Since the financial crisis, uncertainty in regulatory activity has been the sole constant factor. Dodd-Frank, resulting activity from agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and Federal Reserve, healthcare reform legislation, the JOBS Act, and now debates over the debt ceiling have kept those in the boardroom on their toes. Further, rarely have established economic indicators served as heralds of the market’s health—and this quarter proves no different. The metrics tell different stories: Executives think the economy is improving, but fewer mid-sized companies expect to increase capital spending. Consumer confidence fell nearly 10 points in March, but CEO confidence rose nearly 8 points in the first quarter. Similar to executives, directors are demonstrating optimism in the strength of the markets: the NACD Board Confidence Index (BCI) jumped almost 10 points in Q1 to an overall score of 61.
From one perspective, this improved confidence from both directors and executives may represent that business leaders have grown accustomed to the certainty of uncertainty. Despite insecurity caused by regulatory and geopolitical activity, the markets have shown slow but steady growth, which directors and executives seem more willing to bet on.
Looking at historical trends in director confidence, however, this first quarter jolt might not be much more than a blip. Consistently, the BCI score is most optimistic in the first quarter of the year. Throughout the rest of the year though, that optimism tends to dwindle and typically fails to reach that initial level. In 2011, Q1’s score of 64.9 lost more than one-quarter of its original value by Q3. In 2012, a similar trend occurred: the Q1 score of 60.6 dropped significantly, and each remaining quarter failed to regain such a level of confidence. In fact, in both 2011 and 2012 first quarter confidence was at least five points higher than the ensuing year’s average.
Interestingly, boardroom uncertainty may have manifested in a different metric—confidence in one’s own industry relative to the general economy. The first quarter of 2013 marks the first time that NACD’s BCI measure for overall board confidence in the market was substantially higher than the score for directors’ industries: 61 vs. 58, respectively. Since 2011, directors have scored their industry an average of 5.75 points higher than the overall index.
Although one could predict that this year will follow the observed trend of first quarter confidence dwindling through the rest of the year, several metrics show that boards may buck this trend. Setting it apart from prior first quarters, in Q1 2013, 36 percent more directors indicated their companies expected to expand their workforces in the next quarter. In comparison, those projecting to hire in Q1 2012 and Q1 2011 represented 14 percent and 16 percent declines from the previous quarters, respectively. Additionally, when asked about economic conditions in one year, directors responded with a relatively confident score of 65. The second quarter of 2013 will confirm whether this optimism is short or long term.
For nearly three years, the boardroom maintained a consistent response to a tumultuous marketplace. Whether it was following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, navigating an economic recovery unlike any other, or facing a debt crisis with global implications, reaction from directors seemed to stay the same. Year over year, NACD’s Annual Governance Surveys did not register significant upheavals in methods or structures used. Areas of high priority continue to be strategic planning and oversight, corporate performance and valuation, and risk oversight.
NACD’s Board Confidence Index (BCI), a measure of the boardroom’s attitude toward the state of the economy, told a similar story. Although the index would fluctuate by a few points from quarter to quarter, confidence remained in the slightly optimistic side of uncertain.
This changed last fall when the nation was forced to address the pending fiscal cliff. At November’s NACD Directorship 100 event, DuPont Chairman and CEO Ellen Kullman remarked that uncertainty over future regulatory activity and the general economy had led her company to reevaluate major investments for 2013. Uncertainty in the future of the economy and consumer demand also significantly impacted Coca-Cola’s decisions to make capital investments, according to presiding director James D. Robinson III.
Just a few weeks later, results from the fourth quarter BCI further demonstrated how the economy affected the boardroom. Although the overall index score remained on the positive side of uncertain (51.8), for the first time responding directors indicated outright pessimism in the state of the economy in the next three months. Directors also echoed the statements made at NACD Directorship 100: In preparation for 2013 nearly half (47%) had reassessed corporate strategy.
The need to focus on strategy was also confirmed at NACD’s recently held Master Class in Naples, Florida. Although sessions were designed to address the new and emerging risks entering the boardroom, discussions often returned to the importance of strategic planning in uncertain times. Both panelists and attendees agreed that directors need to keep a steady eye on the established strategic plans at hand.
This recommendation is not without caveat. With a maintained focus, directors should not relegate a discussion on strategy to an annual event. Instead, the established strategic plans should be woven into every board meeting and discussion. Furthermore, plans should be adjusted to incorporate flexibility from the boardroom. This includes shorter response times that are now necessary to address situations that could be presented by emerging methods of communication and rapidly changing technologies.
Companies kicked into gear at the end of 2012, acting to forestall the brunt of the potential fiscal cliff. More than 80 CEOs joined the Fix the Debt coalition. Others chose to accelerate dividend payouts in anticipation of a potential increase in dividend-tax rates from 15 percent to 40 percent. In the financial sector, directors reported their companies were most likely to increase cash reserves, according to results from the Q4 NACD Board Confidence Index (BCI), conducted in early December. Across all sectors, directors responded that their companies were reassessing corporate strategy to prepare for the coming year.
Uncertainty trumped optimism in the fourth quarter of 2012. And not without reason—a close presidential election coupled with the looming fiscal cliff and Congress’ inability to develop a solution left the nation waiting until the last minute. Conducted in the first weeks of December, NACD’s Q4 BCI score dropped nearly three points from 54.5 to 51.8. A score above 50 represents optimism regarding the current state of the economy. Scores near 50 mark uncertainty.
Attitude Shift in Future Outlook
The 51.8 score represents the second-lowest registered by the BCI—the lowest was 47.5 in Q3 2011. In its two-and-a-half-year history, scores have fluctuated between uncertainty and moderate optimism. These composite scores are generally the result of boardroom pessimism in the short-term state of the economy buoyed by an optimistic long-term view of economic progress—both progress made to date and to come.
In Q4, however, the outlook shifted to optimism in the boardroom’s retrospective view—current economic conditions versus those three months and one year ago—lifting pessimism in both the short- and long-term future states of the economy. Looking ahead to the state of the economy in three months, boardroom confidence dropped eight points—15 percent—to a gloomy 44, the lowest score to date.
Peer indices provided mixed sentiments in the fourth quarter. The Conference Board’s quarterly CEO Confidence Index posted a recovery of 4 points, moving from 42 in Q3 to 46 in Q4. However, a score of 46 still places the index in negative territory. Consumer indices moved in the opposite direction. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index dropped 6.4 points in December to 65.1. A similar measure, the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index fell nearly 10 points in December, from 82.7 to 72.9.