2021 Predictions: What Experts See in the Year Ahead
Making predictions is a tricky business at the best of times, but especially so after a year of upheaval. Even so, that didn’t stop people from trying their hand at reading the crystal ball. If anything, the uncertainty creates a stronger temptation for us to try to forecast the year ahead.
Out of the thousands of public 2021 predictions and forecasts available, there are plenty of one-off guesses. However, things really get interesting when a desperate majority of experts begin to agree on what might happen. In some ways, these predictions from influential experts and firms have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophesies, so it’s worth paying attention even if we’re skeptical about the assertions being made.
This year, we more than doubled the number of sources analyzed for our 2021 Predictions Consensus graphic, including outlooks from financial institutions, thought leaders, media outlets, consultancies, and more. Let’s take a closer look at seven of the most popular predictions:
ESG reaches a tipping point
It seems like only recently that the term ESG gained mainstream traction in the investment community, but in a short amount of time, the trend has blossomed into a full-blown societal shift. In 2020, investors piled a record $27.7 billion of inflows into ETFs traded in U.S. markets, and that momentum only appears to be growing.
Fidelity, among others, noted that climate funds are delivering superior returns, which makes ESG an even easier sell to investors. Nasdaq has tapped ESG to be “one of the hottest trends” over the coming year.
China has a strong 2021
Financial institutions that issue predictions generally hedge their language quite a bit, but on this topic they were direct. The world’s most populous country has already left the pandemic behind and is back to business as usual. Of the institutions that mentioned a specific number, the median estimate for GDP growth in China was 8.4%.
A souring outlook on SPACs
Much like any hot trend, once enough people get on the bandwagon the mood begins to sour. Many experts believe that special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) are going to enter that phase in 2021.
SPACs had a monster year in 2020, raising $82 billion in capital. That’s more funds in one year than in the last 10 years combined. Of course, now that these 200+ companies are flush with capital, they’ll need to find a target. Scott Galloway argues that SPACs “are going to vastly underperform over the next two to three years” since there aren’t enough good opportunities to satisfy that level of demand.
Brands must be authentic and values-driven
Over the past few years, brands have become increasingly values-driven. In their 2021 predictions, experts see this trend being pushed even further.
Millennials, which are now the largest generation in the workforce, are shaping society in their own image, and the expectation is that companies have an authentic voice and that actions align with words. This trend is augmented by the transparency that the internet and social media have enabled.
Being a “values-driven” company can mean many things, and often involves focusing on a number of initiatives simultaneously. At the forefront is racial inequality and diversity initiatives, which were a key focus in 2020. According to McKinsey, nine out of ten employees globally believe companies should engage in diversity and inclusion initiatives. When the chorus of voices grows loud enough, eventually actions must follow.
A great rethinking of office life is underway
The great work-from-home experiment will soon be approaching the one-year mark and a lot has changed in a short amount of time.
Even firms that were incredibly resistant to remote work found themselves in a position of having to adapt to new circumstances thanks to COVID-19. Now that the feasibility of at-home work has been proven, it will be tough for companies to walk things back to pre-pandemic times. Over 2021, millions of companies will begin reengineering everything from physical offices to digital infrastructure, and this has broad implications on the economy and our culture.
Individuals and employers start taking wellness seriously
The past year was not good for our collective mental health. In response, many companies are looking at ways to support employees from a health and wellness standpoint. One example is the trend of giving teams access to meditation apps like Headspace and Calm.
This focus on wellness will persist, even as people begin to return to the office. As commercial leases expire in 2021, companies will be re-evaluating their office needs, and many experts believe that wellness will factor into those decisions.
Lastly, this trend ties into the broader theme of values-driven companies. If brands profess a desire to impact society in a positive way, employees expect actions to extend inward as well.
Big Tech backlash continues
Among experts, there’s little doubt that the Big Tech backlash will bleed over into 2021. There is a divergence of opinion on exactly what will happen as a result. There are three general themes:
- 1. Regulators will admonish and threaten Big Tech publicly, but nothing concrete will happen.
- 2. Facebook will be broken up into parts (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp)
- 3. Companies will proactively change their business practices and look for ways to settle quickly
Aside from the thread of regulatory action, the tech sector is facing a bit of an identity crisis. Silicon Valley is grappling with the reality that the center of gravity is shifting. Pitchbook notes that Bay Area will fall below 20% of U.S. deal count for first time, and there have been very public departures from the valley in recent months.
Faced with pressure from a number of different angles, the technology sector may have a year of soul-searching ahead.
The Elephant in the Room
COVID-19 is the one factor that impacts nearly every one of these 2021 predictions, yet, there were few predictions–and certainly no consensus from experts–on vaccine rollouts and case counts. It’s possible that the complexity of the pandemic and the enormous task of dealing with this public health crisis makes it too much of a moving target to predict in specific terms.
In general though, expert opinions on when we’ll return to a more “normal” stage again range from the summer of 2021 to the start of 2022. With the exception of China, most major economies are still grappling with outbreaks and the resulting economic fallout.
It remains to be seen whether COVID-19 will dominate 2022’s predictions, or whether we’ll be able to look beyond the pandemic era.
The Good Stuff: Sources We Like
Of the hundreds of sources we looked at, here were a few that stood out as memorable and comprehensive:
Bloomberg’s Outlook 2021: This article compiled over 500 predictions from Wall Street banks and investment firms.
Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway’s Big 2021 Predictions: Swisher and Galloway combine their deep understanding of the technology ecosystem with frank (and hilarious) commentary to come up with some of the most plausible predictions of 2021. From Robinhood to Twitter, they cover a lot of ground in this interview.
Crystal Ball 2021: Fortune’s annual batch of predictions is always one to watch. It’s comprehensive, succinct, and hits upon a wide variety of topics.
John Battelle’s Predictions 2021: John Battelle has been publishing annual predictions for nearly two decades, and this year’s batch is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated. His predictions are thoughtful, credible, and specific. It’s also worth noting that Battelle circles back and grades his predictions – a level of accountability that is to be praised.
Like this feature? An expanded look at 2021’s predictions will be shared with our VC+ audience later this month.
Visualized: The Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar
Do sustainable investments make a difference? From carbon emissions to board diversity, we break down their impact across three industries.
Visualizing the Power of a Sustainable Investment Dollar
Sustainable investments are booming.
Between January and November 2020 alone, investments in sustainable ETF and mutual funds grew 96%. The UN Principles of Responsible Investment now has over 3,000 signatories representing over $100 trillion in assets. The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission established a Climate Risk Unit to analyze climate risk across derivative markets, and as of March 2021, new sustainability disclosures have come into effect in Europe.
But how do we know if sustainable investments have made a difference?
To answer this question, the above infographic from MSCI examines the effect of a sustainable investment dollar by looking at real-world examples.
A Sustainable vs. Unsustainable Dollar
To start, investing legend Benjamin Graham has compared the stock market to a “voting machine.” Just as consumers vote with their purchasing decisions, investors vote with their investment dollars. Especially in the short term, as more dollars flow to sustainable companies, this builds their exposure and access to capital.
In the long term, meanwhile, the market can be compared to a weighing machine. The market recognizes companies with profitable business models that improve their intrinsic value over time. Ultimately, this allows sustainable companies to expand and continue operating.
Given the rising momentum in both green assets and climate targets, here is how investment dollars have influenced and driven change across three industries.
1. Clean Energy vs. Fossil Fuel
Over the last several years, the energy sector has been associated with many of the problems causing climate change. For this reason, many investors are seeking out greener energy alternatives. But how does moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to an ESG leader support the environment and society?
First, here is a brief explainer of ESG laggards and leaders:
- ESG laggards: companies with the weakest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
- ESG leaders: companies with the strongest environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance in their sector.
|Industry laggard: U.S. oil & gas company||Industry leader: U.S. utilities company|
|Scale of carbon-intensive business lines equal to 73% of its operation||47% lower CO2 emissions than the industry average|
|This is the equivalent of adding 26 million cars on the road annually||This is the equivalent of removing 9.9 million cars off the road annually|
|1 of 20 oil and gas companies are responsible for contributing to one third of GHG emissions since 1965||Uses 3X as many renewable sources than industry average|
|3X fewer jobs are created vs. energy efficient sector, resulting in lower productivity||This is roughly the same as saving over 9 million pounds of coal burned|
|MSCI ESG Rating: CCC||MSCI ESG Rating: AAA|
Source: MSCI ESG Research
Based on the above example, investors have the ability to finance powerful green initiatives that reduce emissions by almost half, relative to their peers.
2. Safe vs. Unsafe Working Conditions
Weak safety protocols are a key sustainability issue for the industrial sector. Here’s how two companies compare:
|Industry laggard: South African mining company||Industry leader: U.S. mining company|
|11 fatalities in 2019||Zero fatalities in 2019|
|Faced lawsuits from miners surrounding lung diseases contracted from dust exposure in gold mines|
Settlement cost: $350 million
|Board-level oversight monitors health and safety performance|
|Lags behind peers in high incident rates||Leads peers in low incident rates|
|Lags behind peers in setting incident reduction targets||Leads industry in lost time incident rate & total recordable injury rate|
|MSCI ESG Rating: CCC||MSCI ESG Rating: A|
Source: MSCI ESG Research
Despite the risks involved in the sector, investors can choose to support companies that take greater precautions to protect their workers.
3. Building Trust vs. Losing Trust
Over the last several years, the financial sector has faced increased scrutiny over fraudulent activities. Moving investment dollars from an ESG laggard to ESG leader may make a difference:
|Industry laggard: U.S. bank||Industry leader: Dutch bank|
|$3 billion settlement in creating fictitious accounts to meet aggressive sales targets||Sustainable finance portfolio valued at over $20 billion|
|Drop in top-tier bank ratings||13% annual increase in climate finance|
|Board effectiveness questioned||Includes over 60 green loans, mobilizing environmentally friendly projects|
|Resignation of board members||Over 55% of board is female|
|MSCI ESG Rating: CCC||MSCI ESG Rating: A|
Source: MSCI ESG Research
From board diversity to green loans, a sustainable investment dollar supports companies that are actively advancing society and the environment.
Sustainable Investment: The Time to Act
Recently, investor dollars and shareholder activism have been closely linked.
Between 2018 and 2020, large institutional investors filed 217 shareholder proposals on climate change alone, putting increased pressure on companies. Meanwhile, 270 proposals were filed on corporate political activity and 228 on fair labor and equal employment opportunity over the same timeframe. Across all ESG proposals, $2 trillion in assets were pushing for more equitable corporate action.
Through the power of a dollar, investors can send a clear signal to companies: the time for sustainable investing is now.
China’s Economy: 40 Years of Soaring Exports
China’s economy today is completely different than 40 years ago; in 2021 the country makes up the highest share of exports globally.
Animated Chart: 40 Years of Soaring Exports in China
China has the second highest GDP in the world, and it exports 15% of all the world’s goods. But how did this come to be?
A mere 40 years ago, China’s economy was in an entirely different situation, making up less than 1% of global exports and still in the infancy stages of building its economy. The above animated chart from the UNCTAD showcases China’s rise to global trade dominance over time.
Timeline: The Rise to Power
The China of the mid-20th century looks remarkably different when compared to the modern-day nation. Prior to the 1980s, China was going through a period of social upheaval, poverty, and dictatorship under Mao Zedong.
Beginning in the late 1970s, China’s share of global exports stood at less than 1%. The country had few trade hubs and little industry. In 1979, for example, Shenzhen was a city of just around 30,000 inhabitants.
In fact, China (excluding Taiwan* and Hong Kong) did not even show up in the top 10 global exporters until 1997 when it hit a 3.3% share of global exports.
|Year||Share of Global Exports||Rank|
*Editor’s note: The above data comes from the UN, which lists Taiwan as a separate region of China for political reasons.
In the 1980s, several cities and regions, like the Pearl River Delta, were designated as Special Economic Zones. These SEZs had tax incentives that worked to attract foreign investment.
Additionally, in 1989, the Coastal Development Strategy was implemented to use strategic regions along the country’s coast as catalysts for economic development.
The 1990s and Onwards
By the 1990s, the world saw the rise of global value chains and transnational production lines, with China offering a cheap manufacturing hub due to low labor costs.
Rounding out the ‘90s, the Western Development Strategy was implemented in 1999, dubbed the “Open Up the West” program. This program worked to build up infrastructure and education to retain talent in China’s economy, with the goal of attracting further foreign investment.
Finally, China officially joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 which allowed the country to progress full steam ahead.
Made in China
Today China is a trade giant and manufacturing behemoth. Only the U.S. and Germany come close to its share of global exports, sitting at 8.1% and 7.8% respectively.
|Rank||Country||Share of Global Exports (2020)|
|#6||🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR||3.1%|
|#7||🇰🇷 South Korea||2.9%|
China’s manufacturing industry has become dominant in producing just about anything from commonplace household items to integral pieces in automotive manufacturing. Some staples of Chinese manufacturing are:
- Precision instruments
- Industrial machinery for computers and smartphones
COVID-19 made China’s integral role in the global economy even more visceral, as major delays in the supply chain occurred when the virus hit the country.
An Economic Superpower
In 2021, China’s trade recovery from the crisis has bested most other countries—in Q1 2021, its exports grew by almost 50% compared to the previous year’s quarter, to around $710 billion.
And the country is not slowing down any time soon. Further plans for economic development are well under way, like Made in China 2025, with the goal of becoming a dominant player in global high-tech manufacturing. Additionally, the famous One Belt, One Road initiative has been funding infrastructure projects globally over the past decade, and the country is also a founding member of the RCEP—which is soon to be the world’s biggest trading bloc.
However, China still faces a series of challenges, such as:
- Population decline
- The onset of labor saving technology
- Trade wars with U.S. and sanctions from other trade partners, like Europe
- The emergence of ASEAN trade powers, like Vietnam
A declining population has many implications like a shrinking workforce and domestic market. Additionally, many companies are setting up shop in less costly manufacturing hubs like Vietnam.
Furthermore, inexpensive innovations in labor-saving technologies, such as robotics and automation, have already begun to undermine the cheap manual labor that has made China the world’s manufacturer.
All of these elements and more could potentially spell a slowing of growth in China’s export dominance. However, while the future for China may not be certain, currently, global trade and production could not function without it.
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