The Great Acceleration

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The Great Acceleration

The COVID-19 crisis has intensified existing trends, widening the gap between those at the top and bottom of the power curve of economic profit. Will your strategy keep you ahead of the accelerated pace of change?

The fault lines between industries and business models that we understood intellectually before the COVID-19 crisis have now become giant fissures, separating the old reality from the new one. Just as an earthquake produces a sudden release of pent-up force, the economic shock set off by the pandemic has accelerated and intensified trends that were already underway. The result is a dramatic widening of the gap between those at the top and the bottom of the power curve of economic profit1 —the winners and losers in the global corporate-performance race.

Along with the accelerated pace of change, however, comes a unique opportunity to unlock big strategic moves. Our research found that companies that pursued big strategic moves persistently, through every phase of the economic cycle, increased their odds of outperforming their peers. Much of the organizational inertia that usually stands in the way of unlocking these big moves is now gone, as the crisis has rendered obsolete the budgets and personal targets that make such moves so hard to achieve.

Mind the gap

To understand how the COVID-19 crisis is shifting profit pools, we have used changes in market capitalization to calculate market-implied longterm economic profit for the largest companies globally.2 While the question of whether share prices are a fair reflection of our new reality is open to debate, we aren’t as interested in the overall market-capitalization levels as in the patterns emerging among companies and industries. And those patterns are meaningful, consistent across measurement periods and with our clients’ experience, and very different from what we saw during the global financial crisis of 2008–09.

Our analysis reveals that the gap in economic profit between the top corporate performers and everyone else has widened dramatically. In effect, the crisis has accelerated a trend that was already present (Exhibit 1). Between December 2018 and May 2020, the top quintile of companies grew its total market-implied annual economic profit by $335 billion, while companies in the bottom quintile lost a staggering $303 billion. And while the specific numbers can fluctuate from day to day, the larger trend is unmistakable: a gap is opening up, and it’s rapidly expanding. That’s a pattern that has been evident since 2010. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing it to entirely new levels.

What’s driving this widening chasm? So far, we aren’t seeing a great reshuffling of industries and companies along the power curve as was the case during the global financial crisis, when companies in the electronics, energy, and financial-services sectors fell off their historical peaks. Rather, industries and companies that started at the top of the curve before this crisis are proving to be resilient, while those that were at the bottom are accruing the biggest losses.

This increased dispersion can be seen both across and within industries. Sectors that were at the top of the curve before the crisis, such as pharmaceuticals and semiconductors, seem to be pulling ahead from the less profitable industries that started at the bottom, such as banks and utilities. In fact, the six most-profitable industries have added $275 billion a year to their expected economic-profit pool, while the bottom six have lost $373 billion.

In many ways, we are only in the early stages of the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some companies may find themselves in a position of strength, while others will face challenging times. Regardless of your context, given the speed at which this crisis has been unfolding and the great acceleration of trends accompanying it, you will need to be faster, bolder, and more agile than ever before to succeed.

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