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Are You Ready for the 2020s?

From demographic shifts to tech innovation and climate change, the coming decade promises to transform the world. Here's what investors need to know.

WHILE SOME DECADES SLIP QUIETLY AWAY, the 2020s promise to be a time of extraordinary disruption, change and opportunity. Robots and automation are expected to open up remarkable possibilities—and also potentially eliminate hundreds of millions of jobs. A billion people are forecast to be added to the planet’s population,1 the majority of them in urban areas, while “smart cities” should help to make life better, cleaner and more efficient for many. 

And solutions to some of today’s most pressing environmental and social challenges could finally materialize. “We see an unprecedented number of forces converging to transform the global economy,” notes Candace Browning, Head of BofA Global Research. “While the road ahead won’t always be easy, there’s a lot of reason for optimism.”

From addressing climate change to reenergizing the global economy, that optimism is informed by urgency. “Many of the issues we’re watching closely will approach the point of no return in the coming decade,” says Haim Israel, Head of Thematic Investing for BofA Global Research and co-author of a new report, Transforming World: The 2020s. Here’s a look at what we might expect.

The planet and its people 

As average lifespans stretch to an expected 73.8 years by 2030 (from the current 71.9), the world for the first time is forecast to have more people over the age of 65 than under five2 —or, to put it another way “more grandparents than grandkids,” Israel says. The burgeoning “silver” economy will likely boost healthcare technology and other industries, but could hamper growth in other ones, since older people tend to save more and spend less. 

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At the same time, the global middle class is expected to rise from 3.6 billion in 2018 to 5.3 billion by 2030. Thanks to these newly prosperous consumers (90% of them in Asia), for the first time ever the majority of people on earth will no longer be poor.3

That still leaves hundreds of millions of people facing problems such as hunger, poverty, inadequate housing, and lack of access to clean water and health care. And the entire world is grappling with climate change and other environmental issues requiring concerted action. “If the 2010s was when fears over climate change peaked, this has got to be the decade of climate change solutions,” says Michael Hartnett, Chief Investment Strategist for BofA Global Research. “Fortunately, whatever combination of renewable energies, new technology and political will that takes, history tells us that people are good at finding solutions to the biggest problems.” 

One force helping drive those solutions is a broad rethinking of capitalism. A new “moral capitalism” calls on companies to expand their missions beyond profits and shareholder interest to include supporting their communities, addressing climate change and the environment, and making their workplaces more inclusive, among other changes.

Technology at the turning point

Rapid technological change is nothing new, of course. The past two decades have witnessed entire industries, from retailing to media, upended and recast by consumers’ migration to the internet. For the 2020s, what may be different is the pace of change. “Global data is expected to multiply itself by 32 times in this decade,” Israel says.4

The ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China is likely to morph into a race for technological supremacy, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Whoever is the leader in technology over the next 10 years is likely to lead the world economy,” says Chris Hyzy, Chief Investment Officer for Merrill and Bank of America Private Bank.

That said, innovation should yield extraordinary benefits for society, and opportunities for investors. Technology should help an ever-more-urbanized global population overcome challenges such as inadequate infrastructure, rising inequality and crime. In “smart” cities, connected by universal broadband internet, buildings are expected to leave smaller environmental footprints and advanced security and monitoring systems should make people safer.

Few such gains come without costs – and in smart cities, individual privacy is likely to diminish. And as robots and artificial intelligence continue their advance into virtually every aspect of business and society, job losses may increasingly come not just in manufacturing but in service positions.

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A global economy looking for answers 

Even as we look ahead, one startling statistic hurtles us back in time – interest rates haven’t been this low for 5,000 years.5 Investors today hold $12 trillion worth of bonds with negative interest rates6—essentially paying for the security of owning sovereign bonds. What that means for the 2020s is a monumental task to jumpstart lethargic economies around the world. “What happens with credit in the next five to seven years is going to be incredibly important,” Hartnett says. 

Yet all this comes at a time when economists and investors are beginning to doubt the ability of central banks to stimulate growth through economic policy. Since the financial crisis of 2009, central banks worldwide have lowered interest rates a total of 784 times and devoted more than $12 trillion to quantitative easing,7 which leaves many wondering whether central banks have any tools left for countering a possible recession, Hartnett says.

Countries looking for answers—to this and to the other problems the world is grappling with—are increasingly looking inward rather than outward for solutions, Israel says. While the trend towards globalization has seemed inexorable, the 2020s are likely to change that course, with tariffs and regulations that favor local economies and homegrown producers.

What investors should consider

The decade ahead suggests potential winners among industries, such as clean energy, e-commerce, healthcare technology and local manufacturers, among others. Other sectors may struggle: fossil fuels, bonds, and brick and mortar retailers.

In a larger sense, investors may need to shift their focus away from short-term gains and individual stocks and think more broadly about ways to invest in global themes that will dominate the decade. “The old paradigm of investing needs to change. We have to look at the big picture, and at long-term mega trends,” Israel says. “Disruptions are going to come at us left and right in this decade. We need to understand that what was in the past will not be in the future.”

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