We would work over Zoom. We would all exercise on our Peletons. We would order in organic vegetable boxes, stream live shows, and network globally from our kitchens. At the height of the pandemic, with most of the major economies locked down, a group of work-and-live-from home companies boomed. And yet, right now that is starting to turn. The headlines might be dominated by stories of a stock market crash. In fact, however, something else is happening. The WFH bubble is bursting.
There are a whole series of reasons why the stock market has turned very wobbly this month. Inflation is soaring and central banks, led by the Federal Reserve, are about to raise interest rates to control that. Russia is poised to invade Ukraine, destabilizing the continent, and sending energy prices through the roof. President Biden’s attempt to tax and spend his way to growth has turned into a dismal failure. There is plenty to worry about.
And yet, the market is also getting crushed by the falls in some very specific stocks. Almost all the pain is concentrated on the Nasdaq. The tech heavy index has declined 12 per cent this month, on track for its worst January on record. Unless there is a swift bounce back, January will be its worst month since October 2008. Within that it is the WFH stars, all of which soared during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, that are getting hammered. Peloton, which makes upmarket exercise bikes, is down 30 per cent over the last month. Netflix is down 35 per cent, as subscriptions stall (hardly helped by a second series of Emily in Paris — I mean does anyone really want their pension fund to largely depend on Lily Collins). Zoom is down 20 per cent. The list goes on and on.
It isn’t hard to work out what is going on. With the pandemic ending, it turns out that we quite like going out and about. Companies are starting to demand that their staff get back to their desks. The restaurants, clubs and gyms are staying open. The travel industry is opening up again. Meanwhile, the zero Covid fanatics who seem to believe everyone should stay at home until all diseases have been eliminated are in retreat, while political leaders are finding the courage to open up economies whatever the ‘science’ tells them.
During lockdown, a whole series of companies were wildly over-hyped, with business models that assumed the world had changed forever, when it was only a temporary crisis. Some of those will survive and some won’t. But most will simply turn out to be niche players in an economy that is returning to normal, and not the dominant businesses of the 21st century. True, the stock market will survive the bursting of the WFH bubble — but there will be a lot of pain on the way.
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