Physical Lockdown and Virtual Freedom: Investing for Resilience in the New Economy
The world has marked two years since the deadly Coronavirus started taking hold of large swathes of the globe, changing all aspects of our lives in fundamental ways. A distinguishing feature of the past 24 months has been the introduction of “lockdowns”. With the official passing of the fourth wave in SA, we appear to be enjoying a respite from lockdown restrictions.
Though we have been frustrated by the restrictions imposed on us to curb the spread of the virus, we should bear in mind that lockdowns have the potential to not only arise from public health emergencies, but also from civil unrest and the effects of climate change and extreme weather events such as floods and fires.
Frequent, localised, intermittent lockdowns of variable applicability have the possibility of being a part of societal structure in future. And in the wake of these lockdowns, the threats posed by physical interruptions to mobility, supply chains and business models are taking on renewed importance.
It would therefore be prudent to examine lockdowns as an economic construct. Such threats highlight the need for resilience. Resilience equals survival, whether it relates to one’s personal health or the endurability of businesses.
This reality has brought into sharp focus the inherent differences between traditional businesses and industries of the future. Indeed, the global lockdowns have accelerated the adoption of, and demand for, new ways of executing economic activity. This puts the spotlight on the alignment of technology, human culture and regulation.
In South Africa the economic effects of lockdowns, coupled with load shedding and the devastation wrought by the July 2021 unrest in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng, offer sober reminders of the fragility of the physical economy. This fragility necessitates an understanding of the interventions required to build resilience in a world built on ever-changing foundational principles.
There is a distinct difference in resilience between industries deemed traditional and those regarded as ‘future’ industries with the latter being those capable of continuing operations and thriving during lockdowns. This article examines a few instances that clearly show that future focused industries are much more resilient in the face of lockdowns and other disruptions.
When it comes to consumer spending – the key anchor of South Africa’s economy – traditional industries tend to have an almost direct relation to consumer spending power, as less disposable income means less earnings for these industries. Traditional industries tend to have a unidirectional relationship to consumer spending.
By contrast, future industries have embraced freemium models. Gaming and streaming, for instance, allow users to consume their virtual products for free on devices they already own and monetise through advertising, or they offer paid subscriptions which remove advertising. Spending in the context of future industries is aligned with earning in a bi-directional model. The concept of earning and spending in the same transaction, as well as being able to consume goods and services with no spending of income are noteworthy features of future industry models.
Consumer mobility is key for many traditional industries that offer goods and services in physical locations that are visited by their customers. Industries of the future are not hampered by reduced consumer mobility – in fact, they are better off for it, as stay-at-home and work-from-home orders result in greater consumption of digital goods, and higher demand for delivery services. Moreover, businesses of the future that deliver virtual goods and services are unaffected by the mobility of goods.
A hallmark of industries of the future is that they place the customer at the centre of inbound economic systems, where goods and services come to the customer. Traditional industries by contrast work on the assumption that the customer would reach out to them. Decentralised and virtual economic systems – meta-worlds, crypto currency, peer to peer systems – are inherently designed to serve the customer at the centre – they are delivered directly to wherever the customer may be. The customer is static, but the services transcend space and time.
Global lockdowns have disrupted the flow of individual capital and have redefined where money is spent, how consumers are advised and how they deploy capital, resulting in the strong emergence and reinforcement of the role of digital interfaces as new marketplaces. These include streaming apps, delivery apps and gaming.
These trends have profound implications for financial services, especially for the corporate and investment banking (CIB) industry. For instance, as with other businesses, traditional investing relies upon the consumer having disposable income (i.e., capital to invest). In particular, regular employment is a key feature upon which the traditional managed investment industry is built, through mandatory pension fund contributions. As such, investment products and ecosystems will have to increasingly embrace freemium models.
CIBs will need to develop the capacity to structure, trade and implement solutions in virtual worlds. Consider structuring products that are designed for specific customer communities, to live natively on a digital platform or designed to be delivered on new digital platforms, such as Facebook’s reinvention as Meta touted and on those of other Silicon Valley giants.
The rise of loyalty as a valid business tool and financial technique could form the basis of new financial models. In addition to helping clients manage risk and optimise cash flow, CIBs could craft sophisticated loyalty mechanisms for their corporate clients.
Digital analytics and data-driven decision tools have been strong favourites amongst consumers during lockdowns, especially when they relate to investment decisions. Given the strong growth in day trading and e-commerce, data driven commercial decision-making tools could be a growth area for CIBs.
Allied to the increasing preference of analytical decision making over human advice, is the idea of increasing personal autonomy. Individuals value the power to make their own decisions. CIBs must recognise this trend and look beyond corporate and institutional product design to designing for individuals, who will require ever increasing levels of customisation.
The rise of digital assets and ecosystems ideally suited to those assets – such as gaming and virtual reality platforms – provide additional opportunities to create new client sets, product types and revenue streams for CIBs.
A major driver of innovation is sustainable financing. Structuring products, transactions, systems and strategies in a way that advances environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives will be critical for sustainability. Lockdowns as an economic concept can also result due to extreme climate and social unrest – underlying factors that can be addressed through ESG investing. The successful CIB will build its future product and solution set off credible ESG foundations.
There are opportunities for blazing new business paths, and recent additions to our everyday lexicon like “lockdown” need to be examined as economic constructs. By constantly recognising the changing economic construct of society, corporates and institutions – including CIBs – can position themselves for a fundamentally changing world. DM/BM
Author: Ebrahim Patel, Head of Future Markets and Sustainability at Rand Merchant Bank
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