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The Next Economy
Back to the ‘50s:
Predictions for a Post-Coronavirus World

With luck, we’ll avoid the worst case scenario and be able to ignore this article. But some of the trends are already in motion; and even if the pandemic and its consequences are severe, they offer opportunities for brands that can embrace them.

Forecasting is a bad idea at the best of times; and these are by no means the best of times. Coronavirus is playing havoc with every area of life — particularly, the economy. Short-term forecasts of high unemployment, huge government debt and recession are easy to make. But few people are predicting the medium- to long-term impact, especially when it comes to the kind of sustainable food supply chains and businesses we run.

Despite being fully aware that most forecasters end up quietly rowing back their ideas, we’ve been looking ahead to the world over the next decade. How might the pandemic affect the branded food and agricultural commodity sectors that Windward Commodities advises and invests in? And what wider trends will affect how businesses operate?

Spoiler alert: we’re heading back to the 1950s, just with better technology.

Before getting down to specifics, there are some wider parallels. Like the second World War, COVID-19 will create a huge economic and social shock against a backdrop of increasing tension between the world’s two superpowers. The economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis has already been historic; how far industries such as food and tourism retract will depend on the measures to counter it. Likewise, the political actions taken now will influence whether a potential new cold war becomes an actual one.

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In terms of our businesses, there are numerous 1950s-style trends that will have an impact on the regions and sectors we operate in. Such as:

Keynes makes a comeback

And with him, comes huge deficit spending and large-scale government interventions. From food and travel to manufacturing, the only game in town is going to be government support, subsidy and regulation. Public sector jobs could rise from 9 percent of the population today to the 12 percent it was in the 50s — and those jobs are likely to be increasingly sought after.

Cash is king and inflation jumps

Expect access to cash to be highly constrained after a short-term loosening due to government intervention — not to mention a return to foreign exchange controls as currencies are interrupted and unbalanced. The 1950s also saw inflation ranging from 0.6 percent to 9.2 percent in the UK; we should expect similar volatility. Reductions in oil prices and demand shocks across the board will add deflationary pressure in the short term, but supply-side interventions and interruptions in trade flows could push up prices in the medium term.

Lower-risk supply chains

We manage sustainable supply chains in the Caribbean, southern Africa, the UK and US; and have been building resilience into them for years. This has paid off, and then some, in the recent chaos. Expect a move away from just-in-time supply chains — particularly in automotive, tech and pharma — to lower margins and higher inventories, but less risk.

State-sponsored travel

It seems inevitable many major airlines will be in state hands soon, as they were in the ‘50s. Smaller carriers will go under and those that survive will shrink enormously. In 1950, there were 25m tourist arrivals globally, mostly in Europe, compared to 1.4bn in 2018. Long-haul travel is likely to see a huge decline — although not quite back to 1950s levels — in favour of local or regional tourism with a lower risk of quarantine or disruption. The cruise industry will take a long, long time to bounce back, which has huge implications for the tourist-dependent places we work in, such as the Caribbean.

Going green goes big

The slump in human activity caused by coronavirus is benefitting the environment — the waters of Venice are clearing and China’s air pollution problem improving. Will we really want to go back? We may not get to 1950s levels of emissions, but we should see an acceleration of cleaner technology, investments and consumer behaviour trends.

Fewer but fairer jobs

In the short term, an unemployment shock may prompt an increase in unionisation as collective bargaining returns, alongside increased government expenditure and job insecurity. In the longer term, we could see a reduction in wealth inequality, partly because this crisis has shown jobs in nursing, teaching, food and distribution are far more critical to society than, say, hedge fund managers.

Trusted brands take centre stage

We’ll see a return to safe, family-orientated big brands as industries and categories consolidate. Challengers will need to make responsibility, value and environmental credentials key. We expect key existing trends to accelerate — some obvious, such as online delivery; some less so, such as a return to traditional TV-style advertising through online channels that will look increasingly like old media.

Impact investing at last becomes about impact

In many cases, impact investing has become the development version of greenwashing — lots of talk about impact used to gain access to cheap soft money for what is, in reality, commercial lending. This will stop as liquidity becomes an issue and investors show their true colours. To properly finance development projects with long timeframes in the absence of global liquidity, new financial instruments that monetise impact will be critical. We’ll continue to invest and advise on sustainable supply chains with long returns and real impact. Many will not.

Food security will be top priority

Supply problems during the second World War led to countries reducing their reliance on imported food. Similarly, the modern movement to embrace more self-sufficient models of farming and food processing will accelerate. We’re also expecting sustainable (by which we mean increased) payments to farmers as part of a new deal for sustainable food self-sufficiency.

Less is more

The size of the food service sector — the restaurants, pubs and fast food joints on your high street — will decline as we turn to eating in. Technology and delivery services were already taking us in that direction, and the lockdowns of the pandemic have added to the momentum. In retail, there’ll be an overdue retreat from 70 types of marmalade and a consolidation within categories — not exactly a move back to three flavours of crisp, one of which was potato, but a significant reduction in variety and an increase in price.

With luck, we’ll avoid the worst case scenario and be able to ignore this article. But some of the trends are already in motion; and even if the pandemic and its consequences are severe, they offer opportunities for brands that can embrace them.

Learn more about how to get back to the 1950s.