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How to Find Winning Stocks in an Uncertain Recovery

Singapore is at the cusp of Phase 3 reopening.

As more COVID-19 safety measures are loosened, we should see a further recovery in business activity.

But the road ahead remains paved with uncertainty.

If there is a spike in COVID-19 cases, movement restrictions could be re-imposed.

Furthermore, safety measures will remain for common activities such as social gatherings and the size of group meals.

By the end of this year, the use of the TraceTogether app or token will be made mandatory for high-traffic areas such as restaurants, workplaces, schools and shopping malls.

In short, while we should see a recovery in economic activity, the upward trajectory will not be smooth.

The winners of the pandemic

As investors, we want to find companies that have done well during the pandemic.

But that criteria is not enough.

We also want these businesses to continue to perform as the safety measures are eased or removed.

There is little doubt that a few companies have benefitted from the onset of the pandemic.

A standout example would be Zoom Video Conferencing (NASDAQ: ZM).

The video conferencing firm brought in almost US$1 billion in revenue for the six months prior to 31 July 2020, up over 270% from the same period a year ago.

While the growth is breathtaking, the more important statistic would be its user base.

The number of customers with more than 10 employees on Zoom’s platform more than quadrupled from less than 82,000 at the end of January to over 370,000 at the end of July — a growth rate that is notably higher than its revenue increase.

The disparity suggests that Zoom has the opportunity to further monetise its user base by providing more services.

And that’s exactly what the company is doing.

Last month, Zoom launched OnZoom, a new platform for free and paid events. The company is also rolling out Zapps, a marketplace for apps created by third-party developers.

In sum, it would be fair to say that the pandemic has enabled Zoom to amass a far larger user base than it otherwise would have achieved.

Moving forward, the onus is on the video conferencing firm to capitalise on its good fortune to extend its advantage.

The same scenario can be seen at PayPal (NASDAQ: PYPL).

The payments processor added 56 million new active accounts in the first nine months of the year, increasing its user base to 361 million at the end of September this year.

Much like Zoom, PayPal has the opportunity to further extend its growth runway by offering its newly acquired customers more services.

Beyond its namesake service, PayPal’s suite of payment solutions also includes Xoom for international money transfers, Venmo as a digital wallet for payments, PayPal Credit for funding source and more.

Again, all eyes will be on whether the company can make the most out of its larger user base.

Better than ever

Not every company is as fortunate as Zoom or PayPal.

Most companies have taken it on the chin as lockdowns disrupted their businesses.

For instance, Mexican food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill (NASDAQ: CMG) was forced to temporarily shutter 100 of its stores, causing it to lose almost a quarter of its restaurant sales in April.

But as in-store sales declined, its digital orders started to take over.

As shutdowns peaked in the second quarter, Chipotle was able to arrest the decline in sales by increasing the proportion of its digital sales to over 60% of total revenue, more than twice the channel’s contribution compared to its first quarter.

Interestingly, as lockdowns were eased, Chipotle’s digital sales were sustained at almost 50% of revenue for the third quarter. As a result, the company was able to deliver a solid 14.1% year on year growth in sales.

As we look back at the first nine months of the year, the Mexican restaurant chain had to take its lumps like most companies.

However, unlike many companies, Chipotle was able to emerge as a much stronger version of itself compared to where it was before the pandemic.

In response, its shares have risen almost 60% year to date.

The only certainty is uncertainty

It may be a cliché to say it.

But when it comes to business, the only constant is change.

This statement rings true especially during a pandemic.

While the likes of Zoom and PayPal have benefitted immensely from the shift online, there is no guarantee that this group of companies will continue to perform well in the coming years.

A lot will depend on whether or not these fortunate companies will make the most of their good fortune to lengthen their growth path.

Get Smart: Lean in for the future

If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we have to be ready for unexpected events in the future.

To be sure, that does not mean that we should wait for the skies to clear up before we invest.

The road ahead will always be uncertain.

The stock market will continue to be volatile even after the US elections are over.

And yet, life goes on.

We have to lean in and move forward.

As investors, we have to believe that things will get better over time.

And they will.

The road to full recovery may be long, but we believe that the best is yet to come.

And they will.

If we can keep our focus on the long-term, I believe that we will be greatly rewarded in the future.

Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in The Business Times.

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Disclosure: Chin Hui Leong owns shares of Zoom, PayPal and Chipotle.