Imperfect Markets: A Disorderly Industrial Shakeout
Emerging from the shock and government stimulus of COVID-19, a volatile shakeout threatens the global business landscape. Protectionism, technological transformation and social unrest—among other trends—have been disrupting economic activity for some years, but the pandemic has given them fresh momentum.
As they seek to shrug off the effects of the pandemic, business ecosystems in many countries are facing the risks of sclerotic, regressive torpor or accelerated creative destruction. Indecisive or misguided leadership has the potential to exacerbate these trends, causing ripples through the global economy and locking in catastrophic outcomes. Indeed, a disorderly shakeout would precipitate economic stagnation in advanced economies and lost potential in emerging and developing markets, greater bifurcation between major and minor companies and the collapse of millions of small businesses, and more inequality and attrition of long-term global sustainable development imperatives.
With governments still deliberating how best to pivot away from the current emergency footing that they have created beneath much of the world’s economy and workforce, and with companies anticipating a much-changed business landscape in the future, avoiding these potential outcomes is critical to maintaining the long-term sustainability and resilience of businesses.
A disruptive trilemma
New challenges to doing business are likely to emerge from three key sources: national agendas, technology that is running riot, and heightened public scrutiny.
Nationally focused agendas
The pandemic has strengthened the mandate of states to safeguard national economic well-being. Both survival and recovery are critical, and pressure is mounting to ensure both aspects in a post-pandemic world while at the same time keeping a firm eye on national security. How governments manage the challenge of stemming the losses arising from COVID-19 while prioritizing future-oriented stimulus packages will shape the risks that individual companies face.
Micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) have been hardest hit by COVID-19. They are often collectively the largest employers in a country: in China, for example, they generate around 80% of employment. An estimated 18% of companies in China went bust between February and May.1 In the United States, 20% of firms with fewer than 500 employees closed permanently between March and August.2 Many that survived the initial lockdowns remain dependent on state support—the result of continuing restrictions and decreased consumer confidence.
Minority- and women-owned firms have also been disproportionately affected, because many are in the food services, retail and accommodation sectors. Women-owned businesses have been more affected regardless of geography or market type (see Figure 5.1).3 Women and minorities were already under-represented in entrepreneurship, and poorly planned withdrawal of state support risks setting back efforts to build more inclusive local economies.4
Figure 5.1: Gender Gap in Business Closure Rates
Source: Goldstein, M., Gonzalez Martinez, P., Papineni, S. and Wimpey, J. 2020. “The Global State of Small Business during COVID-19: Gender Inequalities”. World Bank Blogs. 8 September 2020. https://blogs.worldbank.org/developmenttalk/global-state-small-business-during-covid-19-gender-inequalities
In those countries that are starting to emerge from the immediate emergency, governments are experiencing a tension between committing immediate fiscal support for vulnerable businesses and the livelihoods they sustain while at the same time addressing pre-COVID structural shortcomings, maintaining financial stability and pressure on reserves and currency, and ensuring growth in the long term to enable a sustainable economic recovery.5 MSMEs should be encouraged to make strategic investments for their efficient future operation, such as providing support for finding alternative markets and conditional grants, accessing support for training and redeployment, and for digitalization and specific programs for start-ups.6 Without this nudge, businesses might suffer future paralysis or collapse under debt obligations. Reports already predict defaults on a significant proportion of public and private loans in Brazil,7 India,8 and the United Kingdom.9 Global Risks Perception Survey (GRPS) respondents echo these concerns: “asset bubble burst” and “debt crises” appear as critical threats in the medium term.
Similarly, while a low-interest high-stimulus context is allowing many businesses to weather the global pandemic, when in the recovery phase, sustaining large, non-performing “zombie” firms risks starving other businesses of potential talent and capital and drags down long-term economic productivity.10 Managing ballooning public debt, particularly in advanced economies, depends on these fragile productivity gains.
If growth is not realized, a return to austerity may look attractive to governments. But this would limit progress on crucial development agendas such as investment in the transition to net zero carbon emissions and resilience to climate and digital threats, as well as rebuilding social security systems laid bare by COVID-19.
Alternatively, against a backdrop of more dirigiste policy-making during the pandemic, some political leaders may be emboldened to pick winners—to decide which businesses will survive and which will not—for political reasons rather than to enable a more sustainable future economy. Propping up poorly performing businesses leaves national accounts and citizens with little opportunity to recapture any benefit from bailing out private enterprise, especially in the context of globally inconsistent corporate tax regimes. Under such circumstances, lessons from the 2008–2009 Financial Crisis suggest that large companies benefiting from this corporate welfare while still rewarding executives and shareholders will likely suffer political and social backlash post-crisis, and they will also have to confront future regulatory responses.11
Separately, the global business environment may become costlier and more uncertain as a result of amplified protectionist trends, as some states increasingly turn inwards in a bid to strengthen self-sufficiency and protect domestic jobs (see Chapter 4, Middle Power Morass). In some economies, companies operating in industries critical to national resilience may face proposals for expropriation, nationalization or an increased government stake;12 in other sectors, firms may be encouraged or coerced to onshore supply chains and bring back jobs.13 Smaller businesses may suffer a wave of restructuring and potential bankruptcies as they grapple with increased operational and investment costs to realign supply chains at a time when they are already experiencing lower profit margins and depleted reserves due to the recent economic slump.
Workforce constraints have also emerged as a pertinent issue in many countries. More restrictive migration policies and general economic hardships from a combination of COVID-19 fallout dovetailing with deepening protectionism are making it harder for companies to attract and retain foreign talent.14
Inevitably, as the national security agenda and geopolitical tensions intensify, some global companies also face greater challenges in accessing foreign markets.15 Bans of communication apps and a new wave of sanctions issued by the two largest economies—the United States and China—underline the consequences of protectionism.16 As geopolitical concerns deepen with respect to data privacy, the 5G race and under-regulated merger and acquisition (M&A) activity, large businesses will need to contend with continued political interference regarding ownership, ethical concerns, investment strategies and intellectual property rights.17
Technology run riot
COVID-19 lockdowns have accelerated the digital-physical hybridization enabled by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (see Chapter 2, Error 404).18 Almost overnight, businesses worldwide have faced the need to strengthen their digital presence to survive and adapt, even in heavily regulated industries. Years of digital transformation plans have been implemented within weeks.19
For the technology giants, this has been a major opportunity. Demand grew rapidly for services ranging from e-commerce and remote working technologies to online gaming and streaming. In early January 2021, the world’s five biggest tech companies represented 23% of the S&P 500 by market capitalization, a 4.6% increase from late January 2020.20
As other sectors struggle, the big technology players will likely emerge from the pandemic with stronger, more diverse revenue streams and enhanced investment power. Barriers to entry in the digital marketplace are likely to increase at an even faster pace—even before the pandemic, the amount of computing power for a leading artificial intelligence system was doubling every two months, an increase of 300,000 times since 2012.21 Implications also flow to smaller firms in the form of higher costs and control of critical data and digital infrastructure22—and even to financial stability for emerging and developing markets.23 The recovery will also give fresh impetus to large technology companies’ acquisition of start-ups,24 as well as their expansion into other sectors25—such as retail, healthcare, transportation and logistics.26
It is not yet clear whether governments and society will tolerate the growing dominance of a small number of big players—with revenues larger than that of most countries—that are able to ward off legal challenges and expand their influence across industries and government agendas.27 Indeed, in the medium term, respondents to the GRPS rank “tech governance failure” as a top critical risk. Policy-makers also now have more incentives for increasing scrutiny, with growing concerns about antitrust issues, digital harms, disinformation, and foreign ownership implications for national security and data privacy.28 They could opt for tougher regulation—or even attempt to break up these companies—in a bid to improve oversight and strengthen competition, aiming to benefit innovation and consumers. Geopolitical schisms could make for different playing fields in different parts of the world (see Chapter 4, Middle Power Morass). Businesses may need to prepare for panic in financial markets and altered sales reach, as well as identify alternative service providers—if they exist—in the short-term disruption following government intervention.29
Heightened public scrutiny
COVID-19 has laid bare systemic inequalities in economies of all wealth levels.30 Consumers and employees are now scrutinizing corporate values more intensely. Societies have become more sceptical about the relationship between business and governments, especially regarding the probity of contracting and outsourcing.31 Though immediate employment challenges dominate public attention, businesses must anticipate and respond to these bottom-up societal risks.
That business has a positive impact on wider society is a belief questioned by an increasing number of people.32 In one survey, only a third of respondents believed that business does a good job of partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or government.33 Although immediate employment challenges may temporarily shift public attention away from unethical business practices, bribery and corruption are likely to continue worrying citizens in many economies. 34 Advanced economies are seeing more litigation against companies on topics including climate risk.35 Many countries have seen significant popular protests against corporations.36
Beyond its impact on employment, COVID-19 has exposed how social fabrics have been widely weakened by structural inequalities. Activists are spotlighting businesses that are perceived to have been exploitative during the pandemic—for example, re-contracting workers who were essential during lockdowns as gig workers with minimum to no benefits or health insurance coverage.37 In the coming years, attention will likely pass to firms that have rapidly automated processes and operations at the expense of their workers.38 Acknowledging sectoral differences, businesses will also have to consider implications of new workplace practices for maintaining client relationships, fewer choices in some parts of the business, and unequal impacts on junior versus senior staff.
A creative recovery
Companies that misjudge their actions and investments in the face of these shifts, and that fail to appreciate the scale of the rethinking required, face uncertainties amid shocks. But those emerging from the COVID-19 crisis with their resilience tested can embrace a huge opportunity to fast-track progress to a better normal.
The dire economic impacts of COVID-19, combined with historically low interest rates and the social costs of austerity, have spurred governments to make unprecedented economic interventions. As they shift emphasis from economic stability to the goal of building back better, there is scope to catalyse an inclusive and green recovery that delivers broad societal benefits, meeting the imperatives of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.39 While this form of recovery may require the next wave of fiscal support to be more conditional than the support that has been seen to date, it also behoves businesses in all sectors and of all sizes to ensure that sustainability is a core pillar of their recovery and new positioning.
Against this backdrop, new partnerships can be forged. Under the right governance frameworks, especially in the realm of data privacy, big tech can work with governments to strengthen resilience, enhance efficiencies and deliver new targeted services such as accessible finance products for disadvantaged groups (see Chapter 1, Global Risks 2021). Technology-based services can help to create new business ecosystems and level up opportunities, closing digital divides. Large companies can help smaller ones in their value chain to set sustainability objectives, formulate standards and measure progress.40
The transformation of businesses and industries requires agile and distributed workforces, hybrid working options, and comprehensive reskilling and upskilling of employees.41 Companies will need to rethink their physical space and organizational design as they transition employees into new roles and navigate the opportunities of automation and digitalization—without reinforcing the systemic inequalities laid bare by COVID-19.
These opportunities can help deliver on the promise of multistakeholder capitalism—facilitating a shared and sustained value creation that strengthens a company’s long-term prosperity. Businesses that reflect societal values, with clarity of purpose not merely empty rhetoric, can support a broad-based and sustainable economic recovery and growth, as well as the strengthening of societal trust and reduction of inequality. Such outcomes are critical for meeting current and future crises.