For businesses, pressures are mounting to act on sustainability. The social trend is strong and pushed by the workforce, clients and investors alike. The gathering sense of urgency is supported by the scientific consensus that the next ten years are key for climate change.
However, commendable exhortations to do more, more quickly often run straight into the realities of business and budgets. Claims that doing good for the planet will create financial value are hard to justify when the time comes for investment decisions. Data and evidence are missing or aggregated into broad ESG metrics which capture too much and are inconsistent with one another. There seems to be no basis for rational decision making.
What can senior executives do?
As every year, here are our core assumptions on macro scenarios which will underly corporate strategic options.
Let us have a dream. With efficient and swift vaccination campaigns, a recovery in 2021 is confirmed. This recovery is uneven. China beacons from afar with 8% growth in 2021 on top of 2% growth in 2020. Overall, fast-growing markets finish 2021 with a GDP 4% above 2019. The USA finishes 3% above 2019. Europe does not recover before 2022 at the earliest.
In this dream, the crisis already waves from a distance. Some countries and corporations move out stronger from the crisis. Others are strongly weakened. The world embarks on the next decade and beyond. What does it look like?
After forty years of strong growth of the world economy and stock markets, the acquisitions and disposals resulting from industry restructurings have generated a significant number of large family holding companies, whose ambitions go beyond the mere risk diversification of their wealth.
Today in the United States, there are more than 900 family holding companies with more than 500 million dollars of assets, including 400 with more than 1 billion dollars of assets and 25 with more than 5 billion dollars (on average, the stake in the historical company represents less than 50% of the total). Globally, the number of these holding companies is growing by 18% per year.
Some of these holding companies, especially when they are newly created, have difficulty defining their positioning, their strategy, and therefore their organization.
Contrary to the hopes of some, the economic and competitive world of tomorrow will be just like the one of yesterday, but with more contrasts and speed in its evolution. The health and economic crisis has sharply accelerated the major dynamics in the development of certain businesses, technologies, customer access methods, geographies… at the expense of others, in particular certain mature businesses and countries. We now see in a few months disruptions and substitutions which would have taken place over five to ten years in other times.
Global GDP is likely to fall by 3% in 2020. This is the largest economic downturn since 1945, albeit not at the same magnitude than at the time or during the 1929 crisis. For companies, additional credit will not compensate for losses in capital and value. The only companies to come out of the crisis stronger – or simply to survive it – are those that focus all of their resources on their strengths, as long as those strengths also match the growth trends of tomorrow. The most rational thinking today is to bet on a forced and brutal return to reality. What is this reality?
The exceptional global economic growth of the past 70 years is today threatened by three strong factors. The pressure induced on the middle classes, which results in temptations of national withdrawal and protectionism. The fight against climate change linked to the use of fossil fuels which results – beyond energy savings and changes in the energy mix – in temptations to reduce global growth and relocate production. The anticipation of a virtual disappearance of fossil fuels and their impossible replacement in the required proportions by the year 2070, which can fundamentally challenge economic growth.
One of the critical roles of boards and chairpersons of large groups is to define the level of ambition for their companies and shareholders in terms of growth and return to share to shareholders. If this level is too high, the risks entailed may lead to losing independence; if it is too low, the company might become vulnerable to attacks from competitors. How to calibrate the level of ambition?
Paradoxically enough, successful companies often face a growth issue. They have developed strong positions thanks to a competitive and differentiating model which generates strong profitability and cash flows. However, their growth is low: markets are often mature and growing slowly; it is difficult and expensive to gain market share. There is one possible option: developing a new pillar.
No company will create value in the long term if it does not growth regularly. This growth is necessary to maintain strong competitiveness, motivate teams, attract talents and pay shareholders.
Growth ambitions are often not consistent with value creation ambitions: strategic plans tend to be the sum of the strategic plans of activities and geographies. Therefore, how to calibrate the growth ambition?
As the world’s second largest economy, China is the key market for future growth and value creation in most industries. A large number of Western companies have in the past few years established significant presence in China, realized strong growth and developed profitable positions.
To continue strong growth and to increase competitiveness compared to Chinese leaders in their home market, Western companies need to address some key issues and shift strategic levers so as not to lose momentum.