Active investment commentary & analysis

Consumers remain fearful and have weaker finances, how should investors assess the risks?

Lockdown is rapidly unwinding around the world, but the global economy may not bounce back quickly.  For consumer sectors in particular, few expect a return to normality this year or next. Consumers remain fearful and have weaker finances. How should investors assess the risks? The stockmarket has often been a good indicator of the medium and longer term economic outlook.

We can expect renewed focus on genuine growth and business resilience as the pace of change accelerates. Economic measures taken by most governments involve stimulus and supporting distressed businesses, but the overall impact of the virus is deflationary. Real growth will be harder to find.

Some positive new trends are emerging.  The way we live our lives has changed fast; work/life and home/office balances have been reset. Remote working with closer family living has spurred interest in the home environment, wellness and exercise. Our home is now a haven. Even after offices re-open, some of this change in work/life balance seems likely to continue into the recovery.  We can expect increased demand for online entertainment, e-commerce and home delivery. 

E-commerce has now proven its convenience and reliability, creating opportunities for retailers with a robust online strategy. Logistics companies are gaining from this as the warehouses needed will support shorter supply chains, with goods held nearer to the locations of demand. Home entertainment is also booming, driven by an explosion in gaming. We will be spending more time in our homes for the foreseeable future, and will invest to make them comfortable and stylish.

Following from this change in office/remote working balance, businesses are likely to demand more enterprise support services; maintaining secure cloud, data, mobile services and virtual operations. Many firms will move their existing remote work onto more robust systems, and strengthen cyber security.  Suppliers of these technologies were typically already disrupters in their categories and have proven their agility in offering differentiated services. Where this is done using digital and mobile methods, a business can usually scale up its activity without significant extra cost.

History shows that economic shocks often drive long term social change.  While the lockdown has damaged the economy, there have been identifiable benefits to wellbeing and the environment.  More emphasis is likely on sustainability and health.  At the same time, in many companies the governance model has failed to deliver genuine resilience. Although the shock was unexpected, too many listed companies seemed focused on business as usual.  Misdirected executive rewards and high dividend pay-outs often raise risks.

Shareholders may now encourage boards to do more for resilience and sustainability.  Government intervention in the economy will create the potential for greater national influence on some businesses and industries.  This may reinforce the pace of change.  Public interest in quicker action on the environment could see government use its new power to direct faster change to cut carbon use and emissions.

While some companies are well placed for the challenges ahead, some consumer businesses face great uncertainty over demand and the timescale in which that might correct. If companies do encourage more working from home, activities based in city centres would see reduced demand.  Retailers, pubs and restaurants that rely on footfall from office staff will face a headwind. This would be a negative for city centre properties.

The crisis has heightened the contrast between legacy businesses and well-adapted agile disruptors. Where consumer businesses have a proven online strategy, and can take market share from weaker rivals, prospects are brighter. Many of these growth businesses have had to operate with lean business models using modest capital. There is little pressure on them now to raise new funding and they may be in a position to acquire weaker rivals.

Changes in tastes are often slow to evolve, but persistent once set.  The crisis has accelerated trends towards sustainability and wellbeing, creating new opportunity. This could shape the economy for the decade ahead.

A version of this article was published in The Herald online on 13/06/2020.