December 31, 2020

While a Slow, Painful Recovery to the Global Economy Is Predicted in 2021, the EIU Says Digitalization Will Present Opportunities for Certain Sectors

While I am always mindful of risks that can impact a company's operations, a pandemic is not often a risk most corporate leaders prepare for. The coronavirus pandemic's grip on the global economy was certainly not in consideration when I published a post about The Economist Intelligence Unit's (The EIU) Industries in 2020 report. One year later, The EIU's report entitled Industries in 2021: A Slow, Painful Recovery, which gives its outlook for six global industries: automotive, consumer goods and retail, energy, financial services, healthcare and pharmaceuticals, and telecommunications, says "[m]uch of what we predicted in last year's report turned out to be wrong. As we all know, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic overturned assumptions about the development of the global economy and destroyed any hope of steady growth for many industries. This year more uncertainties and risks lie ahead as the world stutters into a recovery."

The report explains: "With their finances already weakened by the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, many companies will not be able to take advantage of a recovery that is likely to be fitful. The consumer goods and retail sector in particular is likely to see a wave of bankruptcies and store closures as more business goes online. The financial sector will also have to cope with a sharp rise in non-performing loans that, in some cases, may overwhelm the provisions that banks have put in place. Restructuring will reshape even those industries, such as telecoms, which have emerged from the pandemic relatively unscathed. However, there will be some winners from this process as markets consolidate around surviving companies and opportunities open up for new business models."

What is more, "With many industries lobbying for support, governments whose tax revenues are already depleted will have to focus support and incentives on sectors with the strongest growth prospects, or those that feed into long-term policy goals. These are likely to include protecting jobs, promoting investment (particularly in innovation) and tackling climate change."

Regarding the energy sector, The EIU maintains "policy will focus on increasing the use of renewable energy. Even Poland, previously a staunch defender of its coal sector, will begin a phase-out, while markets in South-East Asia will see particularly strong growth in renewables. In the automotive sector, generous incentives will continue to encourage purchases of electric vehicles, particularly in Europe, although countries such as France will start to trim back funding as the sector develops. China, meanwhile, will shift its focus towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, previously an area where Japan led the way."

On the topic of trade spats and international disputes, the report suggests: "As countries and companies try to rebuild, their focus is likely to turn inwards, with domestic markets and operations becoming a priority. However, as pressure to reshore production and secure supply chains increases, this will have implications at an international level, too."

For example, "In the telecoms sector, this has particular implications for Huawei, a Chinese telecoms company that is now being targeted by US export controls. The technology war will also affect other sectors, including automotive and consumer electronics, while in the financial services sector concerns over China's intentions could undermine Hong Kong's role as an international hub. The UK, meanwhile, will face its own international challenges, as Brexit finally takes full effect on January 1st, drastically changing the business environment for financial firms, automakers and many others."

"Digitalization," according to The EIU, "will affect nearly every industry sector. In the consumer goods and retail sector (and even the automotive sector) the growth of online shopping will generate new companies and new jobs, making up for some of the cuts seen in real-world retailing. However, online retailers will not have it all their own way, with cash-strapped governments keen to raise digital taxes that are likely to exacerbate international tensions."

Moreover, "The rise in online shopping and other activity will also fuel the growth of new financial services, starting with digital payments and progressing into digital currencies, including national ones in China and elsewhere. Even healthcare providers, spurred by the pandemic and social distancing measures, are expanding their online services, with new regulations widening access to telehealth—while at the same time reining back its use where it could affect patient care."

The EIU's "key global forecasts for the six industries covered by this report are:
  • "Asia will be the first region to rebound to 2019 levels in most industries, given its relatively shallow slump in 2020;
  • "Latin America and Africa will see the slowest recovery, held back by low commodity prices and high debt levels;
  • "new-car sales will recover to grow by 15% globally, while commercial vehicle sales will rise by 16%, but only China, Ukraine and Turkey will see sales return to their 2019 levels;
  • "global retail sales volumes will grow by 3% but still fall 2% short of 2019 levels;
  • "energy consumption will rebound partially—by 2.6% worldwide—but demand for oil and coal will remain lower than in 2019 as the use of renewables surges ahead;
  • "financial firms will face weak demand for their services amid mounting debt defaults, while their income will be hurt by low interest rates;
  • "healthcare expenditure, which dipped in 2020 despite spending on the pandemic, will surpass 2019 levels, rising by 7% worldwide in US dollar terms; and
  • "global mobile subscriptions, which also dipped in 2020, will increase by 3%, again surpassing 2019 levels."

The EIU held a webinar, which is available through this link or the video embedded below, features industry analysts who comment on specific aspects of the report. While I recommend watching the session in its entirety, one point worth mentioning is the presentation of how the six industries covered by the report will be impacted by four key trends:

Job loses and bankruptcies will mount
  • Automotive
  • Consumer goods and retail
Some governments will aim to support a green recovery
  • Automotive
  • Energy
Trade spats and international disputes will remain disruptive
  • Financial services
  • Telecoms
Digitalization will offer the biggest opportunities
  • Consumer goods and retail
  • Financial services
  • Healthcare and pharmaceuticals
  • Telecoms

"As these decidedly mixed forecasts demonstrate," the report notes "there will be nothing straightforward about the global economic and business recovery in 2021. Even if the coronavirus is brought under control, many companies will face challenges that they will not be able to meet. Nevertheless, there will also be opportunities on offer for companies that are nimble enough to take advantage of rapid changes in the economic, business and political environment."

What are your predictions for 2021?

Aaron Rose is a board member, corporate advisor, and co-founder of great companies. He also serves as the editor of GT Perspectives, an online forum focused on turning perspective into opportunity.

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