Over-regulation discomforts Corporate Chiefs

Dennis Nally – 

As they look forward to the year ahead, Chief Executives are less confident about prospects for the global economy than they were in 2015. The same is true overall when they consider their own company’s prospects for growth.

Many CEOs do see opportunities but they are looking to play things safe.

The United States of America and China are far and away from the most important markets that CEOs identify as offering the best prospects for growth, with Germany and the United Kingdom some way behind.

That said, CEOs also see potential in India’s bullish business attitude and in Brazil despite its current political and economic struggles.

Potential new opportunities in Mexico and the United Arab Emirates have also made CEOs pay attention in the last year.

Overregulation bothers

CEOs continue to highlight overregulation as their biggest concern.

But even as issues like increased tax burden and governments’ response to fiscal deficits and debt burdens loom large, geopolitical uncertainty (exacerbated by regional conflicts and increased terrorism attacks) is a top concern for nearly three quarters of CEOs.

More disorienting still for CEOs is their growing feeling that our globalised economic and social fabric is fraying as divergent political, business, societal and cultural movements take hold. This is driven by digital technologies that have enabled people all over the world to be more connected, better informed, and as a result, increasingly empowered and emboldened.

It is not lost on CEOs that a great many of these technologically empowered citizens are also their customers or potential customers. While they are better connected than ever before, they must also navigate a world that is being dramatically shaped by other megatrends such as increasing urbanisation, climate change and rapid demographic and social shifts.

Serving communities

Faced with these changes, CEOs tell us that customers will increasingly judge companies based on how they help greater society and how they live up to their own values. Notably, nearly a quarter of CEOs said that their company has changed its sense of purpose in the last three years to take into account the broader impact it has on society.

To successfully address the expectations of a super-connected and technologically smart society, companies are looking to technology (of course) for answers.

Internet-enabled technologies continue to help companies innovate by creating more relevant products and user experiences for customers, while ‘digital native’ talent is now deemed essential for future business growth. Yet for all the technological breakthroughs in areas like customer insight and marketing, companies still struggle to create a business proposition that both drives growth and creates value for greater society.

This could be because, in a digitally driven world where theoretically every part of business can be measured, CEOs have not yet mastered how to measure the long-term success that comes from being a trusted company and good corporate citizen.

Over time, technology, once again, will no doubt help CEOs effectively measure how better products and services, combined with a transparent relationship with customers, employees and greater society can future-proof their companies in this uncertain world.

But they have to know what success looks like in the first place.

Today’s CEOs face a business environment that is becoming increasingly complicated to read and adapt.

Seven years on from the global financial crisis, the business landscape has not really returned to what it was. Will it ever?

Last year, regulation, skills, national debt, geopolitical uncertainty and taxes topped CEOs’ list of concerns about threats to business growth. None of these has gone away this year. In fact, the level of worry is higher today than in the past five years.

Other uncertainties

There are, moreover, other uncertainties with which CEOs must contend.

Where there is reasonable economic growth, it is often aided by extraordinary monetary policies, even though the US Federal Reserve bucked this trend recently by raising US interest rates for the first time in nine years.

This move, together with China’s surprise devaluation of the Yuan in August 2015, helps explain why exchange rate volatility, cited by 73% of CEOs, is third among their top concerns.

CEOs are keeping a close eye on China, given the continued importance they place on its economy for their own growth prospects.

Its economic rebalancing, the fragility of its debt-laden local governments and its faltering manufacturing sector continue to spook investors and rattle a number of industries – not least the commodities sector that rode the wave of China’s rapid growth and now is bearing the brunt of the slowdown.

Dennis Nally is Chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited based in London. The above is an edited version of his introductory remarks to the PwC Global CEOs Survey 2016, related stories of which in this Section.

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