1. COVID-19

In the UK, we started 2021 in lockdown and our focus was on the newly approved vaccines. We saw a speedy uptake of vaccinations and as we entered Spring, COVID-19 cases and deaths were declining rapidly from their peak. In July, we enjoyed our so-called “Freedom Day” where the government removed almost all COVID-19 restrictions and it appeared we may be getting back to normal. This was largely mirrored globally as cases declined in most countries. But optimism turned to apprehension as the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa in November. 

The new highly transmissible variant forced governments around the world to kick reopening plans into the long grass. For the travel industry in particular, this caused serious headaches. US airlines cancelled 10,000 year-end flights causing chaos for passengers. Countries scrapped plans to reopen to tourists and instead introduced tighter domestic restrictions. 

In late December, stock markets tumbled as concerns about restrictions prompted a sell-off. The Dow Jones and the S&P 500 suffered their worst 3-day stretch in 7 months as markets fell by over 3% during the week before Christmas. Business deals were postponed due to fears, including Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CDR)’s £7bn takeover of Morrisons. 

South Africa provides a glimmer of hope as the variant is dwindling in the country and did not bring a substantial number of deaths of hospitalisations. We hope that the rest of the world can replicate this trend and return to normality this year!

In short: Despite the overall success of vaccination programmes across the world, the Omicron variant has concerned businesses and markets alike. Stock markets tumbled in December and deals were postponed. There is now apprehension about economic growth for the year ahead, particularly if new restrictions come into force.

2. M&A

M&A activity across the world was not shaken by the pandemic throughout 2021. On the contrary, global activity broke the all-time record, surpassing $5.63 trillion in value with a 63% increase in volume. This smashed the previous record in 2007 by $1.2 trillion. The pandemic forced many businesses to consolidate in order to stay afloat and many businesses delayed merger plans in 2020 and followed through in 2021. Furthermore, record low interest rates meant financing was cheap, encouraging would-be dealmakers to take advantage.

Some of the most notable deals of the year:

  • Discovery Inc. and AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia business agreed to merge in a $43 billion deal.
  • Virgin Media and O2 formally merged in a huge £31 billion deal. 
  • The London Stock Exchange (LSE) completed its £20 billion acquisition of data company Refinitiv.
  • Private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CDR) agreed to buy UK supermarket Morrisons for £7 billion. CDR secured the deal after a long bidding war with a US rival that culminated in a mandatory auction. The deal was postponed in December due to concerns over Omicron.
  • The Issa Brothers’ EG Group received approval for its £6.8 billion acquisition of Asda.
  • Google completed its £1.5 billion acquisition of FitBit.
  • Newcastle United FC was purchased by a Saudi Arabia led consortium in a £300 million deal.

In the UK, M&A deals were up 54% in the year. Amid the rebound in activity, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has been keen to flex its regulatory muscles. In September, the CMA ordered the reversal of JD’s £79 million acquisition of Footasylum. In November, the CMA also ordered Facebook to unwind their $400 million takeover of Giphy. Furthermore, with new rules on national security now in force, foreign takeovers of UK based tech companies could prove more challenging. 

In short: 2021 was a bumper year for M&A activity as we saw a record $5.6 trillion in deals made throughout the year. Cheap borrowing along with industry consolidation spurred the huge boost in activity. 

3. IPOs

2020 was a muted year for stock market listings as firms were trying to adapt to the new normal thrusted upon them by the pandemic. 2021 was a different story altogether. The volume of global IPOs increased 64% in 2021, raising a record $594 billion. Some major IPOs from 2021 include;

  • The crown for the largest IPO goes to Amazon-backed electric automaker Rivian which achieved a $100 billion valuation in its IPO in November. 
  • Cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase launched on NASDAQ, reaching a $86 billion valuation.
  • Alternative milk producer Oatly went public and achieved a $13 billion valuation. 
  • Swedish automaker Volvo won biggest European IPO of the year, securing a $22 billion valuation 
  • Indian food delivery app, Zomato, launched its IPO and reached a $12 billion market cap. The app is backed by Chinese conglomerate Ant Group and marked India’s first unicorn stock market listing.
  • Deliveroo gets the unfortunate title of worst IPO, not just of 2021, but in London’s history. Its shares plummeted by 30% giving it a value of roughly £5.6 billion, nearly £2 billion lower than the bottom of its target range. 

SPAC listings, as expected, are becoming increasingly common.  Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) are publicly listed shell companies that are designed solely to buy and invest in other companies. A record 613 companies went public via SPAC mergers in 2021, more than double the number of mergers in 2020 and nearly six times as many as 2019 (SPACinsider). In total, $162 billion was raised via SPAC mergers. Some notable deals include: 

  • Singapore-based Grab debuted on New York’s NASDAQ via a SPAC deal and reached a $40 billion valuation. 
  • Two years after its catastrophic IPO failure, WeWork went public via a SPAC merger and was valued at $9 billion. 
  • Buzzfeed went public via a SPAC deal which was initially supposed to be worth $300 million. The company raised just $16 million from its offering after 94% of the $287.5 million raised by the SPAC was pulled by investors.

In short: IPO markets were buoyant in 2021. A record $594 billion was raised from IPOs while the popularity of SPAC deals increased substantially.

4. Brexit

2021 marked the UK’s first year outside of the European Union without the parachute that was the transition period. While Brexit was expected to bring a seismic shift in our prosperity (either positively or negatively), media bandwidth has largely been diverted to the pandemic. But there were some significant matters related to Brexit and some Brexit related benefits and challenges that we can takeaway;

Benefits:

  • The UK struck its first post-Brexit free trade deal negotiated from scratch with Australia, removing tariffs on almost all imports and exports between the nations.  Over £10 billion of additional trade between the two nations is expected to be created. 
  • Trade deals with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein were agreed, improving on the EU rollover deal.

Challenges:

  • By April, £1 trillion in assets had been moved from the UK to the EU by financial services firms. Over 7500 jobs were relocated from London to European cities. Financial services firms have still not been granted regulatory equivalence. 
  • Navigating new red tape on imports and exports has caused a lot of headaches for business. Many companies have stopped business with EU customers altogether.
  • An exodus of European migrants living in the UK due to Brexit was one of the contributory factors to the HGV shortage (discussed below). 
  • The Northern Ireland protocol has not yet been resolved.

As we come out of the pandemic, the wider economic impact of Brexit will become clearer but clearly, there are still many challenges ahead.

In short: The full economic impact of Brexit cannot be easily ascertained due to the pandemic, but it has been a rocky first year of Brexit. Whether the proposed benefits will be realised going forward remains to be seen.  

5. Big Tech Crackdown

In 2021, regulators across the world were clamping down on Big Tech firms. Regulators have long agreed that Big Tech wields too much power but had no plan on how to address this. 2021 saw a serious crackdown with deep investigations into the competition and data protection practices of tech giants along with billions of dollars in fines. 

In July, President Joe Biden signed an executive order designed to promote competition and introduce tougher scrutiny on Big Tech firms. In October, 136 countries agreed a landmark deal to introduce a minimum corporation tax rate of at least 15%, designed to prevent aggressive tax avoidance. 

One of the major antitrust legal cases of the year was Apple’s saga against the maker of Fortnite, Epic Games. Apple historically obliged app developers to use Apple’s App Store system to process in-app payments, incurring commission charges of up to 30%. Epic Games claimed this breached competition law and took Apple to court. In September, a Californian court held that Apple could not prevent app developers from using alternative in-app payment systems. The judge stopped short, however, of concluding that Apple held a monopoly. 

In 2021, competition and data protection practices of Big Tech were key targets for regulators, particularly in Europe. In July, the head of the French Competition regulator, Isabelle de Silva, argued that big fines can force Big Tech companies to change their behaviour. This philosophy was undoubtedly reflected in the volume and value of fines issued against Big Tech in Europe. Some of the most significant fines included;

  • Italy’s competition authority slapped a €1.13 billion fine on Amazon for abusing its dominant position in the market and harming competitors
  • France’s competition regulator fined Google €500 million over abusing its market position in relation to news publishers.
  • Luxembourg’s data protection regulator fined Amazon €746m for breaching data laws. Amazon allegedly breached GDPR rules regarding its processing of personal data. 
  • WhatsApp was slapped with a €225 million fine by Ireland’s regulator for breaches of data protection law. The messaging app’s policies did not adequately inform users of how their data was used, and this constituted a serious breach of GDPR.
  • Apple was fined €134.5 million by Italy’s competition regulator for unlawfully colluding with Amazon in the sale of its products.

This trend of huge fines will continue into 2022 and beyond as regulators across the globe are launching further investigations into Big Tech. The introduction of GDPR provided a strong framework for EU regulators to clamp down on poor practices with regards to personal data. With regards to competition laws, there is still much room for work. Tougher rules and regulation about how tech firms operate with regards to their competitors are inevitable.

In short: 2021 saw billions of dollars in fines levied against Big Tech in an attempt by regulators to curb their dominance and improve data handling practices. Regulators will only get tougher on Big Tech over the coming years.

6. Semiconductor Shortage 

The semiconductor chip shortage was a key hallmark of 2021 and brought challenges for many industries reliant on this important technology. Semiconductors are electronic microchips that power almost every modern electronic item. The shortage was largely caused by a surge in demand that occurred during the pandemic, where consumer demand for electronics rose rapidly. This left the globe facing a huge shortage of chips, affecting a number of industries.

In the UK, the shortage was predicted to wipe 100,000 cars off the UK’s total car production for the year. Car production in 2021 was only 14% higher than in 2020, despite car manufacturers closing their doors for months during lockdowns. Global car production is also estimated to have been slashed by nearly a million vehicles.The global industry is predicted to lose a staggering $110 billion (CNBC).

Smartphone makers were also hit by the shortage. Apple was forced to delay the launch of its latest iPhone and cut its production targets by 11% due to the shortage. Global smartphone sales sank by 6% in quarter 3 of 2021 due to the shortage (Canalys).

There is no quick solution to the semiconductor chip shortage. The only option is to ramp up supply but this requires billions of dollars in fresh investment. Analysts had hoped the shortage would be resolved by the end of 2021 but this did not happen. The semiconductor shortage is now widely expected to last until early 2023.

In short: The semiconductor shortage has hit manufacturers hard, with car makers suffering significantly. The shortage is here to stay, at least for the coming year. Waiting lists and short supplies of our favourite gadgets and consoles will be the norm for 2022 and possibly beyond.

7. Cost of Living

The end of 2021 was characterised by rising inflation. In the UK, inflation rose by 5.1% in November 2021 and there are no signs of it slowing. Soaring fuel and energy prices have been the primary causes of the increasing cost of living. In September, a shortage of HGV drivers saw some petrol stations run out of fuel. The government warned people not to panic, but panic is exactly what people did, leading to empty fuel pumps and limits on fuel purchases. This saw a steep increase in petrol prices. The main cause of inflation however, has been the increased cost of wholesale energy. Driven by a lack of global supply, the price of wholesale energy soared by 250% in 2021 alone. Retailers and other businesses have been forced to hike their prices as their own costs have increased. 

Energy firms have been bearing the brunt of the crisis. The energy price cap means that energy firms cannot pass all of these costs onto consumers. This brought about the collapse of over 25 energy firms. The government already increased the energy price cap in October but this was not enough for many firms to stay afloat. 

The pandemic has battered the finances of public services and the Treasury. Between April 2020 and 2021, the UK government borrowed £299 billion, the largest figure since records began. This borrowing helped fund crucial support packages such as the furlough scheme and bounce back loans. Borrowing is expected to be less for 2021/2022 but could still exceed £200 billion. The government has already announced new measures for the coming year to help balance the Treasury’s books. In 2022, council tax is set to rise, the energy price cap is expected to rise by 40% and National Insurance contributions will also go up by 1.25%. Consumers, brace yourself for an expensive year.

In short: Inflation rose rapidly due to rising fuel and energy costs and shows no signs of slowing down. Government borrowing is also at all time highs. Expect a significant hike in your tax and household bills in 2022.  

8. Cryptocurrency Acceptance

2021 was a ground-breaking year for the cryptocurrency space. One of the major developments was the market passing the $2 trillion for the first time. Bitcoin reached a record high $69,000. More importantly, however, the year saw a growing acceptance from the institutions that once scoffed at the entire premise of crypto. JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo and Bank of New York Mellon all entered the space by providing their clients with access to cryptocurrency funds or even setting up trading desks. Payments giant PayPal went a step further and now allows users to hold cryptocurrencies in their wallets. Similarly, Mastercard has said it will provide support for cryptocurrencies.

Tesla invested $1.5 billion in Bitcoin and began accepting payments in the cryptocurrency. El Salvador became the first sovereign nation to accept Bitcoin as legal tender.  As mentioned above, cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase went public and its stock price has been steady since the IPO. This is a strong indicator of market confidence in Coinbase and consequently, the future of cryptocurrencies. 

In short: 2021 was an important year for cryptocurrency markets. Cryptocurrencies are continuing their meteoric rise but rather than remaining a fringe market, cryptocurrencies are slowly making their way into the mainstream of financial markets. If cryptocurrencies can maintain some form of stability this trend will likely continue into 2022.  

9. NFTs

2021 will undoubtedly be remembered as the year Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) leaped into the mainstream. NFT are digital pieces of art which are stored on a blockchain. They can be images, videos and audio data and ownership of the data is stored on the secure blockchain ledger. At the start of the year, Christie’s sold the first NFT artwork “Everydays: the First 5,000 Days” by artist Beeple, for a huge $69 million. By the end of the year, the NFT market was worth a staggering $22 billion up from $100 million just a year earlier. 

People are using NFTs to monetize their fame in ways they previously could not. People who were the subject of internet memes have created NFTs of their viral images and videos and cashed in. The brothers featured in the popular “Charlie Bit Me” video from 2007 sold an NFT of their viral video for £538,000. The brothers, now 17 and 15, are using the money to pay for their university fees. Renowned film director Quentin Tarantino is launching “Pulp Fiction” NFTs to get in on the act. The market for NFTs is set to grow exponentially and 2021 will be considered the launch pad. Check out our article exploring NFTs in more detail.

In short: 2021 was the year of NFTs. There were a record number of NFT sales and an increasing number of celebrities and viral meme subjects cashed in on the nascent market. 

10. IP INCIDENTS

Finally, we look at some of the intellectual property legal battles that took place throughout the year. 

One of the most captivating legal disputes of 2021 was M&S’s claim against Aldi over its Cuthbert the Caterpillar cake. M&S claimed Aldi’s cake is too similar in design to their Colin the Caterpillar cake and lodged a complaint. This case was interesting, not solely because of the content but also Aldi’s response. Aldi’s official Twitter page began the hashtag “#FreeCuthbert”. The supermarket also tweeted “This is not just any court case, this is #Free Cuthbert”, mocking M&S’s slogan. M&S launched another IP lawsuit against Aldi over its Christmas gin.

At the start of the year, rapper Lil Nas X released so-called “Satan shoes”.  The trainers were modified Nike Air Max 97s but the rapper had not received endorsement or authorisation from Nike. The sportswear giant then launched a trademark infringement lawsuit and swiftly won the case.

Nike successfully beat Puma in a legal battle to trademark “footware”. Nike is seeking to trademark “footware” in connection with technological connectivity, electronic devices and other related products and services. In July, Puma withdrew its opposition in the US after 2 years of protest. 

Turkish chef and restaurateur, Nusret Gokce, commonly known as Salt Bae was slapped with a $5 million copyright infringement lawsuit. A US artist, Logan Hicks, claims Gokce used his artwork in his restaurants without permission.

In short: In 2021 we saw a number of significant IP infringement lawsuits involving well known brands. Many of these lawsuits will continue into 2022, watch this space for updates. #FreeCuthbert.