Will a boom follow Covid-19?

Many people must be wondering what the rest of this decade might look like after such a disastrous start to the 2020s. Can we look back at history and see a trend? For example, the 1920s that followed World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic was a Golden Age when economic growth surged, society relaxed a lot of its restrictions, women cut their hair for the first time, all of it captured and portrayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’. Now there’s a book that has never gone out of fashion.

This week I read an article by Rich Karlgard in Forbes that is written from the optimist’s viewpoint. He believes there are four possible reasons that the 2020s might be another 1920s, although he does so with caution.

Digital tech will accelerate

There is no doubt that the pandemic made all things digital vastly more important. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have seen so much change in such a short time. Karlgard first points to the fact that back in 2017, Diane Greene, then the Google Cloud CEO, told a Forbes audience that the rate of digital technology progress was accelerating rapidly. But that does not necessarily bring productivity along with it, because the business model needs to change for that to happen. Then along came Covid-19, which forced a rapid business change. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that five years of digital transformation had taken place in six months, all because businesses needed to work smarter, faster and be more nimble.

Artificial Intelligence is now scalable

A number of digital technologies reached maturity at the same time: cheaper cloud computing, universal digital computing and faster telecoms with the arrival of 5G. And then there is Artificial Intelligence (AI). Karlgard says this will be the decade of enterprise AI, and that’s spot on. Prior to 2020 using AI was hard, labour-intensive, expensive work, but now it is very much easier to use and it is going to transform many areas of industry, from logistics to customer service.

We’re awash with capital

Although it may not always be obvious the world is swimming in capital right now, which makes it easier for start-ups to get the funding they need. Investors have their eyes on digital technology and AI products, because as Karlgard says, “thy know they are game changers.” He adds, “These will disrupt business models and markets, and power enormous fortunes.”

Revolutions in the physical world

We are not talking about physical revolutions here; but revolutions in the way aspects of the physical world are being changed by technology. For example, autonomous trucks don’t need to take rest breaks, drone cameras can improve agricultural crop yields, and gene sequencing combined with AI can create personalised medical treatments.

However, whilst all these may lead to a boom after what feels like a bust, if we look back at the 1920s, we must note that while cities grew and grew, rural areas were not invited to the party, creating a divide that lingers to this day. The 1920s also experienced a stock crash in 1921 that almost buried the decade, followed by the more famous Wall St crash of 1929. So, even the Golden Age had its downsides. Still, after our experience of 2020-21, one that has been globally shared, let’s focus on optimism and the way in which the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated digital technology for our benefit and forced us to be more agile.

Biden & a Sustainable Investment Boom

Now that the Electoral College has confirmed Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States, businesses can get on with looking to the future under a new administration, one that promises less scorched earth in its policies let’s say.

In the months preceding the 2016 election, sustainable investing’ was a gathering trend. Larry Fink, Blackrock’s CEO sent an open letter to global CEOs, saying, “Generating sustainable returns over time requires a sharper focus not only on governance, but also on environmental and social factors facing companies.” Any ambitions on this score were, however, shattered by the surprise election of Trump, whose administration was a threat to goals when investing around climate change and social justice,” says Justina Lai, chief impact officer at San Francisco-based Wetherby Asset Management.

The last four years has been a case of missed opportunities thanks to an obstructionist government.  However, as it finally drew to an end, the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, amongst other issues, revived commitment to socially conscious investing.

Peter Krull, founder, CEO and director of investments at Asheville, North Carolina-based Earth Equity Advisors, said: “The reality is we’ve had more growth over the last four years than we did over the previous 12 years. After the 2016 election, people said that if the government isn’t going to work on these issues, we’re going to have to do it for ourselves.” He added an upbeat thought, “If the last four years of growth were with headwinds, I’m really excited about seeing a tailwind.”

How much ESG investment is there?

The United States Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF) reports that total Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) investing strategies rose by 42% over the past two years, growing from $17 trillion to $20 trillion. This figure represents 33% of all professionally managed US assets.

It is the view of Forbes writer Jason Bisnoff, and most likely many others, that President-Elect Biden will not have to do too much to encourage more growth in ESG investing. Furthermore, his picks for cabinet positions include several ESG investment supporters, such as john Kerry, who is his choice as special presidential envoy for climate. Allison Herren Lee, the current SEC commissioner may take the position of SEC chair, and she has made ESG and climate change central to her agenda in her time in public service.

Fiona Reynolds, CEO of the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, commented, “Over the last couple of years, the Trump administration brought a number of policies that made responsible investment more difficult and we hope that we can reverse some of those policies and move ahead.” Now, she says, “I’ve never felt more certain about the future for sustainability than I do at the moment.”

This enthusiasm from all quarters, plus Biden’s promise to bring the USA back into the fold of the Paris Agreement on Climate, bodes well for the future of this approach to investing.

The Future That is on Its Way to You!

We should be preparing for a set of major macro trends, Bernard Marr has written, after a discussion with Scott Smith of Changeist. Some of the trends already pre-dated the Covid-19 pandemic, but have been accelerated by it, and both men warn that these trends are ones we should not ignore.

Decoupled economies

According to Marr and Smith, the ‘decoupling’ of economies has been happening for around a decade. The result is a turn to nationalism in some of the world’s biggest economies, such as the USA, the UK, Brazil, Russia and India. As they say, ‘globalization is in the rearview mirror’ now, and we can expect a ‘multipolar world’ where three or four large regions with their own “distinct economies, security networks, cultures, and laws.”

Social change

Education, transportation, energy, food, and healthcare are in the midst of massive changes, much of it spurred on by the recognition that climate change is not a hoax. We are seeing a swell in the numbers of vegans and vegetarians due to livestock production accounting for 14.5% of greenhouse gases. There is also a transition to cleaner transport, and in the energy sector there is a move to meet the emissions reduction targets agreed to as part of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Covid-19 has also produced a transition to more working from home, and we are still grappling with this sudden change in our work life.

A new social contract?

The traditional social contract between citizens and government is no longer working for a significant number of individuals. Marr writes, “Societies have become divided between the haves and have nots, and any differences, whether religion, race, or sexual orientation, create chasms rather than common ground in the echo chamber of social media.” Automation threatens some workers, while the idea of a universal basic income has become a much hotter topic, as will debates about the nature of the future social contract between people, businesses and governments.

An AI reset

Currently we are seeing what is called an ‘AI reset’. The technology presents challenges that need to be carefully considered now, such as the regulatory obstacles and cost of development. On the other hand AI is accelerating and Smith believes another big wave is on the way.

Who are you?

Our personal identity would seem to be solid, yet thanks to digital technology it is varied and complex. Marr writes, “Today we have the ability to represent ourselves as a “stack” of identities that account for various affiliations, situations, values, and more.” Virtual and augmented reality has added to this ‘stacking’. As Marr says, “Given the tools at our disposal, smartphones, social media, and technology, we are free to create a digital narrative about who we are that might not match our physical world persona.”

Finally, we are facing life in a “blend of the physical, biological, and digital worlds.” The ‘new normal’ will be a combination of the physical and digital, and “Every organization must now consider how they provide products and services equally as well and complementary, whether interacting online or in the physical world.”

Some will welcome these trends, while others will be less enthusiastic. Whatever your view, it’s not difficult to see that regardless of opinion, this is our direction of travel.

Investing in Stock Exchanges: a novel idea

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The world of investing centres on investing in stocks. However, Jon Markman writing at Forbes offers up a new idea: investing in stock exchanges. How does that work, you may ask. Markman points to the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), an operator of commodity and stock exchange, which posted exemplary financial results on 1st August and suggests that as its managers plan to disrupt lucrative markets, such as the new digital ones, it is worth looking at it as a potential investment.

ICE “builds, operates and advances global markets through information, technology and expertise,” according to its website. It’s a relatively new set-up that was only founded in 2000. In 1996, Jeffrey Sprecher, a mechanical engineer from Wisconsin, bought Continental Power Exchange, an Atlanta electronic energy trading company for $1,000. He saw an opportunity to take advantage of a move to electronic trading.

The company launched as ICE in 2000 when Sprecher gave up 80% of the business to investment bankers Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, according. It immediately became a competitor to Enron, one of the biggest electronic trading platforms at the time. However, it wasn’t long before the Enron scandal broke and in a very short time ICE became the market leader.

Sprecher had no experience in financial markets, nor had he ever traded stocks and shares, but he “could see how slow, traditional financial markets were about to be disrupted by fast, low-latency software platforms,” Markman says. Sprecher recounted the story of how flying back from London he spotted a story in the Financial Time about credit default swaps (CDS), and while he had no clue about what they were, he intuited that there might be an opportunity for ICE to leverage its platform to build an electronic marketplace. Today,  ICE currently clears 96% of all CDS.

He also used his creative thinking to engineer the $8.2 billion buyout of the New York Stock Exchange in 2012. In a little over a decade, this small Atlanta company went from obscurity to being in the vanguard of financial markets.  Today ICE currently operates 12 regulated exchanges and six clearing houses. The company logged $6.3 billion in revenue in 2018.

Its success is down to a great strategy based on seeing the transformation of financial markets early on. It has continued to make interesting strategic acquisitions, including the Chicago Stock Exchange last year, and as Markman says, “Getting ahead of the digital transformation of the $11 trillion mortgage market is another multibillion-dollar opportunity for ICE.”

Furthermore, as it is based in regulated financial markets, the company is the logical intermediary for this emergent digital ecosystem. It appears ot be firing on all cylinders, and as Markman says, “Growth investors should consider using broad-market weakness to accumulate shares.”