While we’re in the midst of the
second longest economic recovery in history, many economists and business
leaders are questioning whether we’re nearing the end of the bull run. With slower
global gross domestic product growth forecast for 2019 and 2020—particularly in
the EU, the U.S., and emerging economies—and some seeing at least a modest risk
of a U.S. recession in 2019 and a growing risk in 2020, there’s clearly a
growing sense of caution. Financial conditions are tightening in advanced
economies, and a number of Fortune 500 companies have announced first-quarter
earnings forecasts that have fallen short of analysts’ forecasts.

We hear varying levels of concern from
directors about a potential economic downturn and possible recession—concerns
that are compounded by mounting geopolitical uncertainty and risks posed by Brexit,
China’s economic challenges, trade tensions, emerging market debt, and more. While
directors appear to be cautiously optimistic, as one director said, “In this
environment, it’s good to be paranoid.”

Given the uncertainty that
companies are facing today, it is important that board leaders frame their
agendas to help ensure that the company is prepared for a potential economic
downturn—possibly a severe one. While watching for signs of systemic economic
weakness, board leaders should also be mindful of lessons learned from the last
recession. Among the key areas for board focus today and in the months to come:

Scenario planning.
What scenario planning is the company doing around a hard Brexit, tariffs, a
trade war with China, rising inflation, and rising interest rates? Are there
second-order effects that will impact the company’s industry, supply chain, and/or
value chain? Does management prepare a set of probability scenarios for how the
future might unfold and consider the threats and opportunities that those
scenarios present? Do the strategic options balance a commitment to a course of
action with the flexibility to adjust amid different future scenarios?

Growth, capital allocation, and cost cutting. How is the company balancing cost reduction and growth
initiatives? How is it determining whether to invest in capital projects versus
buybacks or dividends? How does the company balance taking advantage of growth
opportunities with belt tightening in anticipation of an economic slowdown? The
world is moving forward regardless of the capital cycles, and companies that
are being disrupted need to make technology investments. At the same time, can
the company head into a downturn with a slightly fatter balance sheet?

access to capital, and cash flow
are the company’s plans to raise debt/equity in the short and medium term? How
dependent is the company on short-term financing? Are credit lines secure? Is the
company at risk of default on debt covenants?

against commodity, currency, and interest rate fluctuations
will be the impact of tariffs, inflation, and recession on commodity costs and
procurement strategies? How will changes impact the ability to obtain economic
hedges against commodity, currency, and interest rate fluctuations?

to third parties
.Does the
company understand its exposure to third parties who may experience financial
difficulty (customers, suppliers, lenders, and others)?

Fair value and asset impairments of businesses. Does management understand how vulnerable the company’s portfolio is to changes in value in
this environment? Has management identified triggering events that may warrant
impairment assessments of goodwill
and other intangible assets? How will changes in financial markets impact the
valuation of pension plan assets and planned or mandatory funding levels? 

While we remain cautiously
optimistic that the economy is on firm footing and that any recession will be
short and shallow, “an ounce of prevention…” as the saying goes.

Dennis T. Whalen is Leader of KPMG’s Board Leadership Center.