FlyTitle: Business and the virus

A severe economic shock will make an elite of mighty firms mightier still—and change the societies in which they operate

一场严重的经济冲击将使精英巨头强者愈强,也将改变它们所处的社会【新冠报道】

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ACROSS THE rich world, governments and economists are scrambling to work out how costly virus-related lockdowns will be. Will the economy shrink by a tenth or a third? Is the slump going to last for three months, six or more? No one can say with any precision. A similarly unnerving and inexact exercise is happening in boardrooms as firms try to estimate by how much their cashflows will fall and whether they have the resources to survive.

整个富裕世界的政府和经济学家都在忙不迭地研究新冠病毒导致的封锁措施会带来多大损失。经济会萎缩十分之一还是三分之一?衰退会持续三个月、六个月还是更长时间?这些谁也说不准。董事会也上演着同样紧张而不精确的估算:公司现金流会减少多少?是否有足够的资源撑下去?

Amid the chaos one thing, at least, is clear: a few powerful firms are set to gain more clout. Already some are a source of financial stability. It costs less to insure Johnson & Johnson’s debt against default than Canada’s. Apple’s gross cash pile of $207bn exceeds most countries’ fiscal stimulus. Unilever is funnelling cash to its army of suppliers. In the long run this group of firms—call them the top dogs—may win market share by investing more heavily than, or buying, enfeebled rivals. The catch is that the post-pandemic world will put these corporate champions on a leash.

一片混乱之中,至少有一点是清晰的:少数大公司将获得更大的影响力。一些公司已经成为了金融稳定性的源头。强生公司的债务违约保险费比加拿大国债的还低。苹果公司的现金储备达2070亿美元,超过大多数国家财政刺激计划的规模。联合利华正向它的大批供应商注入资金。长远看来,这群“优胜者”可能会通过比它们疲弱的对手投资更多或者直接收购这些对手来赢得市场份额。问题在于,大流行病过后的世界也会给这些企业冠军们套上枷锁。

Downturns are capitalism’s sorting mechanism, revealing weak business models and stretched balance-sheets. In the past three recessions the share prices of American firms in the top quartile of each of ten sectors rose by 6% on average, while those in the bottom quartile fell by 44%. The drop in sales and profits in 2020 will be much steeper, though hopefully shorter, than in a typical slowdown.

经济低迷期是资本主义的筛选机制,暴露出那些虚弱乏力的商业模式和捉襟见肘的资产负债表。在过去三次经济衰退中,十个行业里排名各自行业前四分位的美国公司的股价平均上涨了6%,排名最末四分位的股价下跌了44%。相比一般的经济衰退,2020年销售和利润下跌的幅度将大得多,虽然持续的时间有可能会短一些。

A few firms directly hit by travel and shopping bans have spelled out just how steep. On March 23rd Primark, a fashion retailer, said it was shutting all 376 of its stores in 12 countries, forgoing over $770m in sales per month. It expects to save only half its costs. For most firms the picture is murkier, and perhaps not quite as glum. Some factories are still running and white-collar firms operate remotely. So far companies have announced a flurry of cuts to dividends and share buy-backs. But few have said exactly how much cashflow they expect to burn. For most it will be a lot.

受旅行及购物禁令直接打击的一些公司已经显现出下跌之急剧。服饰零售商Primark3月23日表示正在关闭分布在12个国家的所有376家店铺,舍弃了每月超过7.7亿美元的销售额。它预计这只能节省一半的成本。对大多数公司而言,前景没有那么明朗,但或许也没有那么惨淡。一些工厂仍在运作,以脑力劳动为主的公司转为远程运营。目前为止,已有一连串公司宣布削减股息和股票回购。但很少有公司讲清楚预期会烧掉多少现金流。对大多数公司来说这会是个大数字。

Who, then, are the top dogs? To get a sense of firms’ resilience The Economist has examined the largest 800-odd listed American and European firms. We took their average score on four measures: the cost of insuring their debt against default, operating margins, cash buffers and leverage. Some medium-sized firms score well, but the strongest tend to be bigger, measured by valuation and profits. The 100 hardiest have a median enterprise value nearly twice that of the puniest 100, and median operating profits 17% higher. Their share prices have done better—or less badly—in the past month, falling by a median of 17%, compared with 36% for the 100 frailest.

那么,谁是优胜者?为了解企业的抗冲击能力,本刊调查了约800家欧美最大的上市公司。我们从四个方面给它们算出了平均得分:债务违约保险价格、营业利润、缓冲现金、杠杆。一些中型企业表现不俗,但最强的一般还是更大型的企业(规模大小以估值和利润衡量)。最有韧性的100家企业的价值中位数几乎是最脆弱的100家的两倍,前者的营业利润中位数比后者高17%。过去一个月里,前者的股价表现也更好(或者应该说相对而言没那么糟糕),跌幅中位数为17%,而后者为36%。

Silicon Valley and Big Pharma dominate (see chart). Technology firms make up 48 of the top 100. The likes of Microsoft (10th), Apple (13th), Facebook (14th) and Alphabet (18th) operate with big cash buffers. Demand for some of their products is surging: Microsoft’s team-working software, for example. Another 24 are health-care firms. Many have spare cash and a captive market of people in need of drugs. Plenty of the weaklings are in the ailing transport, retail and recreation industries (think Marks & Spencer or American Airlines).

硅谷和医药巨头称霸其中(见图表)。100家最强韧的企业里有48家是科技公司。微软(第10位)、苹果(第13位)、Facebook(第14位)和Alphabet(第18位)等公司拥有大量缓冲现金。对它们的某些产品的需求激增,例如微软的协同办公软件。还有24家是医疗公司,它们中许多拥有储备资金,而且垄断了一些药品的市场。脆弱的企业多来自经营艰难的运输、零售和休闲娱乐业——想想玛莎百货(Marks&Spencer)或美国航空(American Airlines)。

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Clear winners and losers are emerging within sectors, too. In tech, Amazon is adding 100,000 workers in America to meet e-commerce demand. Meanwhile SoftBank, a Japanese conglomerate which bet big on flaky startups (including smaller e-merchants), has been forced to announce $41bn in divestments to raise cash, among them, perhaps, the sale of part of its lucrative stake in Alibaba, China’s biggest listed firm. In energy, the shares of giants such as ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and BP have outperformed smaller firms by a vast margin. Occidental Petroleum, an aggressive medium-sized company that has tried to acquire its way to the big league, now has a hefty $40bn in debt. L’Oréal, a big French personal-care group, has done vastly better than Coty, an American rival. Even among beleaguered aircraft-makers a gap has opened up. On March 23rd Airbus, Europe’s champion, said it had about $32bn of liquid funds available. Debt investors view it as less risky than Boeing, which may seek a bail-out from the American government.

各个行业内部也开始胜负分明。在科技行业,亚马逊正在美国增聘十万名员工以满足电子商务的需求。而另一边,大笔押注不靠谱创业公司(包括小型电商)的日本企业集团软银被迫宣布将出售410亿美元的资产以筹集现金,其中可能包括它在中国最大的上市公司阿里巴巴所持有的获利丰厚的股份的一部分。在能源领域,埃克森美孚、荷兰皇家壳牌和BP等巨头的股票表现大大优于较小的公司。中型企业西方石油公司(Occidental Petroleum)原本试图通过收购来打入巨头行列,志在必得,如今却负债高达400亿美元。法国大型个人护理用品集团欧莱雅的表现远胜过美国竞争对手科蒂(Coty)。即使惨淡经营的飞机制造商之间也拉开了差距。3月23日,欧洲巨头空中客车表示拥有约320亿美元的流动资金。债券投资者认为它的风险要低于波音,后者可能会寻求美国政府纾困。

The top dogs’ resilience should eventually translate into an enduring advantage, allowing them to win market share over time. Their cost of capital will be lower. Suppliers will favour them over feebler customers. With higher margins and bigger cash buffers, they will be able to afford higher investment even as other firms cut back. Some will pursue takeovers, encouraged by governments which put the survival of foundering firms (and jobs) ahead of antitrust concerns. As valuations fall and capital gets pricier, the ability of loss-making startups to nibble away at big firms’ profits will recede for a while.

优胜者的韧性最终将转化为持久的优势,让它们能逐渐赢得更大的市场份额。它们的资金成本将变得更低。供应商会偏爱这些大公司,而非其他较弱小的客户。凭借更高的利润率和更充裕的缓冲现金,在其他公司撤退之时,这些大公司也能负担较大的投资。其中一些公司会在政府的鼓励下开展收购,毕竟政府会认为现在保住一些濒临绝境的公司(还有职位)比反垄断更重要。随着估值下降及资本变得更昂贵,亏损的创业公司对大公司利润的蚕食将在一段时间内偃旗息鼓。

Not everything may go the top dogs’ way. Calls for a new social contract may get louder after the virus passes, with firms pressed to offer vital products for lower prices and to give workers more security. Capitalism may become less Darwinian, as weak firms are propped up by bail-outs and subsidised loans. The amount earmarked for cheap business loans and guarantees by governments in America, Britain, France, Germany and Italy is at least $4trn, or a fifth of their outstanding non-financial corporate debt. Some industries may temporarily be run as officially sanctioned cartels, colluding in order to stabilise prices and production. That will make it harder for strong firms to assert their advantage. Covid-19 won’t only have lasting effects on society and people’s behaviour. It will also alter the structure of global business.■

但并非一切都会有利于这些优胜者。疫情过后,要求建立新的社会契约的呼声也许会越来越高,迫使企业以较低价格提供重要产品并为员工提供更大保障。随着纾困措施和补贴贷款支撑起弱小企业,资本主义可能变得不那么倾向优胜劣汰。美国、英国、法国、德国和意大利政府划拨用于廉价商业贷款和担保的资金至少达到四万亿美元,占非金融企业未偿债务的五分之一。一些行业可能会暂时以官方许可的卡特尔形式运作,形成垄断联盟以稳定价格和生产。这将使大公司更难发挥优势。新冠肺炎不仅会对社会和人们的行为产生持久影响,还将改变全球商业的结构。