For nearly three years, the boardroom maintained a consistent response to a tumultuous marketplace. Whether it was following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, navigating an economic recovery unlike any other, or facing a debt crisis with global implications, reaction from directors seemed to stay the same. Year over year, NACD’s Annual Governance Surveys did not register significant upheavals in methods or structures used. Areas of high priority continue to be strategic planning and oversight, corporate performance and valuation, and risk oversight.
NACD’s Board Confidence Index (BCI), a measure of the boardroom’s attitude toward the state of the economy, told a similar story. Although the index would fluctuate by a few points from quarter to quarter, confidence remained in the slightly optimistic side of uncertain.
This changed last fall when the nation was forced to address the pending fiscal cliff. At November’s NACD Directorship 100 event, DuPont Chairman and CEO Ellen Kullman remarked that uncertainty over future regulatory activity and the general economy had led her company to reevaluate major investments for 2013. Uncertainty in the future of the economy and consumer demand also significantly impacted Coca-Cola’s decisions to make capital investments, according to presiding director James D. Robinson III.
Just a few weeks later, results from the fourth quarter BCI further demonstrated how the economy affected the boardroom. Although the overall index score remained on the positive side of uncertain (51.8), for the first time responding directors indicated outright pessimism in the state of the economy in the next three months. Directors also echoed the statements made at NACD Directorship 100: In preparation for 2013 nearly half (47%) had reassessed corporate strategy.
The need to focus on strategy was also confirmed at NACD’s recently held Master Class in Naples, Florida. Although sessions were designed to address the new and emerging risks entering the boardroom, discussions often returned to the importance of strategic planning in uncertain times. Both panelists and attendees agreed that directors need to keep a steady eye on the established strategic plans at hand.
This recommendation is not without caveat. With a maintained focus, directors should not relegate a discussion on strategy to an annual event. Instead, the established strategic plans should be woven into every board meeting and discussion. Furthermore, plans should be adjusted to incorporate flexibility from the boardroom. This includes shorter response times that are now necessary to address situations that could be presented by emerging methods of communication and rapidly changing technologies.
Companies kicked into gear at the end of 2012, acting to forestall the brunt of the potential fiscal cliff. More than 80 CEOs joined the Fix the Debt coalition. Others chose to accelerate dividend payouts in anticipation of a potential increase in dividend-tax rates from 15 percent to 40 percent. In the financial sector, directors reported their companies were most likely to increase cash reserves, according to results from the Q4 NACD Board Confidence Index (BCI), conducted in early December. Across all sectors, directors responded that their companies were reassessing corporate strategy to prepare for the coming year.
Uncertainty trumped optimism in the fourth quarter of 2012. And not without reason—a close presidential election coupled with the looming fiscal cliff and Congress’ inability to develop a solution left the nation waiting until the last minute. Conducted in the first weeks of December, NACD’s Q4 BCI score dropped nearly three points from 54.5 to 51.8. A score above 50 represents optimism regarding the current state of the economy. Scores near 50 mark uncertainty.
Attitude Shift in Future Outlook
The 51.8 score represents the second-lowest registered by the BCI—the lowest was 47.5 in Q3 2011. In its two-and-a-half-year history, scores have fluctuated between uncertainty and moderate optimism. These composite scores are generally the result of boardroom pessimism in the short-term state of the economy buoyed by an optimistic long-term view of economic progress—both progress made to date and to come.
In Q4, however, the outlook shifted to optimism in the boardroom’s retrospective view—current economic conditions versus those three months and one year ago—lifting pessimism in both the short- and long-term future states of the economy. Looking ahead to the state of the economy in three months, boardroom confidence dropped eight points—15 percent—to a gloomy 44, the lowest score to date.
Peer indices provided mixed sentiments in the fourth quarter. The Conference Board’s quarterly CEO Confidence Index posted a recovery of 4 points, moving from 42 in Q3 to 46 in Q4. However, a score of 46 still places the index in negative territory. Consumer indices moved in the opposite direction. The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index dropped 6.4 points in December to 65.1. A similar measure, the University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index fell nearly 10 points in December, from 82.7 to 72.9.
Confidence in the economy is a broad topic to discuss. Just as one area starts to show positive growth, the world is shaken by a different downturn or disaster. In an article last month in the New York Times, economist Paul Krugman discussed the increased complexity of the current economy, compared to the months following the most recent financial crisis. In late 2008, the world’s collective attention was on the falling stock market. Today, there are many areas contributing to overall economic confidence: inflation, employment, oil prices and so forth. As Krugman notes, “we’re living in a world that is characterized not so much by the sum of all fears as by some of all fears.”
NACD’s most recent Board Confidence Index (BCI) reflects this conflicted view. In Q2 2011, the Index fell from 64.9 to 63.1, the first time it has dropped since its creation in the autumn of 2010. When asked to characterize the current state of the economy compared to one year ago, directors registered a confidence index of 68, a decrease of five full points since Q1 2011. Directors also feel less confident in the progress made in the short run—looking at changes in conditions over the past quarter, confidence dropped to 59 from 61.
However, the slight decline in confidence is countered with a more optimistic view for the coming months. Just this week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke projected increased growth for the next six months in remarks following the Central Bank’s Beige Book release. According to Bernanke, policymakers will be focused on the labor markets. According to the Q2 2011 BCI, the boardroom agrees. Despite slowed growth, nearly half of corporate directors (43%) plan to expand the workforce in the upcoming quarter. In addition to hiring practices, directors are generally more confident regarding the future. Expectations for the next year stand at an assured 67.
Recently released data from The Conference Board (TCB) echoes the caution seen in the boardroom. Despite higher predictions, TCB’s Consumer Confidence Index fell to 60.8 from a revised 66 in April. Unsurprisingly, American consumers are troubled by the current combination of increased costs for food, the increased cost of oil and the depressed real estate market.
The Board Confidence Index is conducted by NACD in conjunction with Heidrick & Struggles and Pearl Meyer & Partners. Q3 2011 results can be expected in September.