Global Execs Bullish On U.S. – 2016 Views From C-Suite Study by A.T. Kearney
Our annual Views from the C-Suite study reflects the collective judgment of 400 C-level executives and board members from around the world on both the opportunities and the challenges in the global business operating environment (see sidebar: About the Study). The survey behind the study is organized into three sections. The first asks executives to determine the likelihood of a variety of discrete potential global developments. The second focuses on business operations, which we define as a firm’s internal processes, people, and systems. The third focuses on the external environment, which we define as economic, political, social, and other external developments that affect businesses. We asked global executives about the opportunities and the challenges they face in both of these areas. Because the time frame of the majority of the questions put to the executives is just 12 months, this study focuses on the constellation of immediate issues absorbing the C-suite’s attention.
This year’s Views from the C-Suite survey was conducted in April 2016. In the headlines at the time—and certainly on the minds of C-suite executives—were, among other things, the leaked “Panama Papers,” the International Monetary Fund’s decision to lower its global growth forecast for 2016 from 3.4 to 3.2 percent, the swelling debate on the economic implications of a potential Brexit, and the continued appeal of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US presidential primary elections. Other major global events in April included the impending impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, the arrest by Belgian police of the man believed to have played a major role in the Brussels and Paris terrorist attacks, and the failure of OPEC to agree on a production cap. It was clearly a volatile time in the global operating environment, with many competing priorities on the minds of C-suite executives we surveyed.
Assessing the Likelihood of Global Developments
We asked global business executives to evaluate the likelihood of 10 different potential developments that could affect the global business operating environment over the next 12 months, and we found that global executives are deeply divided in their outlook. Six of the 10 possible global developments resulted in a nearly dead-even split (within the margin of error) on the likelihood that they would occur in the next 12 months.3 In contrast to last year’s results, in which global executives’ judgment was conclusive for all 10 developments, this year’s results reflect the uncertainty of the international environment.
Such a dramatic split in outlook suggests that businesses may act with caution in the year ahead, delaying new investment or planned expansions and carefully monitoring developments. For instance, Moody’s recently estimated that the US nonfinancial firms it rates are sitting on about $1.7 trillion in reserves, up 1.8 percent from the previous year.4 Despite this overall uncertainty, there are elements on which executives are more positive, suggesting some cautious optimism. For instance, global executives believe that terrorism is unlikely to increase further in the next 12 months and that the internal pressures in Europe are likely to decrease in the coming year.
We begin by presenting the development that garnered the strongest level of agreement among executives on whether or not it is likely to occur, and we end with the one where opinion is the most divided. Accompanying figures illustrate the distribution across each response on a scale from 1 (certain not to happen) to 10 (certain to happen). The graphs are color-coded red to represent an unfavorable outcome for the global business operating environment, and green to represent a favorable outcome.
Terrorist attacks are likely to decrease
Executives are most aligned on their assessment of the likelihood of terrorist attacks around the world: 59 percent believe an increase in terrorist attacks is unlikely (see figure 1). This is a notable departure from last year, when 82 percent of executives believed an increase in terrorist attacks to be likely. In other words, the percentage of executives concerned about increasing terrorist attacks is just half (41 percent) what it was last year. Perhaps executives believe that after terrorist attacks in Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, France, Belgium, and elsewhere over the past year, the world has turned a corner in the offense-defense balance against such events.
The European Union will likely begin to strengthen
In a similarly optimistic vein, 57 percent of executives believe that political, economic, and social pressures in the European Union (EU) are likely to decrease over the next 12 months (see figure 2). This sentiment is strongest in the Americas, where 64 percent of respondents hold this view, compared to 52 percent in Europe and 53 percent in Asia. The weaker response from European executives is not surprising given the ongoing migration crisis, the rise of political extremism in the region, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Overall, however, respondents may feel encouraged by somewhat stronger economic growth, competitive euro exchange rates, and the European Central Bank (ECB) commitment to monetary policy stimulus.
Central banks will likely end negative interest rates and quantitative easing
A slim majority—56 percent—of executives believe that central banks in the main developed markets will normalize monetary policy in the next 12 months (see figure 3). Fully 72 percent of executives in last year’s survey believed that the ECB’s quantitative easing program would successfully revive the eurozone economy. While the jury may still be out on that outcome, it is clear that the US Federal Reserve has begun to restore normal monetary policies. A slight edge in favor of the optimistic camp may reflect confidence that the Federal Reserve will continue raising interest rates in the second half of 2016, and that the ECB and Bank of Japan may then follow suit, thus harmonizing global monetary policy.
Economic and financial volatility will probably lessen
Fifty-five percent of executives believe that economic and financial volatility will be lower in the coming 12 months than over the past year (see figure 4). This is in marked contrast to last year’s survey, in which 82 percent of respondents thought financial volatility would increase over the coming 12-month period. Respondents from the Americas are less confident than the global average this year: only 48 percent believe economic and financial volatility will not increase over the next year. This may be due to the six-month high in US market volatility since August 2015, triggered in part by continued declining oil prices, uncertainty over Federal Reserve monetary policy plans, and China’s currency devaluation and stock market volatility.
Territorial tensions between China and its neighbors are a wild card
Fifty-four percent of survey respondents agree that maritime tensions between China and its neighbors will decrease (see figure 5). Executives based in the Americas are the most optimistic, with 57 percent predicting a decrease in territorial disputes. Perhaps they believe the US “pivot” to Asia—the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s foreign policy—will deter China from making more assertive territorial claims. In contrast, Asian executives are split exactly 50-50 on whether territorial tensions will decrease in the next 12 months.
The global economic growth outlook is uncertain
Executives’ outlook on the global economy reflects a slight edge, at 52 percent, for the camp that expects global growth will not slow dramatically (see figure 6). The 52-48 split likely reflects looming concern over issues such as the US Federal Reserve’s plan to increase interest rates, China’s economic outlook, global oil prices, and key emerging market prospects. Views vary, however, depending on the sector executives work in. For example, 58 percent of service-sector executives believe global economic growth is unlikely to slow, while 58 percent of executives in the IT industry hold the opposite view. One possible reason for the different interpretations: China and other major economies are opening their service sectors to global competition, while concerns about data privacy, security, and control are raising the specter of greater protectionism in the IT sector.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is as likely as not to be ratified
The global C-suite is uncertain whether the TPP will enter into force, with just 52 percent of executives believing that it will be ratified in the next 12 months (see figure 7). Executives from the Americas are the most confident that the TPP will be ratified, at 55 percent. This is somewhat surprising given the harsh criticism of the TPP by major US presidential candidates. Executives may expect, however, that despite sour public rhetoric, latent congressional support exists to ratify the TPP during the lame-duck session after the November elections and before the new members of Congress take office in January 2017.
China’s economic growth outlook is uncertain
Executives across all regions are evenly split on their expectations for the Chinese economy (see figure 8). Although this suggests profound uncertainty regarding China’s short-term economic outlook, the results are more optimistic than those from last year. In 2015, fully 77 percent of global executives thought it was likely that China’s economic growth rate would slow to below 6 percent. Global executives’ somewhat more positive outlook in 2016 may possibly be explained by China’s resilience and agility in the face of challenges to economic performance and financial-sector stability. The uncertainty this year is likely due to lingering concerns surrounding China’s attempted shift from investment and manufacturing toward consumption and services, as well as its foreign exchange rate and equity market policies.
Opinion is mixed on the growing appeal of populist leaders and extremist political parties
The executives we surveyed are evenly split on whether populist leaders and extremist political parties will continue to gain support in major democracies (see figure 9). In the past year, the world has seen the increasing influence of populist movements on the far left in Spain and Greece, and on the far right in France, Austria, and Italy. In the United States, two of the last three presidential candidates to remain in the race espouse populist ideologies. The conventional wisdom had suggested that such populist leaders and extremist parties would ultimately reach an upper threshold of support—well below the level required to take actual power. However, the fact that populist parties now rule in several European countries, including Greece and Hungary, as well as the growing global popularity of what previously were regarded as “fringe” candidates has called this wisdom into question, which may explain the divided opinion in the global C-suite on the outlook for populism and extremism.
Emerging markets may-or may not-stage a comeback
Global executives are split 50-50 on whether emerging markets are likely to lead global growth and investment in the next 12 months (see figure 10). In last year’s survey, 77 percent of executives thought emerging markets would stage a comeback. The regional divide on this question is noteworthy: 56 percent of respondents in the Americas think a comeback is likely, while 56 percent of those in Asia do not. This is not entirely surprising, as Asian economies are more exposed than their counterparts in other regions to a slowing China. At the same time, the US economy continues to gradually gain strength, and the forecast for many Latin America economies has trended more positive in recent months.
Opportunities and Challenges in Business Operations
What about the opportunities and challenges that global executives face in the ways they run their businesses? Two business-operations issues in particular are front and center for executives: the efficiency of their business models and their skill at adopting new technologies. Both topics are among the top challenges and the top opportunities identified by global executives (see figures 11 and 12). It is not just that executives in some regions or sectors have a competitive advantage in these areas, though. Rather, the nature of these two business operations issues is not clear-cut, as more than 45 percent of the executives who point to each of these as a top challenge also say it is a top opportunity. These are perennial issues for the C-suite. The same two business-operations issues—business-model efficiency improvements and technological innovation and adoption—also topped the list of operational opportunities in the 2015 Views from the C-Suite.
Business model efficiency: opportunity and challenge
Global executives cite improving business model efficiency as the top-ranked business operations opportunity, while declining business model efficiency is their third most important challenge. Costs are of foremost concern for executives on both sides of the business model efficiency equation.
Business leaders across two of the three regions and sectors point to reducing costs as one of their top two opportunities to make their business model more efficient. The exceptions are executives in Europe, who are more focused on improving key business activities and customer relationships, and those in the IT sector, for whom improvement in key business activities and the use of key partnerships are most important.5
The global C-suite also sees rising costs as the top challenge associated with declining business model efficiency. One cost that may be on executives’ minds is energy, since global oil prices have been steadily rising from their rock-bottom level in early 2016. Other major challenges in this space are the underperformance of key resources—particularly for executives in the Americas and in the IT sector—and a weakening of key business activities.6 These underperformance challenges may be related to the anemic economic performance of major markets and of the broader global economy (see Opportunities and Challenges in the External Environment).
Technology adoption: opportunity and challenge
Business leaders cite difficulty in adopting new technologies as their second greatest operational challenge in the next 12 months— while ranking successful adoption of those technologies as the fourth greatest opportunity. What specific technologies? Cloud computing, big data/predictive analytics, and mobile technology. The C-suite is more positive about the effects of adopting cloud computing and big data/predictive analytics, while executives view mobile technology as a mixed proposition (see figure 13). Given that cybersecurity risks top the list of business operations challenges (see below), the explanation for this lukewarm attitude toward mobile technology might be the difficulty of keeping mobile applications secure from cyberattack. There are also challenges associated with big data (particularly in terms of keeping customer data secure) and cloud computing (for example, service quality and interoperability). But global executives seem to think the opportunities associated with these technologies—such as harnessing predictive analytics to better target and serve customers and outsourcing storage and other business services to the cloud—outweigh these challenges.
The primacy of these three technology areas is consistent across executives in most regions and industries. One exception is that Asian executives rank biotechnology, rather than mobile technology, as their third most important technological adoption opportunity. In addition, both Asian and IT executives see embedded sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT) as among their top challenges in technological adoption. In the case of IT executives, more than 40 percent identify this as their greatest challenge in the next 12 months.
Successful innovation: opportunity
After improving business model efficiency, the second-highest-ranking business operations opportunity is successful innovation. This may suggest that CXOs are taking to heart the Harvard Business Review study that found that at the most innovative companies, senior executives have a direct role in creating an innovation process.7 Technology tops the list of opportunities within the innovation category, highlighting its increasing importance in shaping how business is conducted. Unsurprisingly, it is executives in the IT sector (61 percent) and those in the industry sector (59 percent) who identify technological innovation as their greatest innovation opportunity in the next 12 months. In contrast, leaders in the services sector point to business model innovation as their top innovation opportunity.
Better strategy execution: opportunity
In the view of the C-suite, the third largest business operations opportunity is improved strategy execution. A large plurality of global executives (42 percent) identify greater agility and adaptability to changing market conditions as the top opportunity within strategy execution. Asian executives, however, see rewarding innovation and teamwork in performance metrics as their top opportunity to improve strategy execution.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda recently highlighted the importance of agility at a financial results press conference, saying “We are prepared for our circumstances to change this year, and as such, we have already worked hard to strengthen our competitiveness and build a robust financial foundation. Rather than simply reacting to events as they occur, we must always be ready to overcome any circumstances and face up to the changes ahead without wavering from our core goals.”8
Rising cybersecurity risks: challenge
According to global business leaders, the top business operations risk overall is cybersecurity. Given the high-profile cyberattacks that companies in a variety of sectors and markets have suffered in recent years, it is unsurprising that 40 percent of business executives cite cybersecurity as one of their top three challenges. As we highlighted in our report Global Trends 2015-2025: Divergence, Disruption, and Innovation, cyber insecurity is likely to grow in the coming years as more devices are connected to the Internet and businesses potentially get caught in the crossfire of escalating cyber warfare between governments.
Craig Hinkley, CEO of web applications security firm WhiteHat, said at the March 2016 RSA Conference on cybersecurity, “It’s to a point now where …everything is monetized through the web. I think the importance [of cybersecurity] is becoming so relevant to the boards because they understand if there’s a breach, then they are not just dealing with the financial implications now. It’s the IP, it’s the brand, and it has real monetary impact on the financials of the company.”9 Among the executives who point to cybersecurity risks as a major challenge, their biggest focus is on employee cybersecurity training and awareness. This is true across all sectors and regions, with executives in the industry sector particularly focused on employee training. Other cybersecurity challenges arise from the loss of business continuity due to an attack (with executives in IT and in Europe ranking this above all others) and weak cyber defense systems.
Opportunities and Challenges in the External Environment
More than one-third of executives identify cost and availability of capital as a key challenge or a key opportunity in the external environment over the next 12 months. Another topic executives find important is expanding globalization, which almost 40 percent name as one of their top three external opportunities (see figures 14 and 15). While this seemingly contradicts some of the top challenges executives identify in the external environment—for example, weak macroeconomic performance and the potential deterioration of tax and regulatory policies—it may actually signal that the C-suite is counting on expanding globalization to provide growth in new markets in the face of these macroeconomic and policy challenges.
Cost and availability of capital: opportunity and challenge
High cost or low availability of capital is the top challenge in the external environment, while low cost or high availability of capital is the third-highest ranking opportunity. In fact, 40 percent of those who identify capital as a key opportunity also point to it as a key challenge. This is unsurprising since the world’s main central banks have all used unconventional monetary policy since the Global Financial Crisis. Additionally, monetary policies are increasingly diverging. For instance, the ECB pushed its benchmark interest rate down to 0.0 percent in March 2016 to stimulate economic activity, while Brazil’s central bank has been holding its benchmark rate steady at 14.25 percent since July 2015 in an effort to combat inflation. And even where rates are low, banks and other financial institutions may not be willing to lend, affecting the availability of capital.
Not all executives who are concerned about the cost and availability of capital agree on what they would like to do with it. On the one hand, executives who cite the cost or availability of capital as a top opportunity are focused on using it to invest in R&D, new markets, and increased marketing budgets. On the other hand, those who point to the cost or availability of capital as a challenge are concerned about the inability to invest sufficiently in internal projects, R&D, and employee compensation. R&D is the only type of investment that makes the top three on both lists, highlighting its importance to the C-suite. The primacy of R&D makes sense given the importance of continued innovation to remain competitive, despite the dearth of private sector investment globally in recent years.
Expanding globalization: opportunity
Global executives say expanding globalization is the top external opportunity. In particular, the C-suite points to international intellectual property (IP) protection, business process outsourcing, and sourcing from foreign markets as key opportunities stemming from greater globalization. Significantly, only the last of these three is related to international trade in goods, which in years past has been used as a proxy for globalization and is now waning as a share of global GDP. Global executives’ interest in IP protection and business process outsourcing, however, may presage the next wave of 21st-century globalization, in which merchandise trade takes a backseat to foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade in services. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) anticipates this next wave by including provisions for IP protection and trade in services. In fact, the TPP may be driving some of the survey results, as executives in Asia and those in the services sector are the only groups that point to new trade agreements as a top globalization opportunity.
The global C-suite focus on globalization in spite of slower trade growth is also consistent with the findings of the 2016 A.T. Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index, in which more than 70 percent of executives said that they plan to increase FDI in the next three years. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt recently announced a new globalization strategy that embodies many of these issues. Pointing to the prospect of higher protectionism and growing governmental dysfunctionality, Immelt said, “With globalization, it is time for a bold pivot. GE has $80 billion of revenue outside the US, so global growth is critical to our success…. Going forward: We will localize. In the future, sustainable growth will require a local capability inside a global footprint…. A localization strategy can’t be shut down by protectionist politics.”10 One example of such a localized strategy is Netflix’s recent announcement that it will make an original, local-language streaming series in India based on a best-selling Indian novel.
Favorable competitive landscape: opportunity
The second highest-ranked external opportunity is what global executives regard as a favorable competitive landscape. This is somewhat related to the opportunity of expanding globalization, as one of the top aspects of a favorable competitive landscape is viable new markets. This is particularly true for executives based in Europe and in Asia. Corporations that have successfully entered new markets are enjoying relative success. For instance, UK-based retailer New Look has expanded aggressively in emerging markets such as China and beat the 2015 profit and sales results of many of its more domestically focused competitors as a result.11
Other competitive landscape aspects executives see as opportunities are strong growth in the market for their product or service and rising market share vis-a-vis competitors. Notably, more than 50 percent of IT executives point to strong growth in the market for their product or service as a top opportunity, signaling likely growth in the IT industry as it reaches new customers in markets around the world.
Weak macroeconomic performance: challenge
Executives point to weak macroeconomic performance as the second most important challenge in the external environment, just behind the cost and availability of capital. In particular, executives around the world highlight economic challenges in East Asia (including China), North America, and Western Europe. This should come as no surprise given that these are the three largest regions within the global Executives are most concerned economy, and all three continue to suffer from economic growth well below their output about the economic performance of markets close to home potential. Examining the survey responses at the regional level, however, reveals that the C-suite is in fact most worried about the Americas economic performance of markets that are closest to home.
The notable exception is that weak economic performance of China/East Asia is front-of-mind for executives no matter where they are based. This concern is consistent with the 50-50 split on whether Chinese economic growth will slip below 6 percent in the next 12 months (see above). Nevertheless, multinational corporations remain interested in the Chinese market. For the fourth year in a row, China ranked second in the 2016 A.T. Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index, and the US-China Business Council reports that 90 percent of American companies say that growth prospects in China are as good as or better than in other emerging markets.12
Worsening regulatory and tax policies: challenge
Global executives point to worsening regulatory and tax policies as their third most important challenge in the external environment over the next 12 months. Unsurprisingly, corporate tax rates and incentives are the top concern within this topic. With growing popular and political scrutiny of corporate tax minimization practices, this issue will likely continue to preoccupy the global C-suite in the months and years ahead.
Labor regulations are another policy that is creating key challenges for global corporations— particularly for executives in the industry sector. This may be a result of the rapid rise in the use of industrial robots, which grew 89 percent in the five years to 2014, creating new alternatives to traditional labor in the industry sector. Taxes and regulations on international trade are also a top concern of the global C-suite. It is not difficult to understand why, given the protectionist rhetoric emanating from many major markets around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries throughout Europe. If any of this political talk is actually translated into action, it also risks sparking counter-protectionist measures from countries such as China. This risk may help explain why companies are increasingly turning to FDI and services trade, rather than merchandise trade, to harness the opportunities of expanding globalization.
The specific implications of these views from the C-Suite will vary based on the sector, geographic footprint, and strategy of each company. However, there are several broader business implications that C-suite executives and other decision makers will want to keep in mind in the coming 12 months:
- Uncertainty in the outlook could create a corporate shakeout. The profound uncertainty about the direction of most key global developments means that companies are likely placing bets on both sides of the ledger. Still others may sit on the fence until the outlook is clearer. As events unfold in the coming months and years, this means that some companies will be winners while others will be losers. If companies place big bets in one direction or the other, the coming global corporate shakeout could be profound. For instance, if the Chinese economy implodes, companies that are heavily exposed to the Chinese market could suffer large losses. And companies whose leadership assumes that populism will remain on the campaign trail and will not end up affecting policies throughout Europe and the United States could face costly regulations if they are wrong. The best-positioned companies will be those that prepare for multiple contingencies, utilizing scenario planning or some other future-oriented strategic tools.
- It is important to get technology right. It is increasingly important that companies adopt the right technologies for their business and then invest sufficiently in their implementation to foster success. At the same time, mitigating the potential downsides of technology will be imperative. Global executives understand the importance of training employees to reduce cybersecurity risks, but employee engagement and awareness is crucial in any technology adoption process. It will also be important for the C-suite to look beyond the hype, opting to strategically implement only those technologies that align with their company’s business model and strategy.
- Globalization should be pursued carefully. While global executives see great opportunity in expanding globalization, they should proceed with caution. Growth markets exist in all regions of the world, but so too do rising nationalist sentiments and protectionist policies. Related to this is the rise in geopolitical tensions between major powers in recent years. Geopolitical tensions have already impeded the operations of multinational corporations in large markets such as Russia, and more could follow suit in the coming months and years. Global business executives should be mindful of these risks as they seek opportunities abroad. One potential mitigation strategy is to pursue localization—in terms of both production and branding—in select markets so that companies are viewed as local players and are less vulnerable to potential disruptions in international supply chains.
- Agility in strategy execution is more important than ever. Many global executives point to agility in strategy execution in the face of changing market conditions as a key opportunity in the coming 12 months, but even more of the C-suite should be paying attention to this issue. The macroeconomic performance of major economies around the world continues to be weak and volatile, and global executives point to challenges in worsening regulatory and tax policies. In this constantly shifting external environment, the ability of companies to adapt nimbly to new opportunities and challenges will be a crucial driver of business success or failure.
Read more: C-Suite Views on America@250
The authors would like to thank Courtney Rickert McCaffrey and Stephanie M. Hollinger for their important contributions to this report.
- Business operations are defined in the survey as a firm’s internal processes, people, and systems.
- The external environment refers to economic, political, social, and other external developments that affect businesses.
- The margin of error is ±4.9 percentage points.
- Moody’s Investor Service, “Moody’s: US non-financial corporates’ cash pile increases to $1.68 trillion, tech holding the lead,” news release, 20 May 2016, https://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-US-non-financial-corporates-cash-pile-increases-to-168–PR_349330
- Key business activities include production, platform leveraging, and services provision, among others. Key partnerships include those with buyers, suppliers, or other strategic allies.
- Key resources include physical, intellectual, human, and financial resources, among others.
- Dyer, Jeffrey H., Hal B. Gregersen, and Clayton M. Christensen. “The innovator’s DNA.” Harvard Business Review 87, no. 12 (2009): 60–67, https://hbr.org/2009/12/the-innovators-dna
- “Financial Results for the Fiscal Year Ended March 2016: Prepared Remarks by President Akio Toyoda,” Toyota Global Newsroom, 11 May 2016, http://newsroom.toyota.co.jp/en/detail/12019782/
- Lisa Croel, “WhiteHat Interview with CEO Craig Hinkley—RSA 2016,” WhiteHat Security (blog), 16 March 2016, https://www.whitehatsec.com/
- Jeffrey R. Immelt, “The World I See,” graduate convocation to the class of 2016 at New York University Leonard N. Stern School of Business, 20 May 2016, http://www.gereports.com/the-world-i-see-immelts-advice-to-win-in-the-time-of-globalization/
- Paul McClean, “New Look Bucks High-Street Slowdown,” Financial Times, 7 June 2016, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/fa17e226-2cbc11e6-a18d-a96ab29e3c95.html
- 2015 USCBC Member Survey Report. https://www.uschina.org/sites/default/files/USCBC%202015%20China%20Business%20 Environment%20Member%20Survey_0.pdf