Risks for blue chips: Disruption for supermarkets, banks, autos & big oil

Results of most for the third quarter are coming in ahead of City forecasts. But it is the exceptions, such as Tesco and Morrisons, that have grabbed more attention. Headlines have focused on accusations of poor management and governance failure, and the deeper long-term problem has been largely overlooked. It is clear that some industries face significant disruption, challenged by new business models.

Investors should no longer think purely in terms of global economic growth but whether some traditional industries will survive in their present form. The way people live, work and travel is changing. The risks in some shares are about survival in this new world.
Simply buying a basket of large global companies might not capture the best growth areas of the future. Some of today’s blue chips may turn out to be dinosaurs that fail to adapt and survive.

Investors take comfort from size – but big companies with high dividend yields may not merit their “quality stocks” label. Their journey into irrelevancy is likely to involve disappointments, dividend cuts and repeated expensive tinkering with the business model.
Examples of companies left behind by consumer evolution – like Woolworths, Comet and Phones 4u – are still fresh.

But the internet is just part of the problem. Consumer habits change but the current industry incumbents may carry too much baggage to adapt. The excess floor space of big retailers like Tesco is a challenge, even if management know where they want to go.
Nor is the problem just about retailing. Car manufacturers could see much-diminished demand in the longer term. The younger generation view a car as an expensive asset sitting idle much of the time, and are less attached to prestige. New services to meet their needs have emerged; many of these have latched on to internet-enabled taxi and shared-use models such as Uber and Zipcar.

It is hard to transform an established business with legacy assets and culture into a new business model, and particularly to change in an environment of no growth or inflation. Even the airline industry had the benefit of a background of passenger growth as it adapted and took out costs. If car manufacturing in the West is to face long-term demand shrinkage, it will be tough to keep ahead of that with cost cuts.

China’s recently-floated internet retailer, Alibaba, this month sold more than £5 billion of goods in one day. But the most interesting statistic is that 43 per cent of those sales were made from mobile devices. How quickly can established businesses adapt to this new pattern?
Certainly, it could pose a major challenge for the traditional banking model. Many now want to consume financial services entirely online, and typically also by mobile device. This requires simplicity, functionality and integrity.

And banks will be challenged by new lending models, as some online services can now match up lenders and borrowers directly. Already, the sharp fall in demand for bank loans could ultimately make much of the traditional infrastructure redundant.

Disruption is a new challenge for investors. In some sectors, it will mean that the biggest, oldest-established businesses are the riskiest. Investors looking for income may be particularly at risk, as traditional businesses cut dividends to allow investment in new growth areas. And these companies may be forced into price cutting as a response to competition from new entrants with better technology.

A few businesses will rise to the challenge. Dixons Carphone, for example, has been almost the only high-street electrical business left standing as others failed or withdrew.
But picking winners is difficult – and investors may need to think more about how industry structures are evolving. The largest supermarket chains, car manufacturers and banks are facing disruption; investors should recognise the risks.

A version of this article was published in the Herald on November 15 2014.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed in this article are my own, and may not represent the views of any firm or entity with which I am affiliated. The information presented in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however, I make no representation as to their accuracy or completeness and accepts no liability for loss arising from the use of the material. Articles and information do not represent investment advice. At the time of writing, neither I nor my employer’s clients had any positions in any of the companies mentioned.

Image credit; Wikimedia Commons some rights reserved. By Peng 6 July 2005 http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saurier2.jpg

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