As the impact of Covid-19 on global trade continues to make itself felt, a split has emerged between companies who are thriving in the new normal, and those who are, at best, surviving day to day, according to new research by HSBC.

The annual HSBC Navigator survey, released this week, surveyed over 10,000 companies across 39 markets between September 11 and October 7, and found that although almost all businesses have been adversely affected by the pandemic, there are now indicators of a two-speed economic recovery spanning several years.

Around 53% of companies surveyed said that they are either more profitable than they were before the Covid-19 outbreak or expect to return to pre-Covid profitability by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, 28% and 11% of businesses expect it will take until the end of 2022 and of 2023 respectively just to claw back ground lost during the pandemic, while 6% are looking at 2024 or beyond.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a strong sectoral aspect to the figures, with optimism scarce in sectors such as automotive, where components manufacturers are particularly vulnerable and rely on upstream demand. On the other hand, pharmaceuticals businesses have a far cheerier outlook.

“Companies have proven remarkably resilient in weathering the turmoil brought by Covid-19,” says Barry O’Byrne, CEO of global commercial banking at HSBC. “They face the same storm, but they are not in the same boat. Different sectors face unique challenges, and we see this shaping decisions to invest, to embrace technology, and to target future growth. What they all recognise is that responsibility, resilience and reputation underpin long-term success. Getting this right is challenging, but the potential commercial and societal benefits are vast.”

The regional picture is less predictable. For example, in New Zealand, which has largely contained the virus, just 28% of businesses say they expected to return to pre-pandemic profitability this year or next, while in harder-hit Italy, that figure was far higher, at  43%.

Those companies who are able to harness digital have also done well, the figures show, which echoes a study carried out by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) last month. Just under a third of high-growth firms expect technology-driven efficiencies to be a key driver for their recovery, more so than businesses with lower or no growth. As a result, 88% plan to invest in digital tools and platforms next year, while a third have already innovated new products and services.

Meanwhile, sustainability remains important, despite more pressing financial concerns. The vast majority of companies surveyed (86%), from the optimists to the pessimists, think efforts to boost their sustainability performance will help increase sales. Three in four have set environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) targets, with the greatest focus on environmental and social goals (up 10 percentage points and 12 percentage points respectively from 2019).

Looking ahead, 63% of all businesses surveyed say they believe cross-border trade has become more difficult this year, and the proportion who expect their international trade prospects to be positive over the next few years has fallen to 72%, versus 81% in 2019. Meanwhile, 40% now say they are focusing on suppliers within their own region, due both to Covid-19 and the negative impacts of growing protectionism.

“Trade is constantly in a state of change,” Natalie Blyth, global head of trade and receivables finance at HSBC tells GTR. “There are periods where that pace of change accelerates, and we are in one.”