Pandemic and war force rethink of business models

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As FT columnist Rana Foroohar writes today, the war in Ukraine has not only upended countless lives but is upending business models too, further damaging supply chains already weakened by the pandemic.

The situation is unprecedented. “The ongoing supply chain disruptions have now lasted longer than the 1973-4 and 1979 oil embargoes — combined,” says Richard Bernstein of the RBA investment firm.

Even companies that do little business in the region are recognising the importance of more regional or local production hubs, writes Foroohar, something long recognised by “maker” firms that source locally but which is now being picked up by bigger brands wanting more insurance against any kind of shock, whether political or climate-related.

Many larger businesses are looking to vertical integration to smooth disruptions such as those caused by the global semiconductor crisis. Intel last week said it would invest €33bn in manufacturing and research in Europe, rising to €80bn by the end of the decade, as well as $40bn to expand chipmaking in the US. The US and Europe are also planning tens of billions in support for the industry in an attempt to lessen dependence on Asian manufacturers.

Food production is another sector being forced into a rethink. The EU was already reviewing its sustainable food strategy as part of a drive to eliminate carbon emission but now has to contend with a drop in grain and fertiliser exports from Russia and Ukraine, raising concerns over food security.

Energy too is in the throes of transformation, as the west, and Europe in particular, race to find alternatives to Russian oil. Germany yesterday said it had made a long-term agreement with Qatar for the supply of liquefied natural gas, a deal described by a minister as a “door opener” for the German economy, while in the UK, Shell has submitted revised plans for a North Sea gasfield originally rejected by the country’s regulator.

As well as reshaping traditional business practices, the conflict has also boosted nascent sectors such as cryptocurrency systems, adopted enthusiastically by the Ukraine government as a speedy way of raising donations as well as paying for military equipment.

Another beneficiary of disrupted supply chains cited by Foroohar is 3D printing, which gained ground during the pandemic to locally manufacture everything from PPE to emergency housing.

“Even in times of war, decoupling and geopolitical fear, it’s worth remembering that there is opportunity in crisis,” she concludes.

Latest news

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Need to know: the economy

UK chancellor Rishi Sunak is being urged to address the cost of living crisis in his Spring Statement, but chief economics commentator Martin Wolf says he must also explore opportunities for lasting reform. We’ll have full details in the next Road to Recovery but in the meantime, here are five things to look out for in Wednesday’s speech.

Column chart of Annual real growth in median equivalised household disposable income for non-pensioners, after housing costs (%) showing The squeeze on UK living standards will be exceptionally severe

Saudi Arabia said it would not be held responsible for shortages in the global energy market as it warned of disruption from missile attacks on oil installations by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The former head of Ukrainian state-owned energy company Naftogaz called in the FT for an immediate embargo on Russian liquefied natural gas and petroleum products. Read our explainer on whether Europe can wean itself off dependence on Russian fossil fuels. And if you have school-age children, direct them to our new set of resources for students on climate change.

Latest for the UK/Europe

Karen Betts, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, warned that UK consumers would face shortages and higher bills because of the Ukraine crisis unless the government stepped in to help the industry. Suggestions include allowing the use of alternative products and a relaxation of regulation. Fertiliser prices today hit a new record.

Line chart of CRU Fertiliser price index (Jan 2006=100) showing Fertiliser prices hit new highs

Global latest

The Ukraine crisis has led to food shortages in Arab countries as wheat prices soar. Grains and vegetable oil from Ukraine and Russia are crucial to national diets across the region and the UN has warned the situation “could cause an escalation of hunger and poverty with dire implications for global stability”. Egypt today devalued its currency and raised interest rates in an attempt to contain the impact of the war.

Businesses in Hong Kong welcomed the relaxation of some quarantine and flight restrictions, including from the US and UK. “The measures are the sign we have all been waiting for,” said the chair of the European Chamber of Commerce, but added: “The decision comes at an almost too late stage . . . We need to see the recovery plan to avoid further damage, as the damage has already happened big time.” Mainland China is still grappling with the problem of mass infections and millions of unvaccinated elderly.

Influential investor Bill Gross told the FT that the Federal Reserve’s plan for rate rises would “crack the US economy”.

Need to know: business

Grand Theft Aero” was how one observer described Moscow’s move to allow foreign jets to be re-registered in Russia, thwarting efforts by global leasing groups to recover more than 500 aircraft, worth an estimated $10bn, that were stuck in the country.

Grand corporate statements about exiting Russia are easy to make but complicated to carry out. FT reporters look at the key questions facing multinationals. Nestlé was forced to defend its decision to stay in Russia as Ukraine’s president increased the pressure on the world’s biggest food company to withdraw, citing the incongruity of its slogan “good food, good life”.

The latest in our Charts that Matter series shows the level of fear in markets, as measured by the Cboe Vix index, starting to return to normal after violent swings caused by the invasion of Ukraine and ahead of the Federal Reserve’s first rate rise since 2018.

Line chart of Value of Vix futures over time showing Investors are growing less concerned about short-term tremors

The UK hospitality and leisure sectors are particularly at risk from soaring energy prices, with energy-intensive gyms and leisure centres with swimming pools “now at major risk of closure”. The next few weeks are critical as a large number of bespoke contracts signed with energy suppliers come to an end in April, in line with the end of the UK’s financial year.

From selling drinks without bottles to niche food start-ups, young companies have been busily responding to the pandemic-driven shift in the way people work, live, shop and communicate. Read more in our annual survey of Europe’s 1,000 fastest-growing companies.

About 90 per cent of all goods traded around the world are carried by sea but the costs to the climate are huge, accounting for a billion tons of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere each year. Is there a viable alternative? Watch our new video on the cost of greener shipping.

The World of Work

Alongside the pandemic’s Great Resignation came the Great Retirement as many older workers said goodbye to the office. We could however be set for the Great Return, says the FT Lex column, as falling stock markets and higher living costs force retirees to return. Coming back may also be a little more alluring now that sociable office life can be mixed with working from home.

Many of those quitting through burnout or other reasons could be stopped from heading for the exit in the first place if companies spent more time on giving them reasons to stay, writes Emma Jacobs.

Could sun, sea and sand do the trick? One of our most read articles last week concerned Citigroup’s new hub for junior bankers in the Spanish city of Malaga, offering a distinctly different work/life balance. Management editor Andrew Hill says the proposal will need careful management: “burnout by the beach is still burnout”.

PureGym boss Humphrey Cobbold tells the FT how he kept faith in his business model despite failed IPOs and forced closures during the pandemic, in our latest How to Lead interview.

Covid cases and vaccinations

Total global cases: 459.5mn

Total doses given: 11.0bn

Get the latest worldwide picture with our vaccine tracker

And finally…

From psychoanalyst Susie Orbach on the need to achieve and mindful ways to deal with life’s twists and turns, to the truth about fasting. Browse FT Magazine’s State of Mind special.

© Ana Yael

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