Let us examine this along a few dimensions:
• Social distancing: In “knowledge worker” societies or the wealthy enclaves of emerging markets (EM), social distancing could remain the norm, at least until a vaccine is developed. However, for denizens of congested slums in Mumbai or Mombasa, social proximity is a necessity, not a choice. Paradoxically, they are likely to get more social space, and better hygienic conditions, in their workplaces than at home!
• Workplace: In the West, it is possible that videoconferencing could largely replace face-to-face interactions, reducing the need for centralized office spaces and potentially turning ‘central business districts’ into zombie towns. However, in EM, where typical working parents share a two-room apartment with multiple generations of relatives, working from home even temporarily is a pipe dream. The demise of workplaces is a long time away in Africa and Asia.
• Shared services: For hygiene and health reasons, we are likely to witness a surge in Western car ownership, where financial circumstances allow, at the expense of Uber and mass transport. By contrast, for a large swathe of EM populations, even a two-wheeler is an aspiration. Public transport will remain their only viable option.
• Lifestyle: In developed societies, online shopping will cast an even gloomier pall over malls. However, in many developing countries, malls are still in their infancy and a visit to one is more than a perfunctory shopping trip. Malls are entertainment venues for families, offering “experiences” ranging from movies to ice-skating.
• Supply chains: The pandemic has highlighted supply chain vulnerabilities and concentration risk for many economies and companies. While we don’t anticipate an overnight decoupling from China, we expect Western companies to gradually pivot outsourcing to other countries, creating opportunities for many EM companies.
At Gateway, we have been refining our thinking as new data and information becomes available, and the new learnings will doubtless inform our approach to future investments. However, what remains unchanged is our conviction that, notwithstanding the near-term volatility and uncertainty catalyzed by Covid, the medium- and long-term growth narrative, especially across Africa and Asia, remains attractive. These regions will continue to benefit from the tailwinds of their growing populations; accelerating urbanization; increasing connectivity; rising affluence; and burgeoning South-South trade and investment flows, all of which underpin higher discretionary spending.
Three-quarters of the world’s investable capital is still controlled by allocators in America and Europe. We are now at an inflection point and smart allocators would look to go beyond their historical “home bias” and increase exposure to EM. Why? Because these markets offer diversification, as well as respectable yield in a low-interest-rate environment. And critically, in a world of otherwise tepid growth, companies and entrepreneurs here are real growth engines, generating real returns by manufacturing and providing the basic goods and services required by the vast majority of their growing populations.
Companies like Dangote Cement (where I am honoured to sit on the board) and Reliance in India are powered by operating growth, not financial engineering. Aliko Dangote, Mukesh Ambani and their ilk prove that America does not have a monopoly over entrepreneurs who think big and bold, have the courage of their convictions, execute with unbridled passion, and live and breathe their businesses.
It is not an accident of history that in 1999, when Reliance commissioned its Jamnagar refinery, it was then the world’s largest single-train refinery. When the Dangote Refinery is commissioned soon in Nigeria, it will own the record once held by Reliance. And it will not be the last record to be broken by an EM company.