When it comes to the Covid-19 crisis, there are two kinds of companies: Those that benefited from it and have to worry how they will do as the crisis eases, and those that got hurt by it and have to worry if they will ever get their old business back.
The novel coronavirus pandemic led to a reworking of the economy unlike any other since World War II. Nights on the town became a thing of the past, people learned to work from home, the suburbs saw an influx of space-seeking urbanites and bleach and bean sales went through the roof while restaurants, chairs stacked on the tables, stood empty.
A cursory look at the data shows how massive the shifts have been. In the 12 months ending in the first quarter, for example, Commerce Department figures show that consumer spending on liquor rose 16%, while spending on taxis and ride-sharing services fell by 52%. In April there were close to a million more people working in warehouses, like the ones that
is building seemingly everywhere, than before the pandemic, according to the Labor Department. So far this month, the Transportation Security Administration reports that only about two-thirds as many travelers have passed through its checkpoints as in the same period in 2019.
It has made for a mix of winners and losers that often cuts against the narratives in place before the pandemic took hold. Remember how millennials weren’t going to buy homes? Now home sales are at their highest levels since the housing bust. Remember how today’s consumers valued experiences over things? Spending on recreational goods and vehicles, such as televisions and boats—things, in other words—was up 14% in the first quarter from a year earlier while spending on recreation services, such as live entertainment, was down 20%.
The big question is to what degree are these shifts permanent. There is a lot of money riding on the answer. Airlines’ post-pandemic business won’t be as good, for example, if companies decide that most meetings with far-flung vendors should keep being held via teleconference. Clorox’s future will be brighter if some of the zeal for deep cleaning persists. Peloton will make more sales if people decide against returning to the gym. Streaming services will do better if people who signed up for them during the pandemic decide that watching things from their couch remains a good alternative to going to the movies; for theater chains, it is the opposite.
Part of the problem is that while it is easy to make sweeping statements about how the crisis changed things (”Millennials learned how to make avocado toast during the pandemic, and now THEY WILL NEVER BUY AVOCADO TOAST AGAIN!”), in reality the changes may not be so clear-cut. E-commerce, for example, has registered massive retail sales share gains against in-store purchases. Is it due for a cooling-off period? Probably, but how much? The same might be true of the housing boom, and the flurry of activity it has set off, from higher appliance sales to skyrocketing lumber prices to a surge in business at home-improvement retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
Who do you think will be the winners and losers in the post-pandemic economy? Join the conversation below.
A further complication is that as the crisis subsides people could embrace some of things they have been missing out on, like going to restaurants and ballgames, with a gusto that won’t persist. Interpreting the early postcrisis period as the new normal (”MILLENNIALS FORGOT HOW TO MAKE AVOCADO TOAST!”) could be an enormous mistake. People will never order in like they did in the height of the pandemic, and that isn’t good for delivery companies like DoorDash, but how delivery companies initially fare in a fully reopened economy might not reflect their prospects, either.
It makes for an unusually confusing investing environment, with companies pushing competing versions of what the future will be like, and analysts and other experts taking sides. Any futurists who correctly predict what things will look like following the unique shock of the pandemic may be more lucky than talented. The best thing investors may be able to do now is use their own good judgment, and understand that judgment could be wrong.
Write to Justin Lahart at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8