The NACD Atlanta Chapter recently hosted an expert panel to discuss what directors should know and, more importantly, what they should be asking of management about the impact of Brexit on their corporations. The panel was moderated by Ambassador Charles Shapiro—former US ambassador to Venezuela and current president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta—and featured Jeremy Pilmore-Bedford, consul general from the British Consulate-General in Atlanta; Mary Shelton Rose, PwC East Region advisory leader and leader of PwC’s US Brexit Response Office; and Lynn Clarke, CEO of MetroKitchen.com and director for ABARTA, Inc., Kahiki Foods, Inc., Visii.com, and the NACD Atlanta Chapter.
The takeaways from the event fell into three categories.
Takeaway 1: The Brexit outcome is uncertain, but a more moderate outcome is likely to prevail in the European Union.
To assist directors as they consider how to approach discussions about Brexit, the panel highlighted possible outcomes of the Brexit vote. Clearly, the path that would leave the least uncertainty is the one under which Britain retains access to the European single market through a series of bilateral agreements. However, a model where Britain does not continue to benefit from any part of the single market is also possible. Since the panel met, a UK court ruled that the British government requires parliamentary approval to trigger the process of exiting the European Union (EU), which adds additional complexity and uncertainty to the situation, and could give pro-EU lawmakers more opportunity to influence the direction of the exit.
While some may believe that other EU countries may want to punish the UK for Brexit by offering unfavorable trading terms, the panel seemed to agree that cooler heads will likely prevail as EU member countries focus on Britain’s role as a significant trading partner for the EU. According to Pilmore-Bedford, an upside of Brexit that is often overlooked is that Britain could begin to negotiate its own free-trade deals beyond Europe with growing countries like India.
Takeaway 2: The UK is trying to mitigate uncertainty.
Britain is attempting to mitigate some of the uncertainty about possible outcomes through outreach to companies. For example, British Prime Minister Theresa May recently met with top executives from such companies as Amazon, Goldman Sachs, IBM, and Morgan Stanley in an attempt to reassure investors.
UK officials like Pilmore-Bedford are quick to remind companies that the free movement of labor between Britain and the EU will continue until 2019 at a minimum. Also, the British government is working to enact laws that enhance legal stability for businesses. Still, with no crystal ball in hand and uncertainty even among those closest to the situation, the panel made clear that directors and management must remain vigilant.
Takeaway 3: Directors must exercise due diligence now.
Panelist Lynn Clarke showed the audience a jar of Marmite, a much-loved Unilever product in the UK. She cited an example of how, in the current climate in the UK, otherwise routine operational decisions can have significant impacts on a company’s reputation and bottom line. In the case of Marmite, Unilever decided to raise the price of Marmite in the UK, ostensibly to compensate for the sharp drop in the pound’s value following the Brexit vote. Behemoth grocery chain Tesco reacted by removing the product from its website. Analysts and consumers criticized the price hike, particularly since Marmite does not contain ingredients from outside of the UK. Clarke suggested that companies must exercise additional caution in how business is approached in the UK during this tumultuous time.
In addition, directors may pose a number of questions to management to prepare for Brexit’s impact, depending on the type of operations the company has in Europe:
Strategic Planning: Have we included flexibility in our planning to allow the company to react to scenarios as they unfold?
Investment: Do we want to consider either moving forward with investments or holding off on investments related to UK operations or acquisitions?
Clarke, on the board of a UK tech start-up, noted that start-ups in the UK may move to the EU to access existing seed-funding programs.
Pricing and Margins: Will we be affected by margin compression from goods sold to/from the UK? Should we modify our prices?
Talent: Have we assessed the likely impact of Brexit on talent sourcing to and from the UK should migration be restricted?
Supply Chain: How well do we understand our suppliers’ financial positions? Do we know which of our critical suppliers are most vulnerable to price fluctuations?
Investors: How will we communicate the financial and strategic effects of Brexit and how we plan to mitigate them to investors?
Pension Plans: Will there be concern about pension plans (underfunding, for example, due to asset devaluation)?
Technology: How will all of the above affect technology/systems as changes are needed to HR systems, VAT systems, regulatory systems, etc.?
PwC expert Mary Rose Shelton emphasized that preparing for Brexit will give directors the opportunity to explore less emphasized areas of the company such as the supply chain, human resources outside of the US, and European and other overseas operations. Given that the greatest certainty at this point is that uncertainty will reign for some time to come, smart directors will begin asking the right questions now, helping their companies adapt to conditions as they evolve. Please reference NACD’s recent publication The Board’s Role in Brexit Oversight for additional questions boards can consider in response to Brexit.
Kimberly Simpson is NACD’s first regional director, providing strategic support to NACD chapters in the Capital Area, Atlanta, Florida, the Carolinas, and the Research Triangle. Simpson, a former general counsel, was a U.S. Marshall Memorial Fellow to Europe in 2005.
It has become clear that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) is a major disruption to global business plans, and its consequences clearly rise to the board level. Ongoing political chaos in the United Kingdom (UK) is having seismic economic effects and has already amplified downside political risks across Europe.
“Wait and see” is a dangerous response to a highly uncertain situation. Proactive board leaders can undertake several immediate initiatives that will minimize the damage to 2016 results in Europe and improve the resiliency of your company’s plans for 2017 and beyond.
What we know today: The UK’s economy will contract next year. Frontier Strategy Group’s (FSG) Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) Team forecasts a sharp slowdown in UK growth in the second half of 2016, deepening into a recession of -0.5 percent in 2017. Regardless of the pace and the aim of its exit negotiations with the EU, deep splits within the UK’s major political parties and energized independence movements in Scotland and Northern Ireland guarantee governmental dysfunction and depressed sentiment among consumers and businesses.
Beyond the UK, certain economies are especially vulnerable. Ireland, Norway, and the Netherlands will be hurt quickly as UK demand shrinks. Around the world, UK and European economic woes are likely to hit Poland, South Africa, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, and Costa Rica especially hard in their respective regions.
What we won’t know anytime soon: As of yet, it is impossible to predict (1) whether the European Union will change fundamentally or lose additional members, (2) the political and economic effects of energized populist parties in many European countries, (3) the downside risk to the UK from regional separatism, or (4) the new destinations for foreign investment that may leave the UK. Scenarios and contingency plans are essential tools to manage risk and identify targeted opportunities in this environment.
Bolster Commercial Execution in the Second Half of 2016
Boards should expect to receive a rapid-response sales strategy review from UK executives and risk assessments for Europe overall. Is management being sufficiently proactive in managing new risks?
Prioritize risks to 2016 sales targets—In the UK, business investment is most likely to see near-term declines as companies worried about growth move to limit expenditures (hiring is sharply down in London), while consumer sentiment will be dragged down by housing-price shocks. Sterling and euro depreciation will hit specific customer segments hard. Expect management to proactively engage customers about changes to their expected spending, and redeploy sales and marketing resources to the least vulnerable territories.
Target contingency plans on talent and finance—Uncertainty about visa requirements for Europeans in the UK (and for non-UK citizens generally) is a serious engagement and retention risk. Currency effects are wiping out margins for some UK subsidiaries and should force a near-term rethink of hedging and payment terms. Expect management to document contingency plans with signposts and priority actions by function, especially for finance and human resources (HR).
Track leading indicators of changes in demand—Volatility in currency markets and commodities markets will have global ripple effects on business and consumer sentiment, and on government finances—especially in emerging markets. Ask if European management teams are adjusting their dashboards and monthly/quarterly agendas accordingly.
Stress-Test Strategic Plans for 2017 and Beyond
The next planning cycle will be more demanding than usual. Updating forecast data is a small part of the needed response. So much will remain uncertain that plans for Europe (and for markets with links to Europe) should be stress-tested for resiliency against downside scenarios. Contingency plans should be put in place for big bets.
Use scenarios to model UK and EU demand—FSG’s benchmarking found that simple scenarios are key to organizational alignment and resilience; the companies that do this best grow market share 2.1 times faster than their competition in volatile markets. My pre-Brexit vote NACD post highlights a range of risks worthy of incorporating into scenario plans.
Evaluate risk exposure in European operations and the supply chain—Profitability and pricing power for imported products will diminish if barriers to trade with the UK increase and European currencies weaken further. Scenario analysis can help evaluate potentially improved returns from localized production and supply-chain structure.
Rethink Europe/EMEA hub locations—Potential changes that affect HR, legal, regulatory, and finance teams may tip the scales in favor of revisiting the UK as a hub for EMEA, Europe, or Western Europe leadership and operations. Balance financial and political/reputational considerations along with change-management costs. Retention of European nationals currently based in the UK is becoming a factor as well.
Reassess global market-portfolio prioritization—Long-term investment plans for Europe must be rebalanced given the likelihood of a UK recession in 2017 and ripple effects varying among other European countries. Moreover, investment cases for Europe are likely to face sharply skeptical review even as EMEA leaders strive to make up the gap that UK underperformance will create. At the global level, Asia-Pacific and Latin America leaders have an opportunity to put forward more aggressive plans for 2017 and beyond. India in particular is a substantial market that remains under-penetrated by foreign companies; higher-risk big bets there may be more warmly received when Europe looks so uncertain.
When uncertainty is high, boards have a valuable role in helping management bring focus to the most important decisions rather than falling victim to firefighting and analysis paralysis. Companies that set a proactive agenda now for a mid-year course correction and forward planning will be well positioned despite market volatility in the year ahead.
Joel Whitaker is Senior Vice President of Global Research at Frontier Strategy Group (FSG), an information and advisory services firm supporting senior executives in emerging markets.
For more on the Brexit fallout and what it means for your board, join us for:
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.