20 May 2020
China was brought to a halt for three months to fight the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) that emerged in Wuhan. As social and economic activity resumes in China, what can we learn about what to expect concerning the pace of recovery and the avoidance of a second outbreak? How different is the ‘new normal’ likely to be from the past?
The manufacturing and industrial sectors have recovered quickly. The global shutdown has impacted export demand and production has been held back by supply chain issues and a shortage of workers where migrant workers have been slow to return. Nonetheless, with some organisational changes and the implementation of safety procedures and testing, production has normalised. The government has helped, funding infrastructure projects and stimulating the housing market to boost construction and increase demand for building materials like steel and cement.
However, the government’s stimulus plans have also been focused on promoting new technologies, laying the groundwork for future productivity gains at the same time as providing a boost to economic recovery. Investment in the 5G network, artificial intelligence, datacentres and electric vehicle charging stations demonstrates that China is continuing to rebalance its economy away from manufacturing towards innovation-led services.
Social distancing and more cautious consumer behaviour mean that the service sector is taking longer to catch up to normality. Online businesses — whether gaming, music, shopping or education — have all expanded significantly. It seems that the trend towards greater consumption of online products could increase further, reinforced by the virus and the resulting desire to avoid crowds. Willingness to travel remains very low, and hotels and airplanes could remain well below capacity for a while.
The authoritarian government’s use of technology has allowed it to implement an effective national quarantining. With continued social distancing, monitoring and surveillance, it seems to have successfully restarted much of its economy without reviving the epidemic. Concerns over privacy are potential hurdles to this model being followed in all countries, but the compliance with lockdown in Europe has surprised many observers.
There are still uncertainties on the horizon, including which of the trends and changes observed during the pandemic are here to stay and the eventual effect on globalisation. For equity investors, we believe it is most effective to focus on picking the winners using a bottom-up approach. Companies with strong business models and flexible balance sheets, in our view, are likely to prove to be the survivors.