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.

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