The year 2020 will inevitably be etched into our memories no matter how forgettable we want it to be. It was a year that saw our use of the word ‘pandemic’ skyrocket by more than 57,000 per cent. Its effects were seismic across the world, not just for public health but for economies. The impact that Covid-19 has had on our families, communities and businesses cannot be understated. As we lead into 2021, the effects of it, which will still be dominating our lives, will be truly transformative in so many ways. One thing we can say with confidence – big change is coming. Here are the trends and predictions for 2021.
Geopolitics of vaccines
Throughout 2020, there was a global effort to find a vaccine and a Herculean effort was made in developing them. But it didn’t take long before political arguments broke out as soon as the first became available. The shift from development to distribution has already caused geopolitical problems, even amongst allies – and ‘vaccine diplomacy’ will become as important as anything as 2021 unfolds.
On March 16, the first dose of US biotech firm Moderna’s vaccine candidate was administered in the US. On the same day, just hours earlier, the first dose of a Chinese Covid-19 vaccine was given to volunteers in Wuhan. China has around a dozen different vaccines being trialled – four in advanced stages with two developed by the state-run China National Pharmaceutical Group, or Sinopharm. Because of China’s large domestic population, China-developed vaccines currently make up a fairly small portion of global pre-orders of more than 7 billion confirmed purchases for Covid-19 vaccines – most of which have been for the candidates from Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. But expect that to change as China gears up.
The big advantage to the British and Chinese vaccines is that they focus on technologies that were well known, well-tried that won’t require as much cold storage capacity as mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. This will likely be the chosen route for developing countries, especially those with hot climatic conditions as they will be able to support importing and then distributing them successfully.
The faster countries get vaccinated, the faster their economies recover, the faster governments can concentrate on moving ahead of competitors. Make no mistake – the focus of vaccine sales, distribution and diplomacy could easily get a bit dirty. Vaccine desperation will set in half way through the year, and the public will become angry with the slow pace of distribution. Expect to read stories about expensive private sales and counterfeits.
In 2021, economies around the world will start to recover. However, there will be many companies and organisations that will collapse or give up as debt consumes them. The year will see local lockdowns come and go as Covid attempts to grab as many victims as possible. The rush will be to vaccinate as many before the winter starts again.
Some countries will do better, some worse. The lack of planning and foresight will determine how quickly life returns to something we can call normal. Governments will be forced into keeping businesses on some form of life-support in order to keep unemployment to a minimum, which will sharply increase anyway. There will be an inevitable and widening of the gap between companies with strong and weak balance sheets. Banks will play a starring role in the collapse of companies just as they will with individuals.
Irrespective of stories that the economy is picking up fast – restructuring some business debt will be difficult as banks realign their policies and criteria to their own forecasts that have now dramatically changed. One result of this will be rising acquisitions and mergers. Some will happen as cash-rich firms take out their weakened competition – others because the fit enhances a more rapid recovery.
From a global perspective, large transnational businesses, especially tech-related, will end up being dragged into a rising geopolitical battleground. But they and many smaller organisations will also suffer from activist shareholder attacks just as employees and consumers demand that they take a far greater role in responsibility towards the climate crisis and become not just more socially responsible but think about their impact on the local community. People have become tired of political failure and are now wanting to work for companies that take these responsibilities seriously. Many companies will be forced to take action. You’ll be hearing a lot more about ‘ESG’ or ‘Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance’. It refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business.
In addition, the top 3,000 global companies paid a median tax rate of 22 per cent last year, when it was 33 per cent a decade earlier. Taxpayers will demand that the burden of paying for Covid and the recovery programmes also falls on them – given how much money has gone into propping up their businesses. Many companies will repay Covid loans quickly in fear of public resentment affecting consumer sentiment or brand image.
In Britain, £38billion was lent out by the government in ‘bounce back loans’ to 1.6 million small and medium-sized businesses – all of which were given a 100 per cent taxpayer guarantee. The first repayments are expected in May 2021. However, 40 per cent of banks expect a large percentage of these debts to go bad immediately. Will the government write-off the debt, convert them into longer-term grants or instruct thousands of insolvency practitioners to recover the money? Most of these government-backed initiatives will be scrutinised in 2021 as the focus moves from public health to economic recovery and the question of managing the national debt.
There are a number of game-changing events that has forced everyone to re-evaluate how they live their lives from here. Covid-19 has dramatically accelerated technology and its implementation. It has also caused the world to pause and stare at the planet – that for a moment appeared to start recovering a little. In this moment, many people now see that the climate emergency is a life-threatening crisis. They also see that the fourth industrial revolution is as inevitable. It’s a difficult moment to absorb the impact of both but we know that the world has changed forever and that we have to change with it. This acceptance will now drive expectation.
- Before 2020, those that could afford it would catch a plane and find a sun-kissed beach thousands of miles away. And whilst some of that will continue, it will not recover to what it was. Tourism will inevitably move towards the rise of staycations and flexcations that will change the landscape of the holiday industry. Covid-19 has brought with it a strong desire for more seclusion from the masses. Camping, eco-homes, mobile homes, rented and holiday homes will be in great demand. Instead of the traditional two-week holiday, micro-breaks will be just as important. This may well be driven by the desire not to disconnect from work for two weeks as unemployment and work insecurity rises. Connectivity will be crucial to these leisure decisions.
- Another permanent output of 2020 will be how work/life balance, working from home and flexibility drives choices. For instance, property ownership in towns and villages outside of major cities will continue to change how the entire property market shapes up in the years ahead.
- Smart home technology will now become the norm. However, instead of just playing a bit of music and answering some questions, they will start to be focused on providing more convenience as well as safety, security and peace of mind.
- Video-conferencing will become as normal as online shopping. It will be the same with remote working and distance learning. This change will permeate through healthcare services such as telemedicine, which will become more common than face to face appointments with your doctor. Access to senior medical consultants will increase in the same way.
- Cloud-based systems will enable healthcare providers to access patient data anywhere, enabling telehealth. Expect companies like Amazon and Alphabet (Google) to start offering some services, that will be seen as a quick, low-cost no-frills but functional service.
- People will no longer put up with the intrusiveness of the tech industry where their ability to track our most private of interactions rises due to being at home more and having more tech delivered services. Employers will want home PC’s to be more secure (more below). Expect people to demand more privacy and governments to act as the behaviour of the tech giants such as Facebook and Google over the last decade catches up and penalises them. This could take the form of forced break-ups, more fines and laws focused against their ruthless abusive business models.
- One other result of having an airborne disease attack the world is that personal hygiene such as hand washing, sanitizing and to some extent even wearing masks (depending on where you live) will continue in 2021. However, this could have a more lasting effect – just as they have in East Asian countries where these events are more common.
- Vaccine passes will be requested by all manner of companies, especially the travel industry, entertainment venues and sporting events.
Brexit and Boris
Economists know Brexit, especially a no-deal Brexit will be very bad news for Britain. So do business leaders and the money markets. There are no economic experts predicting this will go well – not one. The reality of this ideology is soon to be realised. At the time of writing, the outcome of negotiations has still not been determined.
Either way, it is anticipated that Brexit will cause many problems that in themselves individually may not appear that difficult, but combined may well prove to be ‘challenging’.
Boris Johnson has inextricably tied his political career onto the gamble that Brexit is – so for him and his cabinet, the next few weeks will determine their future.
In saying all that, the betting is on Johnson leaving office sometime in 2021. That being the case, Britain, known globally for political stability will have had more Prime Ministers than Italy – a country that has had nine PM’s in the last ten years.
Scotland will vote in May in general elections. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP will win on a ticket of Scottish independence. A referendum will be demanded – and then denied by Westminister. Expect division and rapidly rising nationalism. Northern Ireland’s debate over unification with Ireland will rise quickly to the top of the political agenda. Brexit will be seen as the vehicle that broke the union, albeit Scottish independence is probably 5 to 10 years away.
In 2015, a British passport was the most powerful in the world according to the Passport Index. As a direct result of the EU referendum in 2016, it fell to No17 in the world. With the union falling apart its decline will continue. The top three most powerful passports today are Germany, Sweden and Finland. That looks set to stay.
Undoubtedly, 2020 was a year for the policy-makers. They have an unprecedented, albeit short window to exploit to push on with country changing projects with straplines such as ‘build back better’ and the ‘great reset.’ This will include the final acceptance by just about all developed economies that the climate crisis now has to be taken seriously and that action speaks louder than words. All manner of changes are coming – from the electrification of cars to carbon offsets, from plastic-eating enzymes to solar geoengineering.
It has to be said though that academics and analysts have warned of the danger of a pandemic for years. They will now attempt to get policymakers to take other very serious and neglected risks into account. For years, cyberwarfare, biotech and nuclear terrorism have been high on the list of threats along with antibiotic resistance. They have all moved up the agenda and will help to shape the world order.
The pandemic has been a wake-up call to all countries that anything can happen – and planning is the key. With geopolitical allies currently in a reshuffle, planning for future threats and opportunities is something you’ll be hearing a lot more of.
New World Order
The pandemic has shone a light on the failures of not just overall leadership, but of politics in general. We should not forget that when it came to global leadership, not only did the likes of Trump, Bolsinaro and Boris Johnson set a dreadful example in a crisis – the G20 held just one emergency meeting throughout the entire year, while the G7 thought a one-hour Zoom call was befitting of a global crisis.
In 2021 – all of the emphasis in the West will be about patching up relations between old post-war allies. The presidency of Joe Biden will be crucial in 2021 as it will set the mood and tempo of a crumbling rules-based international order that has taken its biggest battering. The Summit of the G20 Heads of State and Government will be held in Rome on October 30th and 31st, 2021. And the G7 is expected to take place in the UK.
The Paris climate treaty and Iran nuclear deal are high on the agenda but will anything really come of attempting to reverse the damage laid out by Donald Trump. On January 22 2021, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will come into force. But will it matter? And will countries now feeling less secure actually stand by their promises anyway?
More likely is the tech and trade battle between East and West will take centre stage and that the USA and EU will combine their efforts to contain China and Russia. Indeed, it will become the focal point of diplomatic, political and economic planning throughout 2021. Britain’s once global influence will decline in this atmosphere of the battle between the super-powers.
Biden will not end the trade or tariff war between the USA and China. It is also true to say that many countries from Africa to South-East Asia will be doing their utmost in avoiding picking sides as the tension continues to rise.
One thing Biden will not do is deliver the type unity to America he promised – just as much as any promises Boris Johnson has made to do the same fails as well.
Many are predicting that when the pandemic has been arrested and economies emerge, there will be a resurgence of human contact to something like that of the ‘roaring 1920s’ or the ‘summer of love’ of 1967. This is unlikely as the vaccine will not have delivered it benefits by the summer. In addition, people’s behaviour has not only changed but the collective memory will be permanently imprinted with the scars of what Covid really did. That scarring won’t be fully realised until the backend of 2021. It may well drive far more in the way of cultural change than anything. Family and community will be higher on the social agenda. Looking after one another may well stay because many have learned it was a good thing to do when the crisis hit – and it would be bad to simply let that community spirit slip away again.
One thing that may well look a bit like a ‘summer of love’ will be gathering in public spaces like parks as the winter is replaced with warmer weather. The 3,600 per cent increase in sales of thermal under-clothing in the UK only goes to show that there is still a strong desire to be together, no matter what the challenge … or the weather!
It seems strange to say this right now but people, especially Millennials, will go back to the cities as soon as they can. Old businesses will die, new ones will emerge and cities will slowly become revitalised again. One outcome may well be that they become even more chic and hip again as the old is replaced by the new. Given new investment going into some travel companies and buyers with cash snapping up hotels that folded, holidays and travel will undoubtedly change and it won’t be as dire as being predicted just a month or so ago. Travel patterns will start to reshape and it will obviously take a few years to work out models that can make a profit. Business travel will never fully recover.
Tech and AI
Algorithms: The ability of cyber-criminals to poison AI algorithms or the data used to train algorithms will slowly become mainstream news. AI will make all sorts of decisions that will affect our lives. International hackers will use ever increasingly smart tools, even AI built ones, to infect and cause damage to these new technologies in a festering global architecture of technical animosity between superpowers.
Passwords: 2021 will be the tipping point for passwords as they are faded out with new services demanding biometric data for authentication.
Cyber-insurance: Many individuals, households and organisations will pay for cybersecurity insurance. Cyber-risk exposure has increased so substantially by home-working that cyber insurance will emerge as a key way to combat the potential fallout from successful attacks next year. Expect to see this advertised as an additional benefit on some insurance policies.
Commanding Voice: The use of voice-enabled devices to enable purchasing has increased faster than any other type of connected commerce in the last year. However, brands are losing their identity with voice-enabled systems. 2021 will see a surge in brands creating their own voice profiles to increase memorability across devices and platforms.
We shouldn’t forget throughout all of this that aside from the death toll inflicted – it is anticipated that the pandemic will cause 150 million people to fall into extreme poverty.
China – will economically recover far faster than America or the West collectively. However, its handling of the crisis from the start will, for decades, be viewed with great suspicion in the West. In addition, the people of western democracies now view China as something to be more fearful of than they did. The same goes for Russia with its never-ending hacking and cyber attacks. Tolerance for these two countries, in particular, has reached its limits.
NATO of Trade: The result of this tolerance limit will be some sort of collective Western deal being hammered out in the years ahead, something like a NATO of trade. That discussion in 2021 will lay the foundations of the rules-based international order as far as the West is concerned. Some countries in Asia and the Middle-East may well be forced to decide which side they are on. What makes this all the more urgent is the West’s incompetence to combat Covid-19, which has only speeded up the economic and political power shift to the East Asia region. Don’t forget China’s Belt and Road initiative has gobbled up $6trillion to date and its various vaccines are about to be sold (via forgivable debt) and delivered by China into countries that cannot afford Western ones. This is why it’s called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ and China will benefit from it more than any country in the world.
Public Anger: As devastated economies emerge from the wreckage – public anger will grow (especially in America, Britain and some parts of Europe), which will continue to destabilise civil society if not handled well. In Britain, this will be made much worse by the ideological decision to implement both Brexit and a new form of austerity. The attempt to raise money from the middle classes to pay down the national debt, whilst allowing criminal banking operations, offshoring, tax-havens and illegal tactics by the rich and powerful to not pay their share, will intensify social division and animosity towards the government.
EU Recovery: The EU will turn on the taps from the European Recovery Fund. Brexit will have taught every member state that leaving would be economically risky and so a more conciliatory approach will work in their collective favour. Yes, they will have disagreements to deal with, but the EU may well get stronger, not weaker for the experience of Covid. It will take years to work out how to pay down its own debts and this may well also play to its advantage. The main drivers of any major problems that emerge will likely be from Italy (unsustainable debt), Spain (low economic recovery) and France (2022 elections).
Inequality: Sociologists, psychologists and economist almost unanimously agree that the pandemic will widen the inequality gap between the rich and poor. This is in part due to the fact that the crisis has caused more household unemployment. Very disrupted schooling in poorer households will disadvantage the children of Covid far more than those in wealthier households. The average loss of schooling to January 2021 has now reached 7 months. For black students that is now 10 months and to the poorest households 12 months. By 2025/6 inequality will be much more widespread in Western countries, mainly due to unemployment and stagnating wages. Widening educational gaps exacerbate the problem.
Climate Crisis: After decades of baby-steps to combat the growing climate emergency, 2021 is the year that the global challenge against that crisis starts to take shape. Over 70 per cent of adults believe action needs to be taken before it’s too late – this alone providing the political will to make serious policy changes. Europe has a plan to become the first carbon-neutral continent and this will be aided by new technologies alongside a desire to fund new employment due to the pandemic. Countries will quickly follow this model, not wanting to be left behind.
Final Sting in the Covid Tail
When all is said and done, the 2020 Covid-19 crisis that hit the world has another long-lasting sting in its tail. It has, of course, caused a deep recession but this one won’t be like previous recessions. There’s nothing economically cyclical about it and it wasn’t caused by overblown asset prices or ‘exuberance’ in the markets.
Trillions have been spent supporting the global economy and much of it will vaporise in unpayable or unsustainable debt, which will inevitably cause a credit crunch. Many economists do not believe this to be the case – just as they didn’t see the financial crisis looming. A large part of the problem is that corporate debt across the world is higher now than it was in 2007. In addition, very high percentages of bank lending in many countries is on residential and commercial property (in Britain, it is over 75 per cent) and there’s a growing question about how far governments can go with propping up property markets. Even before the pandemic, household debt in Britain and America had never been higher. There is a very strong possibility of financial contagion between banks as non-payable debt soars.
During 2021, grace periods and repayment holidays will come to an end and the bell will toll for debts to be repaid. Banks will reset lending policy during 2021 and a liquidity crunch will set the tone for 2022.
Homeworking: The world has become incredibly dependent on technology and cloud computing, which is triggering a rise in cybercrime and, as a result, positioning cybersecurity as a hot topic for organizations everywhere. The result – ‘zero trust architectures’ – that is the ‘moat and wall’ between employer and employee as more home-working creates security threats. New encryption and confidential computing systems will quickly emerge (source).
Entertainment: The shift from single transactions to subscription-based recurring revenue bundles accelerates. Amazon Prime showed the way, and Apple One — a new convert — adds both hardware (iPhones, Macs) and ad-free search to its services bundle. Video streaming is just Disney Plus’ beginning. Netflix ultimately sees the light and adds new benefits — perhaps MoviePass-like unlimited theatre tickets — to create higher-priced subscription tiers that stem its history of cash flow negativity. Virtual engagement, which enables unlimited performances and interactions from a single location in a single day (even homes), goes beyond live streaming. Personalized Cameo messaging and game-changing “Fortnite” immersive concerts point the way (source).
Employment: There will be more support for upskilling and personal growth, flexibility will become the norm as businesses start to rethink nine to five working hours, more businesses will recognise the value of hiring freelancers, and there will be more support to help employees manage their wellbeing (source).
Work worries: Hatred of Zoom will rapidly increase. Job losses will force many unemployed workers to change careers as their industry remains troubled and they can’t find any work in their old field. Company loyalty decreases as employees feel no connection at all now that they work from home. Expect to have 3-8 interviews before a job offer as employers remain nervous when they do not meet you in person and make candidates go through several extra interviews and online assessments before deciding. Boomers will retire early and overall work-related burnout will soar as people suffer from job-loss worries, work from home challenges, isolation, and feeling overworked, taking their toll on their mental health (source).
Property Prices: Don’t bother even attempting to work this one out. Initially, it’s dependent on the government extending its stamp duty holiday. But then again, a tax raid on investment instruments and there are a few of them, might threaten the stability of the market. Will market-distorting interventions like ‘Help to Buy’ continue? In the light of insecure jobs, will lenders tighten up lending criteria? Some experts are predicting price rises, some the opposite. For instance, Jackson Stopps says prices will increase on average by 2 per cent (source), Estate Agent Today says it will fall by about the same (source). On the other hand, Property Wire says “prices are going off with a bang” (source) but Property Industry Eye says the “market will run out of steam” (source).
Internet of Things: Automation via IoT-enabled devices will also continue to grow in the massive fulfilment centres that dispatch inventory to shops. Contact-free payment methods will also become increasingly prevalent as we progress further towards the “cashless society” that has been predicted to arrive for some time now. The “smart city” concept has been growing in popularity over recent years, with IoT technology used to monitor traffic on road networks, use of public transport, footfall around pedestrianised areas, and usage of civic amenities such as recycling centres and refuse collection (source).
Forecasting the future is usually regarded as being a bit of a ‘mug’s game’ – and many political and economic commentators now steer well clear of it. However, this year is different. Analysis of trends driven by a crisis, a lack of choice or by need is making predictions for 2021 a lot easier.
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