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.
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.
This Thursday, the United Kingdom (UK) will vote in a referendum on whether to leave the European Union (EU)—referred to as the “Brexit.” Opinion polls have shifted sharply over the past two weeks to indicate that the likelihood of Brexit has increased substantially, but Frontier Strategy Group continues to believe that the UK will vote to remain in the EU, albeit by a very small margin. Opinion polls have been extremely inaccurate in the past two UK elections and we believe some hesitant voters will choose to remain in the EU in a conservative bias that we saw in both the parliamentary elections last year and in the Scottish referendum. Markets are also interpreting the murder of pro-EU Labour MP Jo Cox as likely to damage the Leave campaign.
A narrow win for the Remain campaign—our baseline scenario—is unlikely to alleviate the grievances of those supporting Brexit and would cause deeper tensions within the UK’s Conservative Party, raising the likelihood of early elections and another referendum in the next couple of years. While the economic impact of these trends would be relatively modest, lingering uncertainty would cause investments to underperform.
Should Brexit happen, however, multinational businesses would be affected in several key ways. Besides the initial financial volatility and somewhat weaker growth in Europe, most of the broader effects of Brexit outside the UK would be slow-moving, although their long-term implications could be significant enough to reshape the European Union. Companies need to be prepared for short-term volatility—particularly of currencies—but should Brexit occur companies can expect to be gradually adapting to its effects for at least the next two to three years.
Financial-market volatility and currency depreciation
The possibility of Brexit has already rattled currency, bond, and equity markets and this volatility will increase in the immediate aftermath of the event should Brexit occur. The British pound could depreciate by as much as another 10–20% against the United States’ dollar (USD) in the aftermath of Brexit, and the euro would also likely lose value, possibly as much as 5–10% against the USD. The scale of the losses would likely be temporary, but neither currency would be likely to recover to pre-Brexit levels. Brexit would also dampen investment confidence, softening commodity prices and causing overall financial market uncertainty. Added to a backdrop of weak global growth and deep concerns about China’s slowdown, Brexit would prompt another bout of volatility that would cloud corporate expectations and complicate 2017 planning for emerging markets generally.
Growth in Europe
Brexit would cause a slowdown in UK investment and business activity. A similar, though smaller, effect would be likely in the EU as a whole. Markets strongly linked to demand from the EU—such as North Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia—would see a softening of demand for the next 12 months that would affect industrial performance but would not disrupt growth trajectories. The demand effect for other parts of the world would likely be negligible. As corporate leaders gear up for 2017 planning, they would have to dedicate more analytical energy to identifying sources of growth in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas to compensate for weaker performance in Europe.
Brexit would raise a host of trade issues from the future of the Schengen Area to the outlook for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, all of which would increase uncertainty over the cost and structure of supply chains that involve the EU. Any tangible effect on supply chains, however, would likely materialize over a period of several years, giving companies ample time to respond. It would, however, raise fundamental organizational issues such as where companies’ European headquarters will be located, tax rates, distribution-chain structure, and other concerns that should be factored into 2017 and longer-range planning as well as profitability targets. Making changes earlier could yield valuable competitive differentiation for cost and talent.
Brexit’s most dangerous effect could be to galvanize anti-EU sentiment and populist parties across the EU, setting into effect a series of policy disruptions in the region that could weaken the EU, slow down EU integration, or even lead to other EU members exiting the union. All of this would undermine the EU’s economic outlook, and force multinational corporations to manage political risk in this usually stable region much more closely. While that would be unlikely to have ripple effects globally, it could contribute to greater instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe if it coincided with increasingly isolationist foreign policy from the United States.
Overall, Brexit would put greater pressure on regions outside of Europe to deliver strong results that can compensate for years of underperformance by the UK and the EU in corporate portfolios. This may be a big challenge in the current global growth environment, requiring an even greater focus on agile strategies that emphasize strong competitive positioning, careful risk management, and a reshaping of how companies plan to win in emerging markets.
In case the UK votes next week to leave the EU, boards and executive teams should ask themselves several urgent questions to effectively prepare their response:
What is our company’s exposure to short-term currency volatility of both the British pound and the euro? How would significant depreciation against the dollar affect our overall revenue and profit targets for this year?
Have we developed alternative international growth strategies that rely less on demand in Europe?
What production and distribution disruptions are we likely to face in our European operations?
How should we adjust our long-term outlook for doing business in Europe? What economic and political risks are now more likely and more significant to our company?
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.
Now in its third year, NACD’s Directorship 2020® takes an investigative look at the trends and disruptors that will shape boardrooms agendas of the future. This initiative is designed to raise directors’ awareness of these complex emerging issues and enable them to provide effective guidance to management teams as they navigate the associated risks and opportunities. The inaugural 2015 session was held on March 3 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, where subject-matter experts from Broadridge, KPMG, Marsh & McLennan Cos., and PwC and corporate leaders explored the boardroom implications of geopolitical and economic disruption.
Illustrating the boardroom perspective on the impacts of economic and geopolitical disruption on corporate strategy.
In his remarks on economic disruption, Peterson Institute for International Economics Visiting Fellow and International Capital Strategies Executive Chair Douglas Rediker examined the changing face of global competitive markets. Governments around the world are increasingly involved in market activities and are more likely to champion domestic businesses or businesses based in countries with which they have trade agreements. This situation creates a business environment in which companies seeking to expand must assess a foreign country’s protected business sectors in order to fully evaluate the endemic risks and opportunities.
Taking a geopolitical perspective, UBS Executive Director and Head of U.S. Country Risk Dan A. Alamariu considered the ripple effects of government regulation, using a case example of the sanctions recently imposed by the US and EU on Russia. Though these measures did diminish the buying power of the ruble, the sanctions also hurt Western companies operating in Russia because consumers could no longer afford to purchase foreign goods. He cited other examples as well. In its efforts to recover from the financial crisis, the Chinese government has recently implemented a number of economic reforms. While these reforms may succeed in re-establishing China as an “engine of growth,” the infighting that they have triggered among political elites could ultimately dampen growth and set the country on an uncertain course. Closer to home, persistent gridlock in the US government is preventing needed progress on issues critical to the business community, such as tax policy and infrastructure.
Both speakers alluded to the fact that as countries become more divided and inwardly focused—both internally and with respect to international relations—developing collective approaches to major transnational issues such as climate change and cyberattacks will become more challenging. Companies will therefore need to devise their own strategies for addressing these challenges.
Economic and geopolitical disruptors are inextricably linked, and the three main takeaways from both sessions are as follows:
Embrace risk—you may discover opportunities. Directors need to start thinking like emerging markets investors. In other words, they should get comfortable working in a business environment that is volatile and unpredictable. This breed of investor has historically been focused on domestic, regional, and international political and economic risks. Because technology has created a world that is deeply interconnected, investors must proactively cultivate an understanding of geo-economic risks. By extension, it is also important to recognize technology as a major disruptive force that will continue to impact companies across all sectors. For example, tablet devices have completely changed not only how people communicate and access multimedia content but also how companies conduct business. By embracing disruptive technology, companies can in turn create the caliber of differentiated products that will transform the marketplace.
Be prepared. This ageless scouting motto is especially relevant to anyone managing or overseeing a company. Businesses the world over are more interconnected than ever before, which forces companies to compete across national borders and exposes them to international political and economic risks. Boards need to consider the ultimate “black swan” events that could affect their companies. By extension, directors need to be mathematically literate—if they are not already. Black-swan events include natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, which incapacitated businesses in our nation’s financial epicenter; political events, such as the outbreak of war; economic unpredictability; and technological innovation, which we have seen from the automobile to the iPad. Having a by-the-numbers plan for how the company could behave in specific scenarios will create a comprehensive understanding of the risks the business faces. Because it’s impossible to completely protect a company, it is essential to create resiliency. The board must therefore ensure that incident response plans are in place and must routinely test those response plans to confirm that they meet the company’s evolving needs.
Beware of “herd mentality.” Directors need to periodically review the current board composition; and if there are gaps in the board’s collective knowledge that may prevent it from assessing areas of risk, it may be in the board’s best interests to bring in a third-party expert to help inform boardroom discussions. This is especially true of cyber risk. Many boards are still struggling to comprehend the depth and breadth of these threats, and because it’s neither possible nor desirable for every board to have a cyber expert in their ranks, it is imperative to bring in outside sources to inform and educate directors and management.
Look for full coverage of this NACD Directorship 2020 session in the May/June 2015 issue of NACD Directorship magazine.