Global Sustainable Outlook strategy portfolio manager, Pauline Grange, recently featured on our Eye of the Needle podcast. We revisited her “10 factors that could change economies & markets forever” viewpoint from April 2020 to see if any of her initial thoughts have shifted in the intervening months …
What are your current thoughts on peak globalisation and how – in terms of consumption and supply chains – countries will start to think more about where goods, consumables and “stuff” actually comes from?
At the beginning of 2020, when China went into lockdown, we saw a lot of disruption in supply, whether that be in electronics, automobiles or healthcare consumables such as PPE, which we needed in our hospitals. So there has been a growing awareness at a corporate level that businesses can no longer rely on a single region or country, such as China. In response, we have seen companies begin to diversify their supply chains and move some supply more locally. Nowhere has this become more evident than in the technology sector.
In 2020 there was an escalation of the US-China trade war and we saw firstly the US put a number of trade embargoes on Chinese tech companies such as Huawei, where the US no longer allowed these companies to have access to US intellectual property or patents. China, in turn, has become more insular in its tech investment and realised it can no longer rely on US technology companies. So in 2020, for the first time, China invested more than the US in research and development and we are starting to see this regionalisation of technology, particularly in climate technology.¹ This is an area where people are beginning to refer to “climate wars” as China has invested very heavily in electric vehicles, battery technology and solar technology and is starting to dominate there; whereas Europe has become the leader in renewable energy.As fiscal stimulus packages come into place in Europe, the UK, and the US, governments are again going to prioritise local jobs and local companies. So globalisation isn’t going to disappear, but it is definitely changing.
ONLINE CONSUMPTION GROWS and CASH TO CARD ACCELERATES
The growth of online consumption and the shift to digital payments is here to stay isn’t it?
Indeed it is. Again, the pace of the transition – whether that be from offline to online consumption or cash to digital payments – has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Consumers were forced online as lockdowns ensued around the world, but also corporates had to accelerate their investments into their own digital platforms. In the US online sales growth in 2020 reached an incredible 44% year-on-year – which is three times the 15% growth we saw there in 2019. Online penetration in the US is now in excess of 21%, versus 15.8% in 2019 – an increase of 5.5 percentage points year-on-year and the highest since records have begun².Several of the digital corporates that I have spoken to about this have said that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this transition by several years. That level of growth is unlikely to be repeated in 2021 so the question becomes: will that absolute dollar amount of online consumption drop? I do not believe it will. Firstly, corporates continue to invest in digital platforms and continue to transition their businesses towards an online world, while consumers are increasingly comfortable purchasing online and certain parts of the demographic who had never consumed online before have now embraced these digital platforms. I see this with my in-laws who never consumed online before the pandemic, but now happily make recipes from online groceries firms and buy all their groceries online, and they love the convenience of it.So there has been a cultural shift and the huge boom in ecommerce has continued in China post-lockdown, with ecommerce sales remaining robust and companies continuing to invest in online platforms such as Tmall etc. The growth may not be as high, but online consumption is here to stay.
THE RISE OF THE “GREEN” AGENDA and THE RISE OF MORAL CAPITALISM
How do you see these two factors progressing and are the two intertwined?
These are large and complicated topics. If you look at the rise of the green agenda, we can clearly see it has become more prominent and is on the agenda of governments around the world. The globalisation of “net zero” policies in 2020 has been a big positive. This is where governments will set a target for a certain year to have net-zero carbon emissions, which brings them in line with the Paris Climate Agreement, where the goal is for the world to have net zero emissions by 2050.
Firstly, we saw the EU put its green deal at the heart of its Covid-19 fiscal recovery program, while also accelerating its decarbonisation target to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030 (from 1990 levels).³ But the big surprise in 2020 was China – the biggest contributor to climate emissions – setting a target to be net zero by 2060.4 This has helped have a meaningful impact, with nearly half of the world adopting climate-neutrality goals by the end of 2020. Now, with Joe Biden as president in the US the country may be more likely to set a net-zero target; were it to do so, we would have approximately 60% of global emissions covered by net-zero agreements this year – that is a big positive for climate change.
If we shift, then, to moral capitalism, we must firstly ask what we mean by moral capitalism or responsible capitalism as it is also known? Capitalism has previously been very much focused on one type of stakeholder: shareholders or the owners of the business, for example. This is great, but increasingly there is pressure on companies, both at a government level as well as from consumers and the wider population, to look more closely at all stakeholders. Whether that be how they treat or support their employees and/or suppliers, or whether they create value for consumers.
There is also a willingness to look at the true cost of business, not just in dollar amounts but in the impact corporates have on the environment. What we saw during the pandemic has really heightened the importance of this. Take the Black Lives Matter movement, which was a movement against systematic racism around the world. That has forced many companies to address their employee base by striving to address and improve racial diversity within their employees. Supply chains have also been under the microscope, with some retailers being named and shamed when they didn’t honour their contracts with third parties in Bangladesh, which led to heightened poverty levels for the country. How you treat your suppliers is now having real world implications.
So are the two intertwined? This sort of reshaping of how we view capitalism and the green agenda. I believe it is. Corporates have a moral responsibility, both at a social and an environmental level, while as we see the green agenda rise they will also face increased regulation. Their access to cheaper financing may somewhat rely on whether their products help resolve some of the environmental problems around the world, ie whether that financing be through social or green bonds, they will see a valuation uplift if they shift towards more environmental or socially aware products.
ADVANCE OF THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY
The development and rollout of Covid-19 vaccines in 2020-21 surely means the advance of the medical community is an ongoing trend to watch?The pace and the success of several vaccines has been astonishing. It has exceeded all my expectations and is testimony to the huge advances we have seen in medical technology over the past decade. If you put that into context: before this pandemic it took more than 10 years on average to develop a vaccine, but we have developed several successful Covid vaccines in less than a year.Moderna, one of the biotech companies which has developed a vaccine, was for example able to develop a vaccine ready for human testing in just 42 days from receiving the genetic blueprint of the virus.1 It did that using new and innovative vaccine technology called MRNA, which is astounding considering it usually takes years using traditional technologies.I am optimistic that, having been able to develop all these vaccines as well as therapeutic treatments for Covid in less than a year, that the medical community will find us all a way out of this during the next year.
SMARTER WORKING BECOMES MORE ACCEPTED
The growth of online consumption and the shift to digital payments is here to stay isn’t it?I don’t think working from home permanently is the new normal and I would hope that we will return to the office at some point. We are social creatures and it is very important for people to work together.Personally speaking, my colleagues are creative and want to share ideas and it is quite hard to do that naturally online. But I think the flexibility of being able to work from home more will stay, and that is a positive as it has been proven to increase productivity as well as enable more diversity in the workplace. I am a working parent and before the pandemic it was often tricky to balance everything, for example if my children were sick or I had to attend school parents’ evenings or children’s plays. Now, I am able to work from home and deal with some of those things. So from a gender diversity perspective I think more flexible working is great. But will the future be people working 100% from home? I don’t think so.
WHAT ELSE COVID HAS CHANGED
Is there anything not in your original “10 factors” you think might be here to stay?Yes, Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of, and sparked a government focus on, healthcare systems as well as the general health of populations around the world. For example, in the UK people have seen the importance of a strong NHS and how you can sustain investment into that in terms of health spend per capitaBut we also need a cultural and lifestyle change, which is another influence of Covid. For example, obesity comes with a number of problems such as diabetes, but it also puts people at greater risk of contracting Covid-19. This is why in the UK we saw Prime Minster Boris Johnson perform a U-turn on his stance on obesity after contracting the disease himself, shifting to a focus on a healthier lifestyle. The result of this is that the UK government is now proposing measures such as a ban on online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm, as well as bans on deals such as “buy one, get one free” on unhealthy food.2The rise of sustainable agriculture is also important to note. Awareness of the risk of virus transmission from wildlife to humans has risen, as has the sense that this often comes about as we increasingly encroach on wildlife and on nature. So, we need to look at the farming industry and in particular the deforestation that comes from farming, and this may influence countries to embrace more sustainable agriculture practices. At a consumer level it may accelerate the adoption of more plant-based diets globally, as we become aware of the environmental impact of eating meat and proteins.But at the end of the day, some things won’t change. Although travel, leisure and live entertainment have been some of the sectors most severely by Covid, people are craving fun and to have experiences once again. That will return. The demand hasn’t gone away, and some people are comparing the potential post-Covid period to the roaring twenties after the first world war, where everyone was desperate to get out there and have fun again. Hopefully these experiences are things that will return to the way they were.