Datalex, the travel retail software provider to airlines that was hit by an accounting scandal in 2019 and the pandemic the following year, managed to raise €25 million in a share sale in June to repay expensive loans from its main shareholder, businessman Dermot Desmond, and ensure it has enough working capital. Desmond also participated in the equity raise, lifting his stake from just under 30 per cent to above 40 per cent.

Chinese real-estate giant Evergrande, the most indebted company in the world, kept global bond markets transfixed for months as it seemed barely able to make necessary payments on parts of its $300 billion debt pile. However, debt ratings agencies Fitch and Standard & Poor's declared in early December that Evergrande had succumbed to default after failing to pay interest due on two US dollar-denominated bonds. It nudges the embattled group closer to an inevitable restructuring, with far-reaching consequences, even if this is not China's "Lehmans moment", as some had argued.

Facebook decided in October to change its corporate name to Meta, a signal that chief executive Mark Zuckerberg plans to steer the company beyond its social-media roots to build a new future around an immersive digital world known as the metaverse. Wall Street investors have yet to be convinced, as they fret about massive investment needed – with little return over the near term – for Zuckerberg to chase his vision that "the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile internet".

Last January, GameStop, the out-of-sorts video games and consoles retailer, became the cause celebre of an army of amateur day traders, fuelled by chatter on social media platforms, such as Reddit. The investment case? An opportunity to squeeze hedge funds who had been betting against the stock. The Reddit brigade quickly turned their attention to other stocks that had fallen out of favour, with the likes of cinema chain AMC Entertainment, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Nokia also becoming so-called meme stocks.

HealthBeacon, a medical technology company that has developed a solution to help patients better adhere to injectable medications schedules, became the first graduate of a pre-IPO programme Euronext Dublin has been running since 2015 to actually float on the Irish market. Its flotation in December was only the second of the year in Dublin, following renewable-energy storage company's Corre Energy's debut in September – in an otherwise record year for IPOs globally.

The spectre of inflation reared its ugly head in 2021 as consumer prices spiked globally at rates not seen in decades, fuelled by supply chain squeezes as economies reopened quickly after the worst of the Covid-19 crisis, soaring energy prices and the effects of central banks pumping trillions of euro into the financial system during the pandemic.

Barclays' chief executive of six years, Jes Staley, quit in November after an investigation by UK financial regulators into how he had described his relationship with sex offender and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein. While Staley intends to contest the preliminary findings of the investigation, some of Barclays' largest shareholders are said to be uncomfortable with the £2.4 million in pay awarded to the executive as he exited.

Insulation giant Kingspan's shares may have soared 80 per cent over the course of 2021 – seven times the pace of the wider Irish market – as it stood out as a clear winner from the net-zero green revolution. However, its environment, social and governance (ESG) credentials took a battering in early December when it unveiled a "sponsorship and sustainability deal" with Formula 1 team Mercedes. The partnership was dropped a week later, following an outcry from survivors of London's Grenfell Tower fire. Some Kingspan insulation material had been used on Grenfell before a fire in June 2017 that killed 72 people. The company has always insisted that its products were used without its knowledge or advice. An inquiry into the blaze is ongoing.

The Turkish lira became one of the worst-performing currencies of the year – crashing as much as 57 per cent against the US dollar – as the country's central bank, in line with the wishes of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pursued a widely-criticised policy of cutting interest rates despite soaring inflation. Rate hikes are usually used to fight inflation. The weakening of the lira has only added to the cost of goods and services imported into Turkey.

Life sciences investment company Malin, which raised €330 million through an initial public offering (IPO) in 2015, finally began to deliver in 2021. The company sold its stakes in injectable drugs company Altan and Kymab, which is developing an eczema treatment, allowing Malin to buy back €95 million of its shares on the market.

Noel and Valerie Moran, the Meath-based couple who sold their Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) company to Australian fintech EML Payments in a cash-and-stock deal in 2020, saw their world turn upside on May 18th. That's when EML revealed the Central Bank had concerns about anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing controls at PFS – sending shares in the Sydney-based company crashing. It has since been clarified that regulators have not identified any instances of financial crime, anti-money laundering or counter-terrorism financing events. However, EML's stock has recovered only marginally and the Morans claim that the Australians saw the whole episode as an opportunity to depress the earnout payable on the deal.

The emergence of a new Covid-19 variant – quickly named Omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet – in South Africa in late November sent a shiver down the spine of financial markets. Global shares, measured by the MSCI All Country World Index, have turned volatile since reaching a record high reached in the middle of November.

While oil prices surged on the whole in 2021 – even allowing for the recent Omnicron wobble – Irish oil and gas explorer Providence Resources slid by 50 per cent amid concerns about its key Barryroe project off the Cork coast. The field was found almost a decade ago to have more than 300 million barrels of recoverable oil. However, a third partnership agreement to develop the project fell through in April, prompting Providence to decide to go it alone. Within six months, the group's chief executive of less than two years, Alan Linn, quit as the board was in the middle of carrying out a strategic review into how to develop the prospect.

Quantitative easing – or bond-buying programmes – by central banks globally, including the European Central Bank, may have helped prevent chaos across financial markets and economies during the Covid-19 crisis. But investors have become more nervous in recent times about what life will look like as the punchbowls are gradually taken away.

Ransomware attacks, where cybercriminals break into computer systems and lock them or threaten to publish data unless a ransom is paid, soared in 2021, hitting a host of listed companies, including South Korean carmaker Hyundai's North American unit, US insurer CNA Financial and Brazilian meat giant JBS. Ardagh Group, the international packaging giant led by Irish financier Paul Coulson, took a $34 million financial hit in May as it was the victim of a cyberattack that forced it to shut down some of its systems as a precautionary measure.

Perennial speculation about an IPO of Stripe, the payments group founded by Tipperary's Collison brothers, was stoked by various reports that the business has hired a law firm and investment banks to prepare the groundwork for a flotation as early as next year. However, John Collison told broadcaster CNBC in November that Stripe, valued at $95 billion as a result of a fundraising in March, was "very happy as a private company". For now.

Total Produce bowed out of the Irish stock market in July as it merged with US rival Dole Foods to form Dole plc, the world's largest vegetable and fruit supplier, and pursued an IPO and listing on the New York Stock Exchange. The new shares ended up being placed at $16, the bottom end of a reduced price range, as the deal competed with a slew of other US IPOs. The stock has subsequently declined by about 18 per cent.

UDG Healthcare, which traces its roots back to the 1948 formation of a pharmacists' co-operative in Ballina, Co Mayo, thought it would make a quiet exit from the London Stock Exchange when it announced in May that it had agreed to be taken over by US private-equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice for £2.61 billion (€3.06 billion). However, the suitor was forced to increase its bid by almost 6 per cent after some of UDG's main shareholders, led by Allianz Global Investors, rejected the original offer.

While global markets received a shot in the arm in late 2020 from Covid-19 vaccines breakthroughs, 2021 became the year of the rollout, with the unequal distribution benefitting developed economies over emerging markets. However, global financial markets turned more volatile in late November as investors fretted about headlines over the extent to which Omicron was resistant to the current, first generation of vaccines.

Wind and solar energy group Mainstream Renewable Power, founded by green energy entrepreneur Eddie O'Connor, was taken over by Oslo-listed Aker Horizons in May in a deal that valued the business at as much as €1 billion. The accord allowed existing shareholders, led by O'Connor, to retain a 25 per cent stake, as Mainstream is being lined up for its own IPO in the coming years. While O'Connor retained his role as chairman as the takeover went through, he resigned within weeks after making controversial remarks about Africa, where, he said, the energy transition was being slowed by undereducation in "tribal societies". He apologised for using what he called "antiquated stereotypes".

French telecoms magnate Xavier Niel was seen as something of a white knight for Eir when he took over control of the Irish telecoms group through his private investment vehicle NJJ and his Paris-listed company Iliad – with the prospect of Iliad increasing its stake from 32 per cent to almost 59 per cent in 2024. However, Niel's move this year to take Iliad private removes the prospect of Eir being controlled by a publicly-quoted company.

Yew Grove, the owner of office and industrial assets outside Dublin's city centre, announced in November that it plans to sell itself to Canadian property group Slate Office Reit for €127.8 million, after struggling to raise large amounts of capital quickly enough to pursue deals and build a business of scale. While the group had planned at the time of its IPO in 2018 to have €300 million to €500 million of assets within three years, the value of its property portfolio stood at only €168 million as of the end of June.

Zoom Video Communications's shares came back down to earth in 2021 – after soaring more than 400 per cent in the previous year as it became a ubiquitous videoconferencing tool during the pandemic – as investors fretted about its long-term growth prospects as people return to the office. Shares in the company fell 45 per cent during the year.