This is the second of a three-part series looking at the global economy and uncertainty in 2016. In our first post, we addressed the challenges of slow growth in developed and emerging markets. In our next post, we will focus on the outlook for 2017.
DJ Peterson, President, Longview Global Advisors
Businesses need supportive, stable political and legal institutions to prosper, yet the global landscape has become increasingly unstable as many once-implausible events have become realities.
Since the start of 2016, the United Kingdom has voted itself out of the European Union. The U.S. Republican Party is pulling itself apart over policy and personalities. In Europe, fences are replacing open borders and Jihadi terrorists are targeting festivals, shopping centers, churches, and other public gathering places. Investors pay to lend their money to governments even as debt risks mount.
In conversations, business leaders and directors repeatedly express surprise and concern at the turn of events. What’s fueling this instability? Are recent events indicative of a “new normal,” a brief detour, or a transition to a new equilibrium? And, as the end-of-year business strategy season approaches, what should corporate directors and executives focus on?
Each country has unique characteristics, but there are some important interdependencies. Four powerful, converging political forces are at play.
1. Slow growth is fueling political volatility
As noted in a previous post, global growth has been muted and uneven since the global financial crisis, prompting some economists to ask whether the world has entered a period of “secular stagnation.” Energy and commodities exporters such as Australia, Brazil, Russia, and countries in much of Africa have been particularly hard hit.
Economic hardship often leads to political volatility, but there is a larger political force at play today: A lack of policy consensus and latitude. To turn the situation around, global financial institutions have been calling on governments to undertake bold structural reforms and assertive stimulus measures such as investing in infrastructure. But thanks to large debt piles and continuing calls for austerity from fiscal hawks, big spending increases are not politically feasible in the U.S. and Europe. Emerging markets dependent on commodities exports have been forced into belt-tightening mode as well. The inability of governments to reignite growth has forced central bankers to step into the breech with extraordinary measures.
Policymakers struggle to reignite growth, people are disaffected, and the sum of this instability is the political uncertainty and volatility we are experiencing today.
2. Inequality is adding to political frustrations
Free market liberalism is predicated on creating economic opportunity, but the benefits have not been shared. In many countries, inequality has surged since the 1980s. More recently, quantitative easing, a response to slow growth, has lifted a few boats greatly. In the past, governments often played the role of an equalizer; now proximity to political power is seen as conferring huge economic benefits, creating the belief that “the system” is not fair.
Free trade could be a casualty of increasing inequality and diminished opportunity. The perception that the benefits of globalization accrue disproportionately to certain segments of the population while the losers are left to fend for themselves is pervasive. Anti-immigrant sentiment is another by-product of limited opportunity.
Animosity towards politically connected elites in authoritarian markets is kept in check by repression. Open societies may be more at risk to economic and political polarization. As we see with Brexit, the pushback against globalization, and with the rise of anti-immigrant pressures, middle-ground policy pragmatism—a hallmark of stable democracy—is losing credibility in a world of economic resentments.
3. Populists are exploiting the governance gap
The widespread belief that establishment elites are incapable of solving important problems has created a volatile atmosphere where disaffected voters are willing to take risks and throw wrenches.
Private sector entrepreneurs exploit gaps in the market and find new ways to satisfy needs. Political entrepreneurs do the same in the public sphere: They take advantage of volatility, peddle new solutions (often from both left and right), and break rules.
Dramatic, frustration-driven policy stances of political entrepreneurs make compelling platforms—such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug dealer campaign and French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant stance. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are political entrepreneurs too.
But that’s only half the story. In this context, calls for pragmatism and staying the course (“Vote Remain!”) from establishment figures sound tired, if not suspect.
4. Social media is catalyzing volatility
Thanks to social media, populists can peddle their ideas with greater ease than previously seen, without having to adhere to the agenda of establishment media and institutions. (The self-described Islamic State is the most extreme example.) Being provocative is essential to gaining visibility in today’s crowded media landscape and this imperative promotes extreme points of view and places pressures on policymakers to react—even though in representative democracies governments are designed to be deliberative and consensual.
Just as individuals may be overwhelmed by the pace and quality of information flows, so too can governing institutions that were built to be slowed by checks and balances. Few would say policymaking in the U.S. has improved over the past couple of decades thanks to better information. Nationalism, ethnocentrism, and religious animosities seem more powerful than ever.
What can corporate directors do?
Western multinationals can no longer take political stability for granted. In these volatile times, directors have an important role to play in asking the right questions and discerning material risks and opportunity in a time of uncertainty.
Integrate political and economic risk assessment into corporate strategy setting. The political forces outlined above are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future which suggests a number of scenarios. Slow growth and low interest rates are likely to persist. The U.S. presidential election is unlikely to fundamentally change the country’s political climate for the better—indeed, it could lead to more disaffection, polarization, and gridlock. Uncertainty will increase in Europe with Brexit negotiations and national elections in France and Germany in 2017. Boards should pressure test macro-assumptions from management about the external environment affecting strategy over the next 12-24 months. What are the most important moving variables and how will they affect growth prospects?
Look for pockets of opportunity. Volatility creates opportunities as well as risks. Good governance and sound policies are differentiators between countries poised to sustain relatively stronger economic performance, and those that will continue face serious challenges in volatile markets. Watch for improving and more agile governance in Brazil, Columbia, Argentina, India, and Myanmar.
Evaluate the firm’s societal commitments.Proactive companies are seeking to address today’s societal challenges rather than just defend themselves from risks. There is a business case for promoting more inclusive growth: Work by International Monetary Fund researchers has shown that, around the world, higher levels of income inequality are correlated with slower growth. Higher wages support increased consumer spending and broader prosperity. On the other hand, failing to address inequality and other societal ills risks lowers productivity, and leads to more regulation, taxation, and labor radicalization.
NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, themed around the issue of convergence, will have dedicated sessions on global economic and political disruption, featuring subject-matter experts and seasoned directors. Review the Summit agenda to attend Peterson and others’ sessions addressing global disruption.
At NACD’s Master Class this August, directors from companies like Boingo Wireless Inc., Colgate-Palmolive Co., Kimberly-Clark Corp., GameStop Corp., and the Royal Bank of Canada convened in Laguna Beach, California, for peer-to-peer discussions on strategy, risk, and leading through disruption. One common thread ran throughout the discussions: companies expend enormous resources and efforts to mitigate cyber, geopolitical, and other threats, but they have yet to allocate the same attention to technology disruption. Kelvin Westbrook— president and CEO of KRW Advisors LLC, and a director of Archer Daniels Midland Co., Stifel Financial Corp., and T-Mobile US Inc.—framed the issue this way for Master Class participants: “Companies can survive cyber data breaches, but many don’t survive innovative technology disruption. It’s a bigger deal that we need to address.”
A prosthetic hand created using low-cost 3-D printing technology was demonstrated at the 2015 Global Board Leaders’ Summit. Photo by Denny Henry.
This year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit puts technology and disruption front and center, with a variety of leading-edge speakers and sessions that focus on these themes. But more than just convening discussions, the director community get hands-on experience with emerging trends via Innovation Nation. This popular feature, launched at last year’s Summit, is back once again, featuring an even more robust cross-section of the trends, technologies, and innovations that are disrupting your businesses and shaping your world. This year’s exhibits include opportunities to immerse yourself in virtual reality, experience the sharing economy at work, and see the latest in drone technology up close. Here is a sampling of who will be on hand:
Dancing With the Start-Ups, a new feature modeled after the popular show Shark Tank, builds on popular sessions from past Summits that gave directors a chance to “Meet the Disruptors.” This fast-paced competition will feature 12 companies across three key industries—healthcare, financial services, and energy— to showcase the latest and greatest in emerging business. Both the competition and a booth showcasing the startup talent in Innovation Nation will offer Summit attendees the chance to meet the entrepreneurs who are hoping to be your next competitors in the marketplace. For those who can’t make the Sunday session, or who just want to get to know the companies a little better, swing by Innovation Nation to learn more about innovative new ways to diagnose malaria, the latest in solar energy technology, the intersection of market data with sustainability, and much more.
Dave Meadows is a self-described “lifelong ‘tinkerer’ and inventor”—inclinations that served him well in his former role as a senior research and development executive with Novartis International AG. Several years ago, Meadows set out to solve a problem that has plagued wine drinkers for nearly 9,000-years—adverse physical reactions, especially when drinking reds. Five years later, The Wand™ was born. This invention removes 95 percent of the histamines and sulfite preservatives from wine. The result—a whole legion of wine enthusiasts who had previously learned to avoid wine can once again partake without the fear of headaches and other adverse reactions. You can experience the power of The Wand™ firsthand and talk to Meadows about and his work in the areas of medical diagnostics, sports medicine, and consumer packaged goods.
Big data and analytics are driving the growth of nearly every business, from heavy hitters like General Electric and Alibaba to early stage start-ups and family farms. This new trend is poised to transform industries, power new business models, enable innovation, and create greater value. According to research from International Data Corporation, worldwide revenues for big data and analytics will grow to $187 billion by 2019—a 50 percent increase from revenues in 2014. But Powerlytics Inc. cofounder Kevin Sheetz cautions that, when it comes to data, big doesn’t mean better, and behind the hype are a number of critical questions boards should be asking to ensure their companies are taking full and smart advantage of this trend. Sheetz will be at the Summit to give directors real-time interaction with the company’s platform, which aggregates publicly available consumer and business financial data from sources like IRS tax returns, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
February 15, 2011 became a milestone in both game show and artificial intelligence (AI) history, as the IBM-designed super computer, Watson, bested previously undefeated players Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter to win Jeopardy! The Watson team has been hard at work in the intervening five years to use natural language processing and machine learning to make sense of large amounts of unstructured data. IBM developers will be available to demo this technology and answer questions about the intersection of AI and analytics.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is reshaping the business landscape in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is one of many organizations harnessing the IoT to save lives. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were more than six million police-reported crashes on U.S. roads in 2015. While the number of people surviving car accidents has increased significantly thanks to airbags, antilock brakes, and other technology, USDOT’s Connected Vehicles program aims to stop many of those crashes from happening in the first place. This unique partnership between state and local transportation agencies, vehicle and device makers, and the public, aims to test and evaluate technology that will enable motor vehicles, roads and other infrastructure, and devices to “talk” to one another so every vehicle on the road is aware of the position of other nearby vehicles. Chris Gerdes, USDOT’s chief innovation officer, will discuss the program Monday on the main stage. Swing by the Innovation Nation to check out this technology, learn more about how you can bring the program to your home city, and get inspiration for how the IoT might just help your own business survive and thrive.
These are just a few snapshots of the incredible line-up of thought leaders and emerging technology at next month’s Summit. Want to learn more? View the full list of speakers and sessions at NACDonline.org/summit.
One of my favorite comments from an attendee at last year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit went something like this: “I was expecting to be informed; I wasn’t expecting to be inspired.” For a team that works year-round scouring the globe to discover and deliver to you voices that are shaping the future, that’s about as good as it gets.
This year’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit is on track to be our biggest ever, and one big feature of the Summit remains the same: a diverse array of thought leaders will share paradigm-shifting insights that will challenge the way you think about leadership, give you new tools to approach your directorship practice, and perhaps inspire you in surprising ways.
Here’s a sampling of some of the most exciting sessions at Summit this year:
Michelle Crosby’s start-up Wevorce is not only shaking up Silicon Valley, it’s turning the historic, antagonistic model of divorce on its head. The company’s mission is to “help couples ensure their divorce is less damaging to themselves, their finances, and the people they love.” Crosby was named one of the American Bar Association’s Legal Rebels in 2014, a distinction reserved for “lawyers who are breaking new ground using technology.” “Every institution is subject to change, and the more entrepreneurs who learn to work in the system to create that change, the further we’re going to get,” Crosby said in an interview with USA Today. In an intimate fireside chat, Crosby will discuss innovation, entrepreneurship, disruption, and how the company applies the Wevorce model to talent management inside the company.
Howard Ross, one of the most highly rated thought leaders at last year’s Summit, is back again to share insights from his groundbreaking work on unconscious bias, diversity, leadership, and organizational change. The question directors should ask themselves, says Ross, is not “Is there bias?” Rather, directors should ask one another, “What biases do we have that keep us from making choices counter to the values that we say we believe in?” Ross will open the Diversity Symposium on Saturday and will lead an in-depth workshop on Monday focusing on board dynamics.
The United Nations estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may face fresh water shortages, a critical concern for business and society. Whitewater rafting guide turned CEO Pat Crowley is betting that the solution to that crisis might literally be in our backyards. Crowley’s passion for the outdoors led him to work as a water resource planner, which drew his curiosity to crickets, of all things. “I heard about insects as a more environmentally friendly form of nutrition. From a water perspective, it was clearly a game-changer,” he said. Crowley founded Chapul, a company that makes cricket-based energy bars, in 2012, “to leap over this psychological hurdle of eating insects in the United States.” With explosive growth— 500 percent annually for the past two years alone—Crowley is on track to break through those barriers. On the summit mainstage on Monday, Crowley will discuss what it means to be part of building a new industry that is challenging societal norms, reshaping the competitive landscape, and may just help save the planet.
Phil Gilbert has been working with start-ups for the past 30 years, the most recent of which was acquired by IBM in 2010. Now Gilbert leads IBM’s design team with a focus on an empathy-centered workforce. Bringing a start-up mentality to 100-year-old company can be a challenge and almost immediately Gilbert was forced to confront a disconcerting question: “Is the entire way we’re working an anachronism?” Embracing that hard truth has been nothing short of transformational. Gilbert comes to the Summit mainstage to discuss lessons learned in this transformation. “We’re at an interesting crossroads in business. I think the way business is done and businesses work inside themselves has got to fundamentally change in the twenty-first century,” he said.
As managing director of famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, Scott Kupor has been part of building brands like Airbnb, Buzzfeed, Facebook, Foursquare, Lyft, Pinterest, and Skype—companies that have become synonymous with disruption. “Things that are fringe today might become mainstream over time,” Kupor explained on Fox News back in June, describing the philosophy that underpins Andreessen Horowitz’s approach to finding the next disruptive trend. In a mainstage fireside chat Tuesday, Kupor will discuss this philosophy in context with everything from M&A activity and shareholder activism, to IPO trends and the next big innovations he sees poised to disrupt the business landscape.
When Chelsea Grayson took on the role of general counsel at American Apparel, she faced a daunting task: to help turn around a company that was operating in an increasingly competitive industry and was coming off of a tumultuous series of events, including high-profile sexual harassment allegations, layoffs, bankruptcy, and protests. In February, Grayson told the legal blog Above the Law, “I have been in-house for over a year now, and I have encountered just about every legal issue a general counsel might experience in an entire career.” Next month, Grayson will share her insights on governing complexity, a subject she has become adept at navigating during her tenure at American Apparel.
These are just a few snapshots of the incredible line-up of thought leaders who will join us in September. Want to learn more? View the full list of speakers and sessions at www.NACDonline.org/summit.