The Lowdown Hub

Prospering in the pandemic: winners and losers of the Covid era


How large companies fared in the two years since the virus emerged


Two years after the emergence of Covid-19, a jarring disconnect has emerged between the human toll and the record valuations of many large companies. Silicon Valley dominates our list of companies whose market value grew the most in dollar terms since January 1 2020, headed by Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft. But non-tech companies were winners too: consultants Accenture, diagnostics specialist Thermo Fisher and retailer Home Depot all made the top 20. Nor is it purely a US list, with companies such as Canada’s Shopify and France’s LVMH included.


Although China is represented — by battery maker CATL and spirits producer Kweichow Moutai — many of the country’s big companies had a rough ride in 2021, as they faced increasing regulatory pressure. Alibaba heads our list of biggest pandemic losers, which also includes battered property developer Evergrande.


We also highlight companies, such as Zoom Video and Peloton, that faded after an initial rush of excitement about their prospects.


Finally come the bouncers, including energy groups such as Gazprom and banks such as BNP Paribas, which endured sharp sell-offs but recovered strongly. Tom Braithwaite


1. Apple

SECTOR: TECHNOLOGY HARDWARE / HQ: CUPERTINO, US


123% change in market value $2.9tn end-2021 market value Apple’s stock ended 2021 close to a record — not just for the company but for any company, ever. Despite facing supply chain challenges and its stores closing worldwide, the iPhone maker is on the cusp of a $3tn market value, almost triple its pandemic low in March 2020. Employees working from home are spending less on travel and restaurants but upgrading their iStuff. Meanwhile, Apple is fattening its margins with an ever increasing array of services. Patrick McGee in San Francisco


2. Microsoft

SECTOR: SOFTWARE / HQ: REDMOND, US


110% change in market value $2.5tn end-2021 market value With the pandemic accelerating the shift to cloud computing, Microsoft is firing on all cylinders — and it has more cylinders than most. Its Azure cloud platform and Office 365 tools have been a mainstay. But Microsoft has a finger in many digital pies, including the hiring market (LinkedIn), business applications (Dynamics) and gaming (Xbox). Growth is above 20 per cent for the first time in a decade. Richard Waters in San Francisco


3. Alphabet

SECTOR: INTERNET / HQ: MOUNTAIN VIEW, US


108% change in market value $1.9tn end-2021 market value Google’s parent went into the pandemic as a powerful advertising company. It is coming out of it as one of the main engines of a booming digital economy. Retailers’ much greater reliance on digital sales has fed its search and YouTube advertising, while its cloud computing division is finally justifying its billing as a third player in the market behind Amazon and Microsoft. Late in the year, growth jumped to an extraordinary 40 per cent. Regulators are circling but Wall Street sees no immediate threat. Richard Waters


4. Tesla

SECTOR: AUTOMOTIVE / HQ: AUSTIN, US


1311% change in market value $1.1tn end-2021 market value The electric car pioneer became the first $1tn automaker and made its co-founder and chief executive the richest man in the world. To many, the stock price seems absurd, but even looking five years out, it’s unlikely any of its much larger rivals will outpace Tesla in producing electric vehicles — and those are the only vehicles investors care about at the moment. Patrick McGee


5. Amazon

SECTOR: ECOMMERCE / HQ: SEATTLE, US


85% change in market value $1.7tn end-2021 market value With Jeff Bezos busy blasting himself to space, new chief Andy Jassy took over in July. Since then, the costs of doing business during Covid-19 have throttled growth and profits, with billions spent on keeping Amazon’s reputation for fast delivery intact. The company’s stock underperformed compared with most big tech groups but analysts are optimistic. Staffing costs should drop in 2022, while the company’s emerging advertising business is shaping up as a bona fide challenger to the Google and Facebook duopoly. Dave Lee in San Francisco


6. Nvidia

SECTOR: SEMICONDUCTORS / HQ: SANTA CLARA, US


411% change in market value $735bn end-2021 market value No other chip company has ridden the pandemic wave as well as Nvidia. Its graphics chips have become the main workhorse behind artificial intelligence and other data-intensive applications that are fuelling the rise of giant cloud datacentres. The high-end gaming market and a useful sideline in selling chips to cryptominers have been a bonus. Its next target: the metaverse, where it is building a platform for other companies that want to reach their customers in new virtual worlds. Richard Waters


7. Meta Platforms

SECTOR: INTERNET / HQ: MENLO PARK, US


60% change in market value $936bn end-2021 market value It has been a bruising year for Meta (formerly Facebook), battered by accusations that its poor moderation contributed to January’s Capitol riots, whistleblower allegations that it prioritises profits over safety and new regulatory investigations. Nevertheless, its share price has weathered the reputational hits, reaching a record $1tn for the first time in June. Its resilience is testimony to the booming digital advertising market. It is now in a headlong dash to build its version of the metaverse. Hannah Murphy in San Francisco


8. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company

SECTOR: SEMICONDUCTORS / HQ: HSINCHU, TAIWAN


100% change in market value $575bn end-2021 market value The world’s largest manufacturer of made-to-order chips has not only been boosted by a leap in demand for electronics gadgets during the pandemic. It also expects to keep growing faster until 2025 as 5G and AI further push the use of semiconductors in everything from factories to cars to homes. TSMC is ratcheting up investment in new plants from an average 30 per cent of revenue to more than 40 per cent. The goal is to widen the lead it has over competitors such as Samsung and Intel. Kathrin Hille in Taipei


9. ASML

SECTOR: SEMICONDUCTOR EQUIPMENT / HQ: VELDHOVEN, NETHERLANDS


164% change in market value $327bn end-2021 market value Of the many businesses claiming to be “the most important tech company you have never heard of”, Dutch machine-maker ASML has perhaps the best case. A Philips spinout, it is the leading manufacturer of the enormous lithography systems used by virtually all chip producers, including Taiwan’s TSMC. The rush to expand semiconductor manufacturing capacity helped ASML sell a record number of its most advanced machines this year, boosting profits more than 60 per cent in its most recent quarter. Joe Miller in Frankfurt


10. The Home Depot

SECTOR: RETAIL / HQ: ATLANTA, US


82% change in market value $433bn end-2021 market value Consumers have spent more time at home than usual during the pandemic, prompting them to spruce up their living spaces with everything from a fresh coat of paint to new backyard furniture. The do-it-yourself frenzy has been a boon to Home Depot, the largest US home-improvement retailer. It has also benefited this year from an increase in sales to professional contractors and builders, while rising property prices have encouraged Americans to invest in bigger home renovations. Matthew Rocco in New York


11. UnitedHealth

SECTOR: HEALTHCARE / HQ: MINNETONKA, US


70% change in market value $473bn end-2021 market value America’s biggest health insurer has benefited from an uplift in healthcare spending and increased collaboration between its insurance and services divisions. It has added 2m health insurance customers since the end of 2020 and now has 50m customers. Its services arm, Optum, is growing fastest. accounting for more than half of group revenues. It owns a pharmacy benefit manager, surgical hospitals and other healthcare businesses. Jamie Smyth in New York


12. Kweichow Moutai

SECTOR: BEVERAGES/ HQ: ZUNYI, CHINA


90% change in market value $405bn end-2021 market value State-backed Kweichow Moutai, the premium Chinese liquor maker, posted revenue growth of just 11 per cent in the first nine months. But the growth figure has never been the focus for Chinese stock pickers, who instead prize the company’s 90 per cent gross profit margins and Moutai’s place on the table at almost every business meeting and upper-class function. Its shares have been a sure bet for the past decade and do not look as though they will lose their shine any time soon. Ryan McMorrow in Beijing


13. LVMH

SECTOR: LUXURY GOODS/ HQ: PARIS, FRANCE


79% change in market value $417bn end-2021 market value When Covid arrived, investors feared luxury conglomerate LVMH would be hard hit given its heavy reliance on affluent Chinese tourists taking shopping pilgrimages to Paris and Milan. Instead, the sector’s undisputed leader has gone from strength to strength. Consumers not only in China but also in the US kept buying despite the pandemic. Plus, when stores were closed, LVMH overcame its traditional wariness about ecommerce to turbocharge its online sales. Analysts expect its sales to be 15 per cent higher than 2019 this year, reaching roughly €61bn. Leila Abboud in Paris


14. Contemporary Amperex Technology Co Ltd

SECTOR: BATTERIES / HQ: NINGDE, CHINA


539% change in market value $216bn end-2021 market value China’s dominant maker of batteries for electric vehicles has boomed thanks to growing sales to global customers such as Tesla, Daimler and BMW and the country’s homegrown electric vehicle manufacturers. Hefty support from Beijing continues to boost electric vehicle sales in the world’s largest auto market and, with few competitors able to match its output, CATL has both pumped out more batteries and raised prices. It is working on a million-mile battery. Ryan McMorrow


15. Broadcom

SECTOR: SEMICONDUCTORS / HQ: SAN JOSE, US


119% change in market value $275bn end-2021 market value Exposure to a wide range of chip markets — particularly smartphones, broadband and wireless networking — left Broadcom well placed for the network investment boom that has accompanied the growing reliance on digital services. Wall Street also grew more confident that the chip industry’s most acquisitive company would take a back seat on deals for a while, and instead reward shareholders with higher dividends and share buybacks. Richard Waters


16. Thermo Fisher

SECTOR: LIFE SCIENCES TOOLS / HQ: WALTHAM, US


102% change in market value $263bn end-2021 market value The scientific equipment maker enjoyed a $7bn revenue boost during the first three quarters of 2021 from the supply of pandemic-related products such as Covid tests and raw materials used in vaccines. It also expanded through mergers and acquisitions, closing a $17.4bn deal to acquire clinical research company PPD in December. It upgraded its 2022 sales and earnings forecasts in October and expects to generate $37.1bn in revenues next year, up 15 per cent on 2020. Jamie Smyth


17. Accenture

SECTOR: PROFESSIONAL SERVICES / HQ: NEW YORK, US


96% change in market value $262bn end-2021 market value The pandemic has forced companies to accelerate plans to operate digitally. Accenture and other technology consultants have gained mightily from the flurry of clients spending on digital transformations, cloud computing and cyber security. The consultancy reported record revenues of $50.5bn in the year to August 31. Sales continued to rise in the three months to November 30, new bookings hit record levels and Accenture added 50,000 people to its workforce to meet demand. Michael O’Dwyer in London


18. Shopify

SECTOR: ECOMMERCE / HQ: OTTAWA, CANADA


275% change in market value $173bn end-2021 market value Shopify had its first ever $1bn revenue quarter in July, with the Canadian ecommerce company’s chief financial officer telling analysts that online habits formed during 2020 would endure. While growth slowed in 2021 compared with that breakout first pandemic year, analysts see the company as being in prime position as a facilitator of “omnichannel” retail, a blend of online and in-store shopping. There are also high hopes for the company’s Shop app and its potential as a marketplace and advertising hub. Dave Lee


19. Netflix

SECTOR: MEDIA / HQ: LOS GATOS, US


88% change in market value $267bn end-2021 market value With people across the world staying at home during lockdowns, Netflix added a record 36m subscribers in 2020. That pace slowed in 2021 as some countries went back to more normal routines. But Netflix’s stock surged again this autumn thanks to a flood of fresh content, including its biggest hit ever: Squid Game. The South Korean drama series was viewed by 142m households across the globe, giving investors renewed confidence that Netflix can produce a smash hit. Anna Nicolaou in New York


20. Danaher

SECTOR: LIFE SCIENCES TOOLS / HQ: WASHINGTON, US


113% change in market value $235bn end-2021 market value Danaher has a structure that fell further out of fashion in 2021: it is a conglomerate. But this constellation of 20 companies is not breaking up. Executives credit its rather cultish “Danaher Business System” (Motto 3: “Kaizen is our Way of Life”) for uniting the group and driving superior performance. Covid and the desire for cleaner, safer environments have been boons. Danaher provides ingredients for vaccines and antibody therapies; virus tests; and tools used in food manufacturing and water purification. Tom Braithwaite


1. Alibaba

SECTOR: ECOMMERCE / HQ: HANGZHOU, CHINA


-43% change in market value $322bn end-2021 market value Jack Ma’s ecommerce group has been buffeted by one challenge after another this year. Ma went missing. Alibaba was hit with a record fine for antitrust abuses. Chinese authorities stepped up their campaign to dismantle its fintech arm Ant Group after cancelling its blockbuster initial public offering. Rivals including Pinduoduo, JD.com and ByteDance’s Douyin have stolen away shoppers and its cloud unit lost marquee international customer TikTok. As the largest Chinese company listed in New York, its future is doubly uncertain. Ryan McMorrow


2. AT&T

SECTOR: TELECOMS / HQ: DALLAS, US


-38% change in market value $176bn end-2021 market value With the announcement that it would spin off WarnerMedia and merge it with rival Discovery, AT&T conceded defeat on its high stakes Hollywood gamble. Slashing the dividend by almost 50 per cent sent its stock sinking. While exiting its costly media foray is welcomed by investors, the damage will take longer to undo. AT&T’s $80bn acquisition of Warner left the company saddled in debt, restricting its ability to invest in its core business: telecoms. Anna Nicolaou


3. Ping An

SECTOR: INSURANCE / HQ: SHENZHEN, CHINA


-41% change in market value $138bn end-2021 market value The Chinese insurance group reported its first annual fall in net profits for more than a decade in 2020. Despite a rebound in profits in the first quarter of this year, it suffered from its exposure to indebted developer China Fortune Land Development, which defaulted on $530m of dollar-denominated debt in March. The group’s share price was later affected by the crisis surrounding real estate developer China Evergrande and fears of contagion to the wider Chinese economy. William Langley in Hong Kong


4. Royal Dutch Shell

SECTOR: OIL AND GAS / HQ: THE HAGUE, NETHERLANDS


-32% change in market value $157bn end-2021 market value The Anglo-Dutch supermajor has struggled to fully recover from a devastating 2020 when Covid restrictions crushed crude demand, sending its shares to lows not seen since the 1990s. Oil prices have rebounded and with them profits, dividends and buybacks. But green headwinds have become stronger and a new strategy for the energy transition is yet to convince investors. With an activist shareholder pushing for a break-up, a Dutch court ruling to comply with and a possible leadership transition to manage, the months ahead will be challenging. Tom Wilson in London


5. The Boeing Company

SECTOR: AEROSPACE / HQ: CHICAGO, US


-35% change in market value $118bn end-2021 market value Last year Boeing was still struggling from the fallout of two fatal crashes of the 737 Max when the pandemic crushed customers’ demand for aircraft. With governments restricting travel, airlines slashed flying schedules, parked jets and deferred orders for new ones. The aerospace manufacturer has also been hampered by production problems with the 787 Dreamliner that have prevented it from delivering the wide-body for most of the last year. Claire Bushey in Chicago


6. Anheuser-Busch InBev

SECTOR: BREWERS / HQ: LEUVEN, BELGIUM


-36% change in market value $103bn end-2021 market value The pandemic took the fizz out of drinks sales as lockdowns cut sharply into high-margin revenue at bars and restaurants. Shares in the world’s largest brewer suffered more than rivals Carlsberg and Heineken after it scrapped its interim dividend two years running and reduced its full-year payout. Investors have been worried about the group’s $83bn debt pile dating from its 2016 acquisition of SABMiller. But third-quarter sales surged past pre-pandemic levels and new chief executive Michel Doukeris has pledged a renewed focus on consumers. Judith Evans in London


7. Citigroup

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: NEW YORK, US


-31% change in market value $120bn end-2021 market value In her first earnings call as chief in April, Jane Fraser announced Citigroup was putting most of its Asia consumer business up for sale — which investors took as a sign it was applying a new sense of urgency to closing its longstanding profitability gap with megabank peers. But progress is slower than many would like. So far, the bank has only successfully exited three out of the 13 markets it highlighted and has booked more than $2bn in losses throughout the process. Imani Moise in New York


8. Intel

SECTOR: SEMICONDUCTORS / HQ: SANTA CLARA, US


-20% change in market value $209bn end-2021 market value Most chip companies have thrived as the pandemic stoked demand for all things digital. Not Intel. The arrival of a new chief raised hopes that the once impregnable semiconductor company would get back to competing with TSMC at the leading edge of advanced chip manufacturing. But with the chip industry’s long investment cycles, and with AMD eating into Intel’s PC and server markets, all investors can see ahead is heavier spending, with no recovery yet in sight. Richard Waters


9. China Mobile

SECTOR: TELECOMS / HQ: BEIJING, CHINA


-29% change in market value $123bn end-2021 market value US sanctions rolled out in 2020 by then US president Donald Trump against companies deemed to have links to the Chinese military hit China Mobile hard. The company’s share price jumped in January after the New York Stock Exchange backtracked twice on plans to delist the company to comply with the sanctions, leading to an appeal from China Mobile and two other telecoms companies. But they tumbled again when the appeal was rejected in May. William Langley


10. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: BEIJING, CHINA


-17% change in market value $245bn end-2021 market value The bank, one of China’s largest, had a better year in 2021 than it did in 2020. However, the role played by state lenders in supporting the Chinese economy in the early days of the pandemic, followed by exposure to failing distressed debt investor Huarong and China’s property sector dragged down their share prices. The string of difficulties took the shine off its proposed joint wealth management company with Goldman Sachs Asset Management, which won Chinese regulatory approval in May. William Langley


11. Itaú

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: SAO PAULO, BRAZIL


-58% change in market value $35bn end-2021 market value Brazilian banks profit even in bad times, so goes the saying — and Itaú was never an exception. At the height of the pandemic last year, Brazil’s largest lender reported R$19bn ($3.3bn) net profit. But the pandemic also accelerated structural changes that now threaten the longstanding dominance of traditional lenders. More and more customers are switching to fintechs or neobanks, such as Nubank, which offer much easier access to digital products and services. For banking analysts, the “age of competition” has finally arrived in Brazil. Bryan Harris in São Paulo


12. China Construction Bank

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: BEIJING, CHINA


-19% change in market value $175bn end-2021 market value Chinese banks were enlisted to help extend cheap loans to struggling businesses during the early days of the pandemic, hitting their profits in 2020. Shares in China Construction Bank, like many other domestic rivals, were later hit by concerns over the health of the country’s banking sector after Huarong, the country’s largest distressed debt investor, delayed the release of its financial results in April. This led to fears that Beijing would allow a large state-backed institution to default. William Langley


13. Banco Bradesco

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: SAO PAULO, BRAZIL


-56% change in market value $31bn end-2021 market value Like rival Itaú, Banco Bradesco’s performance was solid during the height of the pandemic, with the lender reporting R$16.5bn ($2.9bn) in net profits in 2020. But also like Itaú, the group has a new breed of digital banks snapping at its heels. Bradesco is considered particularly susceptible because its technology has often lagged that of its main competitors. Rising default rates and historically low interest rates in the first half of the year also hurt the bottom lines of Brazilian banks. Bryan Harris


14. BP

SECTOR: OIL AND GAS / HQ: LONDON, UK


-30% change in market value $88bn end-2021 market value Chief executive Bernard Looney, who took the helm at BP just as the world was shutting down in February 2020, has had a bruising pandemic. First, the oil price collapsed. Then, days after outlining plans to invest heavily in clean energy, the stock fell to a 25-year low. Earnings rebounded this year thanks to rising commodity prices, but exclusion from the COP26 climate summit showed that neither politicians nor investors are quite ready to back Looney’s green vision for BP’s future. Tom Wilson


15. Merck

SECTOR: PHARMA / HQ: KENILWORTH, US


-16% change in market value $194bn end-2021 market value Merck faces a growth challenge because of the loss of exclusivity on its multibillion-dollar cancer drug Keytruda towards the end of the decade. It also lost the race to develop a Covid vaccine, and its much-touted antiviral treatment, molnupiravir, has failed to live up to its early promise. The company is chasing mergers and acquisitions to overcome the looming Keytruda patent cliff, and in November spent $11.5bn on Acceleron Pharma, a biotech company that develops therapies for rare disease. More deals are likely in 2022. Jamie Smyth


16. HSBC

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: LONDON, UK


-23% change in market value $122bn end-2021 market value HSBC executives are fond of the quip that it is “the biggest international bank in China, as well as the most international Chinese bank”. Unfortunately, it has not been a good time to be either. HSBC’s shares have plunged since the start of 2020 as it has struggled to navigate US-China geopolitical tensions, Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong and questions over London’s future post-Brexit. Its $3tn balance sheet has also suffered disproportionately from years of ultra-low global interest rates. Stephen Morris in London


17. Wells Fargo

SECTOR: BANKS / HQ: SAN FRANCISCO, US


-16% change in market value $191bn end-2021 market value Wells Fargo hoped for a fresh start after years of scandals when it appointed Charlie Scharf as chief executive in late 2019, but turnround efforts took a back seat once the pandemic hit. Now, Wells looks poised to bounce back. Although Scharf’s strategy of cutting costs and investing in areas where the third-largest US bank punches below its weight is hardly novel, his blunt commentary about Wells’ shortcomings gives credibility to its comeback story. Imani Moise


18. ExxonMobil

SECTOR: OIL AND GAS / HQ: IRVING, US


-12% change in market value $259bn end-2021 market value The 2020 pandemic-induced oil crash exposed huge problems at heavily indebted ExxonMobil, the US’s biggest oil company, which by the end of the year had recorded its first annual loss, slashed planned spending and been ditched from the Dow index. In 2021, activist hedge fund Engine No 1 defeated Exxon’s management in a proxy shareholder war, installing three board directors with a mission to revamp the supermajor’s energy transition strategy. Exxon announced several low-carbon initiatives. Its shares regained value as oil prices recovered. Derek Brower in New York


19. Verizon Communications

SECTOR: TELECOMS / HQ: NEW YORK, US


-14% change in market value $218bn end-2021 market value The US telecoms sector has been in a price war for several years. In 2021, AT&T upped the ante with its “free phones for all” campaign, offering discounts even for existing customers, forcing rival Verizon to broaden its own offers. For decades, the group has held the best network in the US. But rival T-Mobile is increasingly viewed as offering superior 5G, further undercutting investor sentiment. Anna Nicolaou


20. China Evergrande Group

SECTOR: PROPERTY / HQ: SHENZHEN, CHINA


-93% change in market value $3bn end-2021 market value Some companies default suddenly. Others prefer to do it gradually. In August, the world’s most indebted real estate developer, China Evergrande, warned about stalled projects. But no official confirmation came in September, when angry retail investors descended on its headquarters and the group failed to pay international bondholders. No confirmation came in November, when Chinese high-yield bond markets endured their worst period since the financial crisis. At last, in December, rating agency Fitch declared a default. Evergrande declined to comment. Thomas Hale in Hong Kong


1. China Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group

SECTOR: AUTOMOTIVE / HQ: GUANGZHOU, CHINA


+$78bn Jan 1 2020 to peak -94% decline from peak Shares in Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group took off at the start of 2021 after tycoons in the territory bought into a share placement, taking its market valuation to $63bn, eclipsing that of Ford without selling a single vehicle. The shares have since collapsed and the company, now worth just $4bn, is being closely watched by international investors in its indebted parent who believe they may have recourse to it as part of a restructuring process. Thomas Hale


2. Alibaba Health Information Technology

SECTOR: HEALTHCARE / HQ: HONG KONG


+$38bn Jan 1 2020 to peak -78% decline from peak The fortunes of Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba’s healthcare arm have slid this year alongside those of its parent, as the group’s founder J