Category: The Value of Questions and Curiosity

Economics, Uncertainty, and the 2016 Election

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At a mainstage panel during NACD’s 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit on September 19, directors, economists, and former regulators discussed the potential regulatory, economic, and geopolitical implications of the coming election and reflected on how corporate directors and executive teams should adjust to greater levels of ambiguity. One of the panelists, Nicholas M. (Nick) Donofrio, director of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., BNY Mellon Corp., Delphi Automotive PLC, Liberty Mutual Co., the MITRE Corp., and NACD, and the former head of innovation at IBM, characterized today’s external environment as “lumpier and more abrupt than even a few years ago,” forcing companies and their boards to be always on alert and to act quickly in response to change.

NACD Summit Election Panel

The panelists offered a range of projections to help corporate directors assess the business impact of the upcoming elections. They emphasized that aside from a new occupant of the White House, the elections also have the potential to drive significant changes in Congress, major regulatory agencies, and the judicial system. The discussion centered on four major questions of importance for companies and the boards that oversee them.

  1. How likely is a major reform of the tax code?

Reform of the corporate tax code is long overdue, said former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe, director of Aetna, Inc. and the Bipartisan Policy Center. For years, companies have learned to accept the “permanent temporary tax code,” and the resulting policy uncertainty has made investment and capital allocation decisions more challenging. Snowe suggested that even if House and/or Senate control switches from one party to another, it is unlikely that Democratic and Republican congressional leaders will be able to transcend their fundamental differences about taxation and break the current gridlock. Most likely, she believes, the incoming president will use the power of the pen to tweak the current tax code through executive orders.

  1. Should we expect continued regulatory activism?

Troy A. Paredes, director of Electronifie and former Commissioner of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), shared his concern that “the tidal wave of regulations” seen in the past few years won’t slow down, and it will force companies to commit more time and resources to compliance. “Elections are always major inflection points,” he said, that either sustain or reset the policy priorities of the SEC and other key regulatory bodies such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, Paredes urged directors to be alert as to whether Mary Jo White, the current chair of the SEC, will have enough time in her remaining tenure to finish rule-making on key corporate governance matters covered in Dodd-Frank.

  1. Will our political system address skill shortages in the labor market?

Nick Donofrio offered a mixed view of how the country is addressing the looming crisis in the labor market where current skill sets do not align with the future industry needs. “Our political institutions are too polarized to take meaningful action,” he said. However, it’s crucial that the United States build a digitally competent and productive labor force that can be employed to deliver high-tech manufacturing. “We cannot afford to only create [financial] value in this country, but we must also [manufacture] value here. That means returning much more research and development and production to American soil.” In the absence of government investment, he’s optimistic that the private sector will step up to address this critical challenge and find innovative ways to reskill displaced workers.

  1. How will the United States make itself more competitive globally?

Harry Broadman, a seasoned economist and the CEO and managing partner of Proa Global Partners LLC, reminded the audience that the United States faced a similar set of challenges to its global competitiveness in the 1980s when Japan was projected to become the world’s economic leader. A major difference today may be the backlash against free trade, which could jeopardize the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threaten the underpinnings of the European Union. Broadman underlined that it will be critical for U.S. policymakers to remove barriers to foreign investments from high-growth emerging market companies that will contribute to quality job growth. This new generation of enterprises is important to the future of global business, which will no longer be dominated by firms headquartered in the West.

He and other panelists also spoke extensively about the importance of major investments in public infrastructure. America’s crumbling highways, bridges, ports, and technology infrastructure significantly impede further productivity growth, which Broadman believes is the country’s major Achilles’ heel.

The “Orbital” Governance Perspective: An Astronaut’s Lessons From Space

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Few institutions represent American ingenuity and innovation more clearly than its space program. With rapt attention, the world watched July 20, 1969, as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong of NASA’s Apollo 11 spacecraft became the first person to walk on the moon.

Ron Garan at NACD Summit

Ron Garan—retired astronaut and chief pilot for commercial space launch provider World View Enterprises Inc.—was one of those who watched. “My most vivid childhood memory was July 20, 1969,” Garan said. “On some level, I realized that we had just become a different species. A species no longer limited to our planet.”

Garan delivered the opening keynote address to an audience of more than 1,300 on Sunday evening in Washington, D.C., at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit, the world’s largest gathering for corporate directors.

Beyond Limitations

Four decades later, Garan’s childhood dream became reality. He had trained with NASA to become an astronaut himself. “That first day in space when I got to take a look at our planet, [I] was absolutely breathless.…What I felt was an incredible sense of gratitude. Being physically detached from the world made me feel closer to the people on it—more interconnected.”

Reflecting on his second space mission, Garan remembers similar feelings of gratitude, but that gratitude was coupled this time with internal struggle. The technological advances that make space flight not just possible but routine offer the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Yet, Garan pointed out, some people on this planet still do not have access to basic resources like clean water.

“These days we’re more connected than ever, and the Internet is the backbone,” said Garan.  “The Internet can be our nerve center, enabling us to solve problems in an entirely different way.”

Collaboration

Garan further explored that challenge in his third mission, when the seeds to a solution began to root. The answer? Collaboration. On this space mission, Garan was weightlessly floating about 100 feet over the International Space Station, attached to the craft’s large robotic arm. That station represents the collaborative innovation of 15 nations—including the United States, Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, and 11 European nations—that have, at times, been at odds with each other politically and ideologically.

“What would it look like for us to have that kind of collaboration here on the [Earth’s] surface?” Garan asked. “Collaboration doesn’t mean we agree on everything. What it does mean is that we find the things we do agree on so we have a platform to work [from in order] to address the things we don’t agree on.”

Risk: Necessary for Innovation

But innovation and collaboration don’t come without risk. As a highly decorated fighter pilot, Garan had run several missions and trainings in which he’d successfully flown and had no mechanical problems in flight. Then one day, while piloting a jet during a routine takeoff, he heard a loud pop that jolted him. He very quickly realized his engines no longer had any usable thrust. Garan tried to land in a wooded area and quickly realized that he had no need to be in the jet at that point. Seconds before impact, he ejected and his life was spared.

That incident, though life-threatening, did not change Garan’s outlook on life or risk. But the very next day, he was in flight and, because of a mechanical malfunction, had to conduct an emergency landing. After having completed thousands of flights, he’d had emergencies two days in a row. The second day is when the idea of what it means to take risks sunk in.

Before ever entering a plane or spacecraft, one must decide if doing so is worth the risk. The same is true for business leaders who want to innovate and collaborate. When NASA is planning a mission, they consider every possible issue that could go wrong and develop a response plan that’s ready and waiting to be activated. Boards should do the same. Similarly, a great idea on the shelf can only provide value if it’s activated. “Ideas are overrated. There’s got to be a streamlined path to action,” Garan shared.

“Any change involves some level of risk,” Garan said. “Any innovative business strategy must involve risk. Collaboration can help mitigate risk and also provide an engine for growth.”

Implications for Businesses

It’s important for businesses to understand that we don’t live on a globe; globes are just abstract lines on a map, Garan shared. We too often think of the world in terms of it being about business and economy supporting a society that sustains a planet, he said. “Instead, we live on a planet that sustains a society that has built an economy.” Understanding that concept is adopting what Garan calls an “orbital” view.

It’s time that enterprises realized that it’s good business to care about issues like sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR)—beyond just doing it to boost a brand or reputation, Garan shared. Issues like CSR should be part of a company’s DNA now, not just for future generations, he added.

The retired astronaut described how, on his last space mission, his spacecraft entered back into the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on its side. “Now out of my window, I saw a rock, a flower, and a blade of grass. I was home. In Kazakhstan, nonetheless,” he said. “I wasn’t in Houston, where my family was. But I was home and had a different idea of home.”

Thinking of the planet as “home” may be what’s required to actually make one small step for directors and one giant leap for corporate governance.

Oversight in an Uncertain World: What Can Directors Do Post-Brexit?

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This is the first of a three-part series looking at the global economy and uncertainty in 2016. In our next post, we will focus on geopolitics and its implications for business strategy and decision making.

The United Kingdom’s vote on June 23 to leave the European Union highlights the uncertainty and volatility that companies face this year. (See my “Why Brexit Really Matters” article in Forbes.) Indeed, the sharp fall in global equities and currency markets on June 24 accentuates the rude awakening. But should the investment and business communities have been surprised? Most polling in the run-up to the vote suggested the leave campaign could prevail. Companies are now scrambling to implement their contingency plans…or to create them. Currency shifts will be the most immediate shock to manage.

According to NACD members, the greatest concern they foresee in 2016 is the global economic slowdown and how this will affect their company. This issue outranks other concerns, such as the changing industry landscape or cybersecurity. When looking at the board’s activities, NACD members say that the most important area for improvement is the board’s ability to test management assumptions underlying corporate strategy.

The Brexit vote highlights the strategic challenges directors face in today’s volatile world: How can directors make sense of increasingly uncertain economic conditions and what can they do to pressure test the validity of management’s assumptions about future growth?

A slow-growth world

Companies are facing strong headwinds in a slow-growth world. In April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) downgraded its outlook for global growth this year to 3.2 percent—barring any system shocks. This is about the same rate as last year. The IMF downgraded the outlook for most major economies as well (see chart).

In June, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) fretted that the global economy is “stuck in a low-growth trap.” Shortly thereafter, the World Bank issued a more negative forecast, saying global growth would come in at only 2.4 percent this year, down substantially from the 2.9 percent pace it had projected just several months before.

Of significance, there are few positive country narratives. The United States is a relatively bright spot, with the IMF expecting 2.4 percent U.S. growth in 2016—the same as last year, but lower than the IMF had forecast in October 2015. The Business Roundtable recently downgraded their expectations for U.S. growth from 2.2 percent to 2.1 percent, based on concerns over impediments to trade and immigration. And, as most Americans feel, U.S. growth is neither robust nor equally enjoyed.

Europe looked like it might have been turning the corner: Business and consumer sentiment had improved, productivity had increased, and GDP growth strengthened significantly. But growth across the eurozone in 2016 is expected to come in at just 1.4–1.6 percent—barring a sustained Brexit shock.

Over the past decade or so, many companies have globalized and bet heavily on emerging markets (EMs)—sometimes dubbed “rapid growth markets.” This strategy could be easily justified by management when EM growth rates consistently outstripped those of the United States and Europe by five percentage points or more.

But these markets have been underperforming in recent years and their outlook has been consistently downgraded. This year, the World Bank expects emerging markets to grow by just 3.5 percent—about two percentage points below their average growth over the past decade.

Moreover, EM performance will continue to be uneven and uncertain thanks to poor governance—as exemplified by a massive corruption crisis that has gripped Brazil’s business and political communities. India continues to be a top performer at 7.5 percent growth, but the reform-oriented government there has made little headway tackling the myriad of bureaucratic impediments to investing and doing business there.

And while China is still doing relatively well—with its growth expected to be in the 6.5–7.0 percent range this year—this performance has come thanks to renewed stimulus and the expansion of debt, which raises more questions about the sustainability of China’s trajectory. At the same time, Western companies conducting business in China are facing increasing political and regulatory headwinds, not to mention a much more competitive business environment.

An uncertain outlook

Not only are we in a slow-growth world but we are also in an era of significant uncertainty about the future. The IMF in April described global economic activity as “increasingly fragile” and the World Bank warned in June that “the balance of risks to global growth forecasts has tilted further to the downside.”

Uncertainty is rooted in the fact that traditional cyclical drivers such as business capital investment and consumer spending seem to have lost their oomph. In short, in our chronically slow-growth world, businesses don’t want to invest and consumers don’t want to spend. Moreover, productivity, profits, wages, and trade growth are stagnant as well, and many economists believe that income inequality is exacerbating the slow-growth problem.

On top of this, the growing influence of geopolitical risks—the Brexit vote, the upcoming U.S. presidential election, refugee migration, and China—are adding new and hard-to-quantify variables to the outlook.

Given this context, the severe market volatility seen during the summer of 2015 and in January 2016 points to profound uncertainties about the future and to how easily perceptions and the markets can get shaken in our slow-growth world. A resurgence of sustained global market volatility triggered by the Brexit vote has the potential to derail global growth.

Pressure test management’s assumptions

In this uncertain and volatile world, directors should be testing management’s assumptions about growth—now and in the future.

Start by confirming the baseline: Does management’s view of macroeconomic growth for 2016 in the company’s key markets align with the market consensus?

Get your own perspective. As noted above, we rely on the views of multilateral organizations—such as the IMF, World Bank, and OECD—for a global perspective. Their economic outlooks are easily accessible and widely viewed as a reputable baseline around which to test assumptions.

The OECD has put together a handy one-page summary chart focused on advanced economies that a director can take to a board meeting as a reference. The World Bank has an easy-to-navigate website for exploring regional and country economic outlooks. Central banks also are a good source of country-level data.

Ask questions about management’s assumptions:

  • What data sources does management rely on?
  • Does management’s view differ materially from what others are saying?
  • What assumptions support a divergent outlook?
  • How does management account for political risks?

Next, test management’s view of the future. Economists have had to significantly downgrade their expectations of U.S. and global growth and the economic headwinds are not expected to diminish over the next several years.

  • Has management adjusted its growth projections downwards as well?
  • What is management’s two- to three-year view of China and other emerging markets?
  • Do the company’s plans reflect a slow-growth environment going forward?

Given widespread uncertainty and the risk of volatility, management should be able to present a range of alternative market scenarios.

  • Does management have an economic disruption scenario?
  • How has management sought to make the company more resilient to the uncertainty and volatility in the global market?

Many directors we have spoken with have highlighted the challenge of managing near-term foreign exchange risks.

  • What steps has the company taken to hedge against swings in key currencies?

If management says the company is going to significantly outperform its peers or the macro economy—especially in emerging markets—that is a yellow flag that should signal you to dig deeper and ask more questions.

NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit in September, themed around the issue of convergence, will have dedicated sessions on global economic and political disruption, featuring subject-matter experts and seasoned directors.