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At Roundtable, Directors React to Trump Election

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While President-elect Donald Trump worked last week with his transition team from the Trump Tower, directors met just blocks away at the Harvard Club of New York City, to address how in the aftermath of his election boards should begin preparing for what could be sweeping regulatory, tax, and social change.

(Left to right) Robert Klatell, Steven Kreit, and Laurie Shahon

(Left to right) Robert Klatell, Steven Kreit, and Laurie Shahon

Leading the discussion were EisnerAmper’s Chief Risk Officer Peter Bible and Steven Kreit, an audit partner with the firm. While the directors disagreed on the order and priority of policy changes, there was consensus around one point: Uncertainty will rule. Bible and Kreit suggested directors focus on in the near term and shared recommendations directors might take to remain agile in the face of politically driven risks.

How can a director prepare? Boards must engage deeply in strategy in the coming months. Anthony Buonaguro, president of the New Jersey NACD chapter and director of Enclave Homeowners Association, ignited a debate on whether or not boards will develop investment strategies focused on continued investment abroad.

Anthony Buonaguro

Anthony Buonaguro

“It resonated with me that we’re facing several years of uncertainty,” Buonaguro said. “Is this going to make boards more conservative? Usually there are two ways that people handle uncertainty: forge ahead as usual, or freeze. If it’s the latter, it’s not good for the economy or stocks. What are boards supposed to do to revamp strategy?” Kreit answered: “You have to put pen to paper and identify scenarios, then plan for them. Will you hit the scenario that happens? Possibly—or not. But if boards don’t strategize, they’re not going to get anywhere.”

NACD Directorship Publisher Christopher Y. Clark asked participants to suggest calls to action. Shaun Higgins, director of Aryzta AG and Carmine Laboratories, reiterated the importance of establishing strong enterprise risk management (ERM) practices. “I think you go into the board meeting and make strategic planning your number one ERM priority,” Higgins said.

Andrea Bonime-Blanc

Andrea Bonime-Blanc

Andrea Bonime-Blanc, CEO, founder, and director of GEC Risk Advisory LLC, jumped in: “I think the answer is to know what your top strategic risks are that need to be focused on.” Regarding specific risks, Bonime-Blanc said that when assessing the election’s implications, “We must pick the top five risks to integrate into business planning and factor U.S. geopolitical risk into our own strategic planning in a way that we never have had to before.”

The EisnerAmper hosts shared their near-term advice. “I can’t find a better reason for your companies to have ERM systems and processes in place,” Kreit said, noting that this is not the time for “mail-in” board members.

“I think this is a great time to start thinking about whether the people you have in the boat with you are the people you want to have in the boat with you,” Kreit said.

To see the full list of participants, please click here

What We Know

Kreit addressed what can be readily understood from the election. “There’s talk about what is going to happen, but no one really knows,” he said. “Board members should really be prepared for anything. Start thinking about some of the concepts Trump has been talking about, what some of his main areas of focus have been.” Work with management to address how the following, possible policy changes might impact business:

  • Anticipate inflation and its impact on cash flow and management, equity valuations, and borrowing abilities. While an initial jump in equity markets was seen, according to Bible, “the debt market got $1 trillion knocked out of it,” a sign of anticipation of inflation. Companies should begin scenario-planning for changes in borrowing ability.
  • Expect early review of tax policy. The dominance of the Republican party across Congress and the executive branch indicate the probability of perhaps even speedy tax reform.
  • Repeal or replacement of the Affordable Care Act. Some changes will come to the policy, and companies should be prepared to address its impact on their workforce.
  • De-regulation and repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act. Bible and Kreit anticipate the repeal of at least some Dodd-Frank provisions, and, at a minimum, a review of leadership at the Consumer Financial Protection Board.
  • Changes are coming to trade. One of the major planks in the Trump platform was a general desire to repeal trade agreements and impose tariffs on China and Mexico, as well as opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Bible and Kreit underscored the fact that one of the American executive branch’s unilateral powers is to control foreign commerce, which could lead to trade wars “that could trigger a recession,” Bible cautioned.

Kreit also outlined the timeline of key power changes in the White House and Congress:

  • December 19, 2016: The Electoral College convenes to vote.
  • January 3, 2017: The 115th United States Congress convenes.
  • January 6, 2017: Congress declares the president-elect.
  • January 20, 2017: Presidential inauguration marks the beginning of the Trump administration.
  • March-September 2017: Congress anticipated to debate raising the debt ceiling.
  • September 30, 2017: The U.S. government’s fiscal year ends, opening the door for Congress to address budgetary and fiscal matters.

These dates could serve as important milestones for developments impacting their companies.

“Back when we were determining a topic for this discussion, one thing I think we could all agree on was that this election could change the course of the country—and, potentially, the world,” Bible said in summation. “I felt very strongly that we should have this type of dialogue for one reason, and that’s because board leadership is essential for success. It’s a brave new world.”

A second post reporting from this roundtable addresses longer-term concerns raised by directors. To continue reading, click here

What the Changing Geopolitical Landscape Means for Your Company

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Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group, is often described as a guru of political risk—a type of risk that’s becoming more important for companies to consider. In his keynote address at the 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, he advised that, although companies have traditionally focused on financial returns, they will need to be primarily concerned about the security of their investments going forward—and investments stand to be radically impacted by geopolitical disruption. Bremmer noted that the impact of significant global changes is much greater than the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections.

Ian Bremmer at NACD Summit

He also pointed out two global developments that companies need to keep top of mind:

1. The increased fragmentation of geopolitical power: Over the past half century, American businesses conflated Americanization with globalization. That line of thinking is failing to hold up, and Americanization of global markets has halted. The United States can no longer set and control the rules of global diplomacy and market place and will be increasingly reluctant to police global tensions. The United States’ transatlantic partnerships are weakening, and the European common market is under threat. These conditions have created an economic power vacuum that China is primed to step up and lead.

A champion of state-owned enterprise and the yuan, China has economic interests that are not aligned with those of the United States. This creates problems for U.S. businesses seeking to conduct business abroad. “Political hedging leads to economic hedging,” Bremmer said. “Corporations that are seen as being aligned with one country will be challenged to commercially succeed in others.” Uber’s failure in China is just one example.

2. The erosion of key social contracts: In recent years, there have been breakdowns in the implicit social contracts between governments and citizens and between companies and consumers. Rising populist anger is challenging the legitimacy of governments and threatening longstanding commitments to free trade. On the economic front, developed countries are spurring economic growth through innovative applications of technology—but these advancements are displacing millions of workers. As a result, Bremmer foresees a rise in nationalistic parties that will challenge the status quo and threaten international commerce, following similar strategies as the Brexit movement the U.K.

But where governments fail to adapt, other parties can step in to make amends—and companies are well positioned to be part of the solution. Bremmer offered the example of AT&T, which faced the possibility of needing to lay off a portion of its workforce because their work no longer supported the company’s future growth. But AT&T also knew that because of the transformations in the telecommunications industry in recent years, these workers would be hard pressed to find employment at another firm. Instead, the company decided to retrain these workers so they could support AT&T’s future trajectory. “If a corporation is the first to say it understands the social contract is breaking down and offers a solution, it will serve them well,” Bremmer said.

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.