A woman wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against Covid-19 walks near St Thomas' Hospital in central London. Picture: AFP/ISABEL INFANTES
A woman wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against Covid-19 walks near St Thomas' Hospital in central London. Picture: AFP/ISABEL INFANTES

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced governments and companies to radically question long-standing assumptions about their actions and their respective roles in society. The pandemic provides an opportunity for financial investors to do the same.

The UN’s International Labour Organization estimates that the pandemic will eradicate the equivalent of 435-million full-time jobs in the first half of 2020. That figure is not difficult to believe considering that the UK’s furlough scheme, which was announced in March, already counts 7.5-million people on its payroll and that more than 36-million Americans have filed for unemployment since the outbreak of Covid-19.

But this is not just a developed-markets issue. We have witnessed similar effects in SA first hand. In just the first few weeks of operation, the South African Future Trust* and its six partner financial institutions have provided interest-free loans to protect the immediate livelihoods of more than 80,000 small-and medium-enterprise employees. From the number of additional applications made by SA SMEs, we know that demand for income support greatly exceeds supply.

The UN department of economic & future affairs estimates that Africa alone accounts for 29% of the growth in the global working-age population today. By 2030 the continent will account for more than half of that growth and by 2040 for three-quarters of it.

Failing to address pandemic-related unemployment and the growing job-creation burden in emerging markets threatens not just economic livelihoods but longer-term political stability.

With so much at stake, we must ensure that the recovery is sufficiently strong to get people back to work when the disruption from the pandemic eases. There is only so much that public balance sheets and charitable organisations can do to ensure a recovery. If we are to see a return to strong growth, the post-pandemic recovery must be driven by private investment. But what will it take for this to happen while the outlook remains so uncertain?

To raise investment, we must transform the relationship between financial investors and the companies they invest in. This requires a radical change in the mentality of financial investors.

More engaged capital – which involves a partnership between financial investors and company managers, with a shared long-term horizon and a focus on maximising sustainable value – is needed. Engaged capital investment requires patience, tolerance of risk and scale, all of which are key to ensuring company managers can make sound decisions to invest in productive assets in the pursuit of long-term value.

This is crucial to securing a strong, stable and sustainable recovery.

Company managers face real constraints in balancing corporate finance decisions and financial investor expectations. Short-termism and dividend yield often win out over long-term value creation. That the share price of global telecommunications company BT was punished on management’s decision to cut dividends to “create capacity for value-enhancing investments” is but one recent example of these dynamics at play.

We need more engaged capital if we are to increase investment in job-creating productive capacity globally. Most financial investment is now in the form of passive funds that track indices and take a relatively hands-off approach to company management or transactional capital deployed by traders who are focused on technical factors rather than the fundamentals that create long-term value.

Engaged capital implies a different relationship between financial investors and company decision makers. Informed and committed financial investors are more able than anonymous traders or passive investors to encourage company managers to focus on long-term value.

Jonathan Oppenheimer. Picture: Supplied
Jonathan Oppenheimer. Picture: Supplied

Providers of engaged capital, who, through analysis and dialogue, understand and support – where merited – the strategy of a company, are more likely to see through short-term fluctuations in share prices. They are also more likely to see long-term growth opportunities arising from pandemic-related disruption.

Policymakers and financial investors need to work together to encourage engaged capital and investment in productive assets. Policymakers must strip away overly restrictive regulatory barriers to investment in productive assets and reduce political and regulatory uncertainty. Financial investors need to reassess existing practices that inhibit engaged capital, including how fund managers or company managers are rewarded and the impact of dividends and share buybacks on productive investment.

Both need to reassess together the factors that are leading to an excessive focus on quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term value and a narrow focus on market depth that is driving up transaction volumes without contributing to genuine value discovery.

It would be naive to expect all financial investors to provide engaged capital, particularly in the current climate, where many have suffered losses and feel forced to be more defensive.

But equally, we must recognise the consequences of a failure to ensure a strong recovery, driven by private investment, both for long-term value and for political and economic stability. Covid-19 has forced governments and companies to radically rethink their practices. It is time financial investors do so too.

* The South African Future Trust is an independent trust set up by Nicky and Jonathan Oppenheimer in partnership with the SA government and private sector

  • This article was first published in Spear’s Magazine. It is republished here with the permission of Jonathan Oppenheimer.


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