While countless businesses have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic and may never manage a successful turnaround, some firms have positively flourished.
One striking trend is that the strongest companies have grown stronger – particularly those aligned with a lockdown lifestyle in which nearly everything has moved online. The technology sector is a clear winner, as exemplified by Amazon. The American ecommerce giant reported a 70% increase in earnings in the first nine months of 2020, with profits rising $5.8 billion over the previous year. These gains have allowed it to further strengthen its position by spending some $25 billion on warehouses and other capital investments to accommodate its expansion.
The unprecedented crisis has struck fear in the hearts of executives everywhere, yet many companies that had feared the worst were pleasantly surprised. Some benefitted from government relief packages, either directly or indirectly. In the financial sector, mortgage brokers saw an uptick due to a surge in refinancing. The automotive industry suffered initial losses, but then saw sales pick up over the summer, driven by higher demand for used vehicles. Big carmakers such as General Motors and Ford reported healthy profits in the third quarter.
Restaurant chains have also performed better than expected, particularly those with drive-through, takeout and delivery services already in place. Some have gained new customers, and seen sales and profits rise. They could hold onto their gains, as customers are ordering more frequently and spending more per order. Full-service restaurants are experiencing just the opposite. U.S.-based Darden Restaurants, the world's biggest full-service restaurant company, reported a 28% decline in sales in the three months through the end of August, according to The New York Times. Its recovery will depend on a relaxation of indoor dining restrictions, which is looking less likely as COVID-19 cases escalate once again.
Overall 2020 has been downright disastrous for the travel sector, but there have been a few exceptions. While car rental company Hertz resorted to bankruptcy in May, rival firm Avis made a profit in the third quarter after suffering major losses in the first half of the year. In addition to cost cutting, the company’s turnaround is attributed to its taking advantage of the surge in used car sales in the U.S. Avis decided to sell 75,000 of its vehicles there. This strategy may not help in the longer term, however, since many Avis locations are at airports. Should demand for rental cars revive, companies with more urban and suburban locations could stand a better chance.
At the extreme end is the global airline industry, which has suffered a devastating blow across all regions. By early October, a total of 43 commercial airlines had folded. In its financial outlook, released in June, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) projected $84.3 billion in losses in 2020 and a 50% drop in revenue from 2019. Beyond government aid and cost cutting, airlines have few options. The coming winter and recent surges in COVID-19 cases do not hold much promise for a turnaround. Airline executives are calling on governments to prop the industry up, as it is a job engine and plays an important role in the health of the global economy.