There is no better time to prepare for an economic downturn than when times are good. With the memory of the severity of the 2007–2008 financial crisis still fresh in the minds of many directors and executives, how should companies prepare for a downturn in the cool of the day, rather than reacting in crisis mode?
Most business plans do not currently anticipate economic downturns; however, a contingency plan makes good business sense because it positions companies to act decisively when recessionary storm clouds loom on the horizon.
Organizations develop contingency plans to address market opportunities should they arise and document specific action steps that are triggered if certain events occur. Such events might include natural disasters, cybersecurity breaches, terrorist attacks, fire, fraud, theft, or embezzlement. These perils may never occur, but the plan nonetheless stands ready with a response team organized to implement it.
The focus of this discussion is how to prepare for an economic recession that causes revenues to decline below a predefined threshold. It is virtually irrefutable that a recession will occur, which is why it’s wise to create a contingency plan to (a) mitigate the financial impact of a severe economic downturn on earnings and share price and (b) position the company to gain market share during the recovery.
In preparing a contingency plan to accomplish these two objectives, action steps are sequenced, prioritized, and grouped by corporate function and operating unit so that ownership of each step is clear. Targeted cost savings in the current and subsequent projection years should also accompany each action step. Key plan elements for most companies include.
Headcount and hiring changes. Distressed operating environments present a time for shepherding the talent most critical to retain. Focused retention, objectively determined workforce reductions, and changing hiring practices are often important components of a contingency plan.
Compensation, benefit, and incentive plan adjustments. Temporary revisions to compensation, benefit, and incentive plans may be necessary to stabilize the firm’s financial condition. Vetting the economic realities of a declining top line and the need for adjustments to the reward system with key personnel before a downturn creates a broader support base for the plan when it is implemented.
Asset divestitures. Management should categorize the company’s assets—underperforming versus high-performing, strategic versus nonstrategic—so that a plan can be developed for each asset category. The plan should consider the timing and the immediate and long-term financial impact of asset sales, and the need for such sales as signs of extreme economic scenarios appear. Timing can be a critical factor due to the difficulty of selling assets in a depressed market. Sale-leaseback transactions for certain facilities are also an option for raising capital.
Selling, general and administrative (SG&A) expense cutbacks. SG&A offers many cost reduction opportunities. In the context of a contingency plan, the objective is to adjust the cost structure to support stabilization and preservation of the enterprise.
Consider other options. Other steps a company can take include:
Hedge raw material costs and lock in sales prices, thereby stabilizing margins — at least for a time;
Consider outsourcing non-core activities that are not strategic to the business, if it will reduce costs such as certain human resources support, accounting, manufacturing and transportation activities;
Focus marketing on sustaining brand awareness during a recession;
Discontinue underperforming operations; and
Address the impact of upstream and downstream interconnectivity within the value chain, e.g., what steps would the company take if a major supplier were to go under due to the downturn?
Hierarchy for cost-savings initiatives. Management should outline a comprehensive menu of prioritized cost-savings initiatives that could be implemented either in part or in its entirety, depending on the severity of the downturn.
Communications plan. In times of economic uncertainty, timely and open communications are vital to preserving morale so that employees know where they stand, and how they and the organization can get through the crisis. Straight talk and transparency are important because, from an employee perspective, no news does not necessarily mean good news.
An effective plan should determine the metrics to be managed against the enterprise’s specified targets such as net operating income percentage, gross margin percentage, acceptable variance from budget, earnings per share, minimum cash reserves, and maximum debt levels. With targets identified, a financial forecast over an appropriate period should be prepared to establish a baseline. Considering different scenarios—revenue declines of, say, 10 and 20 percent— the costs and expected benefits from the various elements mentioned above should be considered to ascertain specific actions management should take under the circumstances.
Once completed, the plan should be reviewed with and approved by the board. The company then resumes its growth strategy with full knowledge that the contingency plan is ready when the time comes—and, unfortunately, it will come. A vetted, actionable contingency plan saves precious time during a crisis because there is a broader base of support for its execution. Preparedness leads to decisiveness under fire.
Management should review the plan on a regular basis to ensure it remains current and apprise the board of any significant changes made to the plan. Going forward, management should monitor the external and internal economic indicators appropriate to the company, and periodically review the analysis with the board. Once the plan is initiated, a project management office should be designated to drive its implementation. The project management office monitors the achievement of the assigned initiatives and provides status reports to senior executives and the board.
Developing a response plan under sunny skies rather than when the recessionary storm breaks would demonstrate a board’s due care and sound business judgment in discharging its oversight responsibilities to address a credible threat. Further, entering a distressed operating environment without a thoughtful, comprehensive plan can lead to hasty decisions, inefficiencies and costly delays. An organization’s stakeholders deserve better.
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.
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Companies continue to face significant global economic uncertainty. Although U.S. economic prospects have improved in recent years, structural weaknesses in other regions pose significant challenges for multinational companies. To ensure their organizations thrive in this volatile environment, boards and senior executive teams must pay close attention to regional trends and international politics and how these affect the growing interdependence of markets worldwide. During a presentation at the 2015 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, Kaushik Basu, chief economist and senior vice president of the World Bank Group, identified four major market conditions that will influence the growth prospects for many businesses.
The shape of the post-crisis recovery continues to change. In recent years economists have been hard-pressed to forecast how global markets will behave. After the 2008 financial crisis in the United States, economists initially anticipated a V-shaped recovery, in which the market hits bottom and then recovers. As it became clear that the recession would continue, they altered their predictions, asserting that the recovery would be U-shaped instead. When the European debt crisis occurred, economists then foretold a W-shaped recovery. The lesson seems to be that economic cycles have become less predictable and no longer adhere to historical patterns. In response to this increased uncertainty, directors and management teams must now expand their strategic planning process to incorporate a range of possible economic scenarios.
The economic fortunes of emerging economies are not uniform. Brazil, India, and China are often touted as emerging centers of economic power; however, . In the past year only India and China saw growth in their gross domestic products, while Brazil—which has endured corruption scandals, tax increases, and spending cuts—has experienced virtually no economic growth. When discussing potential investments in these foreign markets, boards should require management to provide forward-looking country assessments in order to responsibly evaluate the potential risk and rewards.
Economies are porous. Directors need to be aware that local economies are inextricably intertwined, and that deteriorating economic conditions in one country can therefore spread quickly to other nations. For example, the ramifications of slowing growth in China are significant because so many countries are increasingly dependent on continued Chinese investments and consumption. Africa, Latin America, and Germany are likely to suffer most as major exporters to China. Conversely, India’s economic growth has recently accelerated, due in part to structural tax reforms that have created a more welcoming investment climate, resulting in a rapid surge of foreign direct investment in 2014.
Increasingly disparate monetary policies among the developed nations will have global economic ramifications. Directors will be expected to understand the consequences of divergent policies—especially those of developed countries—for the world’s biggest economic blocks. For example, the Federal Reserve is debating a possible rise in interest rates after seven consecutive years of record-low borrowing costs. While a rate hike would ostensibly strengthen the U.S. dollar by encouraging investments in this country, it could also raise the prices on U.S. exports and undercut the economic viability of U.S. products in foreign markets. In the Eurozone, the European Central Bank (ECB) has in recent years maintained loose fiscal policies, increasing the supply of money flowing through international markets in hopes of facilitating economic recovery. A U.S. interest-rate hike would result in a weaker euro, which in turn could lead to a boost for Eurozone economies because buying trends would begin to favor domestic products. On the other hand, tighter U.S. fiscal policies could readily be undone by the European Central Bank injecting even more liquidity into the markets to keep euro values low and maintain the viability of Europe’s export market. Emerging markets, too, might experience a negative impact from these proposed policy changes. Because they have been borrowing money in U.S. dollars at near-zero rates, these countries will almost certainly see an increase in debt and decreased economic growth if U.S. interest rates rise.