The Political Issues Board Directors Care Most About
With the 2016 U.S. presidential election season upon us, what political issues most concern business leaders? Leading the list are the economy; the regulatory environment; and cybersecurity, according to our global survey of over 4,000 corporate directors, conducted in partnership with WomenCorporateDirectors Foundation, led by Susan Stautberg, Spencer Stuart, led by Julie Hembrock Daum, and independent researcher Deborah Bell. Aside from these three broad worries, directors are also anxious about corporate tax rates, political instability, and healthcare costs.
For the most part, directors focus in on a relatively narrow range of issues related to the fortunes of their companies. Most of them, for example, consider unemployment and national budget deficits to be outside their purview. Similarly, they rarely ranked social issues such as economic justice and equal rights for women among their top three. Education and immigration policy are also notably absent from directors’ main concerns.
The Economy Is Everyone’s Biggest Concern
Judging by the latest spate of earnings calls, business leaders are growing more anxious about a possible recession. Our own research confirmed this: the economy is the biggest issue on corporate directors’ minds right now. In response to our survey in late 2015, they told us that on economic matters, uncertainty abounds.
More than half of corporate directors of both public and private companies in North America think that global growth prospects are uncertain. In fact, 16% expect a global economic slowdown, and almost none expect strong global growth in the next few years.
Indeed, directors around the world share their pessimism. However, outside North America they tend to be more optimistic about emerging economies: 36% of directors in Asia, 24% of directors in Australia and New Zealand, and 23% of directors in Africa predict faster growth in emerging economies than in developed countries in the next three years.
Across industries, the sense of economic uncertainty is also remarkably consistent. Not surprisingly, with the price of oil dropping, directors of companies the energy & utilities industries are particularly discouraged. About of fifth of them expect a global economic slowdown over the next three years.
Why does all this matter? Because board members are likely to factor in their pessimism as they advise their companies on firm strategies, merger and acquisition activity, resource allocations, and expenditures in the coming year.
Boards are clearly aligned with business leaders and executives on their outlooks for 2016. If their projections turn out to be right, we should get ready for a bumpy road ahead, with market volatility and negative surprises. With such widespread pessimism, we hope that central banks will be ready to coordinate their policies to stabilize and support the world economy.
Different Industries, Different Regions, Different Motivations
To explore the various motivations underlying these concerns, we separated the responses of directors working in different industries.
Some findings were not terribly surprising. Directors of healthcare companies are particularly concerned about healthcare costs. Directors of energy & utilities companies are occupied with environmental sustainability, energy costs, and the carbon tax. And while the regulatory environment is a concern across all sectors, it is particularly relevant for directors involved in financial and professional services, energy and utilities, and healthcare. They’re frustrated by the complexity of the regulatory environment and the time and expense associated with compliance and other regulatory obligations.
We also examined patterns across different regions and found that directors are keeping their sights close to home, focusing primarily on domestic issues. Foreign policy and immigration policy are rarely cited as top worries.
Concerns about cybersecurity are particularly strong in North America, where large-scale data breaches have plagued several high-profile companies in recent years, and government surveillance policies remains controversial. And concerns about political stability loom large for directors of companies located in the Middle East, Central & South America, and Africa.
As these political issues continue to be debated in the public arena, it is clear that corporate directors have some skin in the game. One board member lamented having to make major decisions “based on assumptions that can change in a very short time.” Board directors recognize the ramifications of these issues on the companies they oversee and need to be ready to respond to dramatic changes to the political landscape.