Could Covid-19 be the start of a modern-day revolution?
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It may not have felt like it over the past 10 months after a giant ‘pause normality’ button was pressed and our lives went on collective hold, but despite the relative peace and quiet, we’ve been living through a period of enormous structural change comparable to the industrial revolution which began in the mid-eighteenth century.
Furthermore, our modern-day revolution will continue long after this detestable virus has finally been consigned to history.
In some respects, the backdrop to the first industrial revolution was not dissimilar to today.
Between 1692 and 1815, Britain’s national debt soared, from 5% of GDP to more than 200% (sound familiar?). But this massive increase in national indebtedness had nothing to do with paying for measures to counter an imported virus. The simple fact is that over the same period, Britain was at war for 76 years, or 62% of the time, engaged in conflicts which had a draining affect upon both life and national cash reserves.
Despite these inauspicious circumstances, in the century and a quarter up to 1815, Britain’s productive capacity grew by a factor of eight, allowing it to (mostly) sustain a population which simultaneously increased four-fold.
The industrial revolution had a profound, longer-term effect upon the lives of all Britons, although while riches accrued to a tiny proportion of them, it took much longer for the average citizen to feel the benefits in terms of health, living conditions and pay.
The much quieter, though no less dramatic, revolution we’re currently living through is likely to have considerably more equitable consequences for millions of people, a point made forcibly in a recently-published book.
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Late last year, FT deputy news editor Alice Ross published Investing To Save The Planet, one of the most thought-provoking books to emerge from our enforced lockdown. Noting that life’s slower, more considered pace, had had a discernible impact, Ms Ross writes that “People started to notice how companies were handling the coronavirus. Some were firing their workers. Others were guaranteeing jobs. The investors in these companies started to notice too.
“Our collective experience of the [pandemic] drew comparisons with climate change: both were a common enemy that would best be fought through co-operation… ‘Build Back Better’ became a catchphrase as governments tried to figure out how to emerge from the economic crisis in the right way.”
As befits a FT journalist, Ms Ross reminds readers of the degree to which ethical and sustainable investing has become one of the most pressing topics in capital markets. She quotes from a recent report compiled by the UK Department for International Development which found that “68% of UK savers want their investments to consider the impact on people and planet alongside financial performance.”
Allied to revolutionary technological progress in areas from electric vehicles to artificial intelligence (AI), the demand, from both institutional and private investors, for a new form of ethical investment has received a significant pandemic-inspired fillip.
Over the past year, many investors have been swayed by a persuasive argument which stresses the ethical and financial benefits of investing in companies that consistently conduct themselves properly by doing the right thing.
Legislation is gradually reinforcing the ethical investing case. Last year, for instance, pension trustees became responsible for reporting upon sustainability within a pension’s Statement of Investment Principles. This column has frequently highlighted the colossal returns enjoyed by many high-profile collective funds that make a point of investing in ethical and sustainable businesses, the performance of which bears comparison with competitor funds in other sectors. Economic history tells us that we should not be surprised.
Britain’s industrial revolution began with an agrarian version during which investors backed a number of agricultural innovators such as Thomas Coke and Robert Bakewell; as a result, by the mid-19th century, farming yields were almost 80% greater than the European average. As the population grew, investors poured money into sectors and products likely to have longer-term benefits. Toll roads, canals and railways, factories, iron and steel production underpinned the first industrial revolution.
Yet where once our priority was large-scale industrial growth, powered by infamous ‘dark satanic mills’, today’s investment priority combines ethics, sustainability and good corporate governance. It follows that investing according to these principles makes great sense because why wouldn’t investors want to be part of a burgeoning – and profitable – long term trend likely to underpin what has been labelled ‘the fourth industrial revolution’ ?
THE WEEK IN NUMBERS
- $ 190 billion - Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced this week that he was stepping aside after 27 years at the helm of the company he founded in 1994. Today, Amazon has a market value of $ 1.7 trillion, while Mr Bezos has accumulated an estimated personal wealth of $ 190 billion (£ 140 billion).
- 29% - British households spent an additional £ 1 billion on food and drink last month and while there were some adherents to ‘Dry January’ (alcohol-free beer sales rose by 12%), alcoholic drink sales grew 29% compared with January 2020.
- $ 1.1 billion - Uber has this week bought a US alcohol delivery firm called Drizly for $1.1 billion, allowing it to expand its food and drink delivery services. Drizly will become part of Uber Eats but maintain its own app, already launched in 1,400 US towns and cities.
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