Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group, is often described as a guru of political risk—a type of risk that’s becoming more important for companies to consider. In his keynote address at the 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, he advised that, although companies have traditionally focused on financial returns, they will need to be primarily concerned about the security of their investments going forward—and investments stand to be radically impacted by geopolitical disruption. Bremmer noted that the impact of significant global changes is much greater than the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections.
He also pointed out two global developments that companies need to keep top of mind:
1. The increased fragmentation of geopolitical power: Over the past half century, American businesses conflated Americanization with globalization. That line of thinking is failing to hold up, and Americanization of global markets has halted. The United States can no longer set and control the rules of global diplomacy and market place and will be increasingly reluctant to police global tensions. The United States’ transatlantic partnerships are weakening, and the European common market is under threat. These conditions have created an economic power vacuum that China is primed to step up and lead.
A champion of state-owned enterprise and the yuan, China has economic interests that are not aligned with those of the United States. This creates problems for U.S. businesses seeking to conduct business abroad. “Political hedging leads to economic hedging,” Bremmer said. “Corporations that are seen as being aligned with one country will be challenged to commercially succeed in others.” Uber’s failure in China is just one example.
2. The erosion of key social contracts: In recent years, there have been breakdowns in the implicit social contracts between governments and citizens and between companies and consumers. Rising populist anger is challenging the legitimacy of governments and threatening longstanding commitments to free trade. On the economic front, developed countries are spurring economic growth through innovative applications of technology—but these advancements are displacing millions of workers. As a result, Bremmer foresees a rise in nationalistic parties that will challenge the status quo and threaten international commerce, following similar strategies as the Brexit movement the U.K.
But where governments fail to adapt, other parties can step in to make amends—and companies are well positioned to be part of the solution. Bremmer offered the example of AT&T, which faced the possibility of needing to lay off a portion of its workforce because their work no longer supported the company’s future growth. But AT&T also knew that because of the transformations in the telecommunications industry in recent years, these workers would be hard pressed to find employment at another firm. Instead, the company decided to retrain these workers so they could support AT&T’s future trajectory. “If a corporation is the first to say it understands the social contract is breaking down and offers a solution, it will serve them well,” Bremmer said.