Journalists Annukka Oksanen and Ville Blåfield discover how business is impacted by politics.
What went through your mind, when you heard about the terrorist attacks on a concert hall and restaurants in Paris in November 2015?
Naturally, the most far-reaching, abiding, heart wrenching consequence of the Paris attacks was the loss of 132 lives. But there were also other repercussions on Paris, France, and the world at large – momentary and durable, humane and political.
Some of the aftermaths of the terrorist attacks have a direct or indirect impact on European businesses.
The travel industry was shaken up immediately, which in France is huge, employing 2 million people, and forming 7 percent of the country’s GDP. According to a survey by financial information services provider Markit, the terrorist attacks had immediate effects also on the service sector on the whole.
Economy and politics are so interwoven that they are impossible to separate completely. Global news and events affect businesses, either immediately or in the long term, even without apparent relevance for a particular sector at the time.”
Peter Praet, member of the European Central Bank Executive Board, assesses the repercussions of the Paris attacks in an interview for Bloomberg as follows:
”Usually these sorts of events have a transitory effect on the economy so this is not a priori a reason to change the way we see the evolution of the European economy. It’s also true on the other hand that we have a fragile cyclical recovery, fragile with downside risk, and it’s clear these sort of events do not help restoring confidence in the recovery, so this is something we will watch.”
The Paris attacks are just one of many political events with financial consequences.
Economy and politics are so interwoven that they are impossible to separate completely. Global news and events affect businesses, either immediately or in the long term, even without apparent relevance for a particular sector at the time.
At the same time, social discourse is crying out for companies to help, whether in integrating immigrants, solving climate change, producing health care services, or producing development aid.
This means that companies benefit not only from understanding, but shaping politics. In a world that is open and abounds in networks in an unprecedented way, examining how corner offices of HQs follow, understand, and anticipate international political events becomes increasingly valid. Both breaking news, such as the Paris attacks, and long-term trends, like climate change, impact global economy. But are companies paying enough attention? What are the effects of the daily news on our businesses? Which events mean trouble, and which offer potential? This article seeks to uncover links between politics and economy, with experts from Washington, Helsinki, Copenhagen, and New York offering examples and insight.
The United States is gearing up for its presidential elections, the battle being fought in both political and personal arenas, with the likes of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the size of Donald Trump’s hands coming under fire.
The elections reverberate on global economy. This is where a certain myth gets broken; it’s actually Democratic, rather than Republican presidents who are more favorable for business. Let’s take a look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the Stock Trader’s Almanac statistics: a skim through the U.S. presidents between World War II and the present day shows that the shares of major corporations have done better during the terms of office of Democratic presidents compared to Republicans.
Of course a CEO needs to be interested in society and the world at large, not only as a citizen but as a director.”
Organizing elections seems to be a bad thing for companies on the whole. International trade may not be conservative in nature, but a predictable commercial setup is definitely preferable. Crucial moments and change of regime create uncertainty on the market, curbing investments and risktaking.
”While there are plenty of reasons why equities may struggle this year, such as falling oil prices and slowing global growth, election-related uncertainty isn't helping,” states Jeff Hirsch, Editor-in-Chief at Stock Trader's Almanac, in an interview for CNBC. “People don't like the upheaval and uncertainty of an open-ended race.”
In his comment featured in this magazine, Professor of Practice Sixten Korkman writes that global business requires an understanding of and interest in global problems. “Already Aristotle believed that an interest in social issues is a hallmark of civilization,” he says.
For Korkman, the question is as clear as day:
“Of course a CEO needs to be interested in society and the world at large, not only as a citizen but as a director.”
But not all of the corporate directors interviewed for this article agree. As an experienced managing director of an international company, which has operations on the West Coast of the United States, responded to our question on following politics from a business point of view: “Politics isn’t really my field, and doesn’t directly influence the company I lead.”
”Sounds very misguided.”
Sitting in his study at Georgetown University in Washington, Professor of International Business Diplomacy Marc L. Busch shakes his head, as he hears of a managing director who does not think of politics as his own field. Busch is an expert in international trade policy and law, and author of the book Trade Warriors. An American flag hangs between the bookshelves in his room.
“The higher up the corporate ladder, the more important it is to understand international politics, especially the rules of international politics and globalization. In addition to the content, it is important to understand political processes,” says Professor Busch.
Transparent production chains and operations based on sustainable development are good for our planet, but also for company profits.”
“Corporate directors don’t need to be politicians, but they do need to understand how international policy works, and the way decisions are made. They also need to be able to foresee the right stage for influencing decisions.”
Foresight is a vital competitive advantage for companies, enabling them to lobby politicians at a time when legislation that will affect the company’s operations and market is prepared on a national and international level. Even in the case that lobbying does not bring the desired outcome, the company is able to anticipate future changes in good enough time, as it is aware of the processes underway. Good lobbyists can be worth their weight in gold for companies.
This topic is examined by an EMBA program on offer at Georgetown University: the joint Global Executive MBA of Georgetown and ESADE combines studies in management, leadership and strategy in the subjects of global policymaking and international relations.
“Until the 1980s, international business was by and large governed by a single set of rules dating back to the 1940s. Since then, overlapping regulations have been on the rise. The world is getting increasingly complex and less predictable,” says Busch.
The U.S. professor believes that the generations born into the new world order and logic are much smarter at navigating in the new situation than their parents.
“In my view, the younger generations have a better grasp of the complex nature of globalization. Parents are stuck in the old world, while the young generation of leaders won’t be bluffed in the same way.”
But there are seniors who know how to react, too. Matti Alahuhta, former CEO and present Member of the Board of Finnish elevator company Kone, explains in his recent book Johtajuus (Engl. transl. Leadership, published by Docendo in 2015) how Kone saw the future significance of the global financial crisis for its industry already early on. Construction came to a halt in the United States, but Kone quickly became a market leader in China, thanks to timely investments and looking the right way.
The Asian market now generates a major share of the company’s revenue, and Kone is the market leader in China.
Global events may bring market potential, but also destruction. Companies need to know what people, i.e. customers, think about what goes on in the world: What development paths do they support through their consumer decisions? What are their lifestyle choices? And the role of companies does not end there – they, too operate in society after all.
An in-depth understanding of global trends can reap success, if it leads to ethical choices rewarded by customers. Transparent production chains and operations based on sustainable development are good for our planet, but also for company profits.
Professor Marc L. Busch sighs, as he explains how too often companies think corporate responsibility simply means sponsoring the local hockey team, when it could be about proactively promoting the company’s interests.
At best, responsibility denotes a wise business strategy, as the following example from the outskirts of Copenhagen in Denmark shows.
We find ourselves in a former industrial warehouse, now post-modern exhibition space.
There’s an indoor lawn, plenty of iron beams, and this rather shabby room, where a CEO ranked number one by Harvard Business Review last fall is now sitting and talking politics.
Lars Rebien Sørensen explains the political systems of China and the United States, and the fascination of the superpowers by the Nordic model. Talking politics comes naturally to Rebien Sørensen: it creates a framework for his company’s operations.
Corporate responsibility needs to be part of business. We don’t engage in anything that isn’t connected to our business.”
Rebien Sørensen heads pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, and it was the company’s environmental awareness and social responsibility that propelled him to the top spot of Harvard Business Review’s list. Based on market value, the company is the most valuable in the Nordic Countries.
The Danish company dominates about half of the world’s insulin market, and the company is engaged exactly in the way diplomats and organizations hope companies would: having a proactive role in aid work. The World Diabetes Foundation established by Novo Nordisk runs thousands of clinics in the poor regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Latin America.
At the time of the interview, Novo Nordisk is hosting the international Cities Changing Diabetes conference in Copenhagen. Copenhagen, Houston, Mexico City, Shanghai, and Tianjin are jointly developing ways to prevent and treat diabetes. The network works from the starting points of cities being able to learn from each other, and the majority of the nearly 400 million people suffering from diabetes living in urban areas. The interdisciplinary network joins up two major rising trends: urbanization, and lifestyle disease diabetes.
The initiative is expensive and important, as urbanization has been found to increase the prevalence of diabetes. The collaboration among the five cities aims to find better ways to prevent and treat diabetes in urban environments. One of the goals is for urban planners to pay attention to the disease in planning, as mobility is a key contributing factor.
Unlike other pharmaceutical giants, Novo Nordisk sells pharmaceuticals at a lower rate in poor countries. What is the point in that? And why spend money on a conference that aims to prevent diabetes?
According to Rebien Sørensen, “human tragedy is always touching”, and treating a serious disease is “the best motivator”. Yet it isn’t a question of altruistic charity.
“Corporate responsibility needs to be part of business. We don’t engage in anything that isn’t connected to our business,” Rebien Sørensen explains.
The main difference between basic business operations and social and corporate responsibility lies in the time interval. Business operations must reap enough cash in quarters, or at least as anticipated, while corporate responsibility functions in the long term. It is worth establishing clinics and selling pharmaceuticals cheaply in poor countries, where future markets are growing. That is the underlying logic behind the insulin business: as populations get wealthier, lifestyle diseases increase.
“Firstly, the activities legitimize us as a company, as we sell daily dosages of insulin all over the world for the price of a cup of coffee. Secondly, we will already be established on the market, when it’s finally time for private markets to enter the scene,” Rebien Sørensen illustrates.
The diabetes initiative of the five cities allows Novo Nordisk to familiarize itself with future growth markets on a grass root level. In other words, Rebien Sørensen isn’t an advocate of philanthropy; corporate responsibility needs to firmly tie in with corporate strategy.
He seems to follow bigger changes, global trends, and related politics, rather than abrupt news. A persistent corporate director needs to see behind the daily news and keep calm. For Rebien Sørensen, everything boils down to economy, from the aging of the population to the growth of cities, and from megatrends to values. Similar talk has been heard from those who claim that everything is about politics in the end. And that’s exactly how it is: economy and politics intertwining.
Rebien Sørensen believes that tolerance and diversity are the main traits of creativity, and thus of successful business activities.
But other winds are blowing in European politics right now. The continent is in the grips of the Schengen Agreement and its promise of free mobility, security measures tighten their grasp, and bickering is on the increase even in traditionally open countries, such as Sweden and Denmark. These development paths concretely undermining the preconditions of business operations is a cause of concern for companies.
Recently, the Confederation of Danish Industry, Dansk Industri, has been harshly criticizing Denmark’s tightening immigration policy and marred international reputation. Employers are concerned that Denmark will no longer attract top experts from abroad. A labor shortage quickly sets its limits on business growth.
Politics – both as a company’s operating environment and in form of its own engagements – influences the corporate image. This is something we will touch on in the next discussion, this time at the UN headquarters in New York.
On the banks of East River and on the corner of Manhattan’s 44ths street, guests outside the UN headquarters are met by Karl Reuterswärd’s sculpture of a revolver with a knotted barrel.
Here, at one of the main stages of world politics, it is a question war and peace, human rights and stability.
“The business world has an increasing role also here”, says Heidi Schroderus-Fox, Director of UN-OHRLLS, the UN Office for the Least Developed Countries. Schroderus-Fox is one of the highest-ranking Finns in the UN.
All global political issues are connected to the economy, in one way or another.”
She goes to the counter to order a coffee, then scans the impressive Delegates’ Lounge at the headquarters with her gaze in search of a free table. Reuterswärd’s knotted weapon can be glimpsed outside the large windows, while inside there are lime green tables, pale leather chairs, and walls adorned with textile art from all over the world.
“All global political issues are connected to the economy, in one way or another”, Schroderus-Fox begins.
“The UN upholds a ‘holy trinity’ of peace and security, development, and human rights. Today’s business world has significant links with all three aspects, which also all tie together. Everything is interconnected. There’s no development without peace, security without development, and so on. Promoting these issues is also in the interest of business.”
During her career with the UN, Schroderus-Fox has come to see how active engagement and interaction have increased on both sides. The UN has begun to actively seek collaboration with corporations, for instance through its UN Global Compact Business Partnership program. At the same time, companies have become proactive in global responsibility.
Companies seek involvement in the UN’s cabinets and initiatives.
“UN-OHRLLS is responsible for 92 countries, which are the least developed and most fragile. Traditional aid mechanisms haven’t managed to help these countries rise from the bottom. It takes investments, developing production capacity, B-to-B cooperation”, Schroderus-Fox lists. It’s not a simple task.
“Often the countries have an under-developed business climate. International collaboration, organizations like the UN, guarantees, and other factors need to be in place in order for companies to be ready to invest in those regions.”
Although companies taking part in development projects is a positive phenomenon, there are downsides. Examples abound of companies misusing their powers and promoting their own interests.
“Of course the involvement of companies may increase the risk of corruption”, says Schroderus-Fox.
“In addition, many member countries have their reservations about the stronger role of the corporate world, due to fears that western countries are trying to delegate development responsibility from the state to companies. Naturally, that isn’t an option. Development aid cannot be replaced by companies that are entering the scene.”
Forecasting the beginning of a monsoon in India has a strong impact on the stock market.”
However, Schroderus-Fox sees things in a similar light to Sixten Korkman: an interest in international questions, cultures and world politics is a hallmark of civilization. The UN offers a vantage point into what at best – and at worst – goes into operating and leading a multicultural community in an international playing field.
Ironically, at best, understanding international politics and global questions makes one less sure about one’s own views”, says Schroderus-Fox.
“In Finland, we have grown with a very homogenous set of values, knowing what constitutes right and wrong. Often Finns assume they have the best knowledge of these things. But coming into an international operating environment we have to recognize that solutions that fit in the Finnish context may not be ideal or even work in the circumstances of other countries.”
“I’m not saying you should give up your own values, but realizing we don’t have the only right approach and truth about the world needs some work. In an international setting, leaders need to be bold and curious and think about issues in a broader context.”
Schroderus-Fox believes that a broad understanding of the world reaps results. “Forecasting the beginning of a monsoon in India has a strong impact on the stock market.”
A company’s corporate responsibility and social role influence its appeal in the eyes of potential employees.
“These days, young people can go and work anywhere. What companies are doing, how they operate in different parts of the world, and how much a company values its responsibility influence the decisions of where young people want to work. It’s in a company’s own interest that its factories worldwide do not employ children, for example.”
World events can affect businesses through a multitude of twists.
Climate change, climatic phenomena, and pandemics can have a butterfly effect.
In 2009-2010, the El Niño phenomenon was so forceful that the price of food rose by tens of percents, resulting in a global food crisis. The food shortage prompted unrest. This year, El Niño will bring increased rainfalls also in areas where the Zika virus is present. According to the World Health Organization, rain is a culprit for a rise in the virus-spreading mosquito population.
This spring, Thailand experienced severe drought, also due to El Niño, cutting down the income of farmers. According to analysts, the drought may lead to hit-hard farmers rebelling against the Thai junta in charge of the country’s water supply.
Unrest in a country like Thailand, which is closely integrated with world economy, should be of interest to corporate directors, regardless of whether they have direct connections with the country.
The UN’s stark reaction may have come as a surprise for those who thought of the Ebola as just one of Africa’s many problems. However, the finance market had been analyzing the disease painstakingly for a long period of time.”
Ebola is a clear example of the financial repercussions of a disease.
The rise in epidemics and pandemics has caused companies to make plans in case a disease hits their production or market area. When a pandemic strikes, it is important to help the local community, evacuate employees, and react quickly in every way. The Ebola virus did cause companies to react, but slowly.
The epidemic that began in December 2013 has infected 29,000 and killed 11,000 people. The fatal disease ran riot especially in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. However, epidemics, and especially pandemics, pose more than a health issue.
The Ebola virus did not really get featured on mainstream news until the end of 2014, when fear struck that the disease would spread beyond Africa. At the time, Ebola cases were diagnosed in Texas, Dallas, and Madrid, Spain.
Although many paid attention, European and Asian CEOs found the news easy to disregard. Western Africa is not a common production or market area for companies. It is a poor area, which in light of business economics can be either a relief or risk. It was a relief that the poor area is not integrated with world economy as closely as richer areas. In other words, the aftermath of the Ebola or other crises do not spread as quickly as the problems or catastrophes of rich countries.
The countries not having developed a stable government or political culture, in part due to poverty, was a risk. The people are so deeply suspicious about their leaders that they even refused to listen to instructions on how to prevent and treat Ebola.
According to the International Crisis Group, which specializes in conflict research, this suspicion was a significant contributing factor to the advancement of the disease. The organization also criticized the slow reactions of the international community, and believes that similar epidemics will pose a threat to the stability of the international system, if lessons from the Ebola case go unlearned. In other words, epidemics do not solely fall in the scope of health authorities, and democratic development is also in the interest of businesses.
In August 2014, the Ivory Coast announced that it would be shutting borders with Guinea and Liberia in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading into the country. This had global consequences, as the Ivory Coast produces nearly 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa beans, causing their price to rocket. Chocolate manufacturers around the world began to get ready for disaster. In September 2014, the UN Security Council stated that the Ebola epidemic was a “threat to peace and security”. International intervention was spurred into motion.
The UN’s stark reaction may have come as a surprise for those who thought of the Ebola as just one of Africa’s many problems. However, the finance market had been analyzing the disease painstakingly for a long period of time. Why was that? Because Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were significant producers of raw materials.
In addition to cocoa analysts, bauxite analysts had been closely monitoring the advancement of the disease ever since the first Ebola incident. Bauxite is the main source of aluminum, and considering all the different needs for the metal, it is easy to begin to grasp the potential consequences of a disruption in Africa’s bauxite production. The countries suffering from Ebola are significant producers of aluminum.
What was it that Heidi Schroderus-Fox from the UN said? That everything is interconnected.
The idea is not only clear, but disenchanting.
If everything is interconnected, how can the chaotic flood of information be controlled? How can you know where the butterfly effect will lead? Which news, worldview, or information can be trusted, and how to follow that thread?
The next expert provides an assuring answer: what you need is humility and a wise spouse.
The functionalist-style Knippelsbro bridge traversing Copenhagen’s Inner Harbor connects the center with Christianshavn, a channel area founded by Christian IV. The neighborhood has enjoyed good connections with the rest of the world already since the 17th century. A nerve center of international politics, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, is situated across the bridge. Links to the outside world at the headquarters of Nordea financial services group on the opposite side of the bank at Strandgade 3 may be even more intense and vigorous. It is the workplace of analysts, investment bankers, and economists.
It’s hard to accept that things change. Changes in the paradigm and world order can be painful.”
One of them is Helge J. Pedersen, Nordea’s Group Chief Economist, and Chairman of the Chief Economist Group under the European Banking Federation, which is the voice of Europe’s banking sector. Danish company directors and the board of Nordea avidly listen to Pedersen’s views, whose job it is to analyze and outline where the world and economy are heading.
Pedersen gets access to as much information as he wishes: statistics, ratios, prices, polls, changing interest rates...
How does he know what is important? Which sources does he trust?
For Pedersen, numbers are merely raw materials that do not say much in themselves. They need to be compared, sourced, and analyzed.
“It’s hard to accept that things change. Changes in the paradigm and world order can be painful”, Pedersen notes. Personal views must not get in the way of analysis. Even if you do not want change, it needs examining.
“Accepting and understanding are two different things. You can try to understand even if you don’t accept.”
Pedersen does not doubt for a second when asked about the one piece of news that has got him on his toes lately.
“Definitely the European migrant crisis.”
According to Pedersen, directors should prepare for Europe of the future, and anticipate how the continent will be changing. Things are turning around in Europe at such an extent that the impacts on business will be significant. The old paradigm breaking down and a new one forming is a stormy process.
Yet the force of the migration was a surprise for Pedersen, as was its timing in 2015, five years after the Syrian war began.
Pedersen thinks that the EU now flounders in the worst political crisis of its history. Immigrants are flocking to a continent marked in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis by zealous nationalism and a sluggish economy, and which the young generation sees as a bureaucratic lump with a debt and refugee crisis on its hands.
“That’s a concern to me. The EU is no longer a peace project for them”, says Pedersen. Today’s 20- and 30-year-olds have no recollections of the Berlin Wall breaking, Eastern Europe opening up, and freely travelling between one country to another as something you couldn’t take for granted. For them, the Schengen Agreement isn’t an achievement, but part of their daily lives and a problem, as it allows free mobility.”
Pedersen thinks carefully before he speaks, and considers the polarization of politics more or less in all European countries as a key issue. Traditional center parties weaken and disappear, while extremists strengthen their ranks.
In these tumultuous times, Chief Economist Helge J. Pedersen does his best to anticipate and understand the new Europe. But how exactly?
By reading newspapers, reports, analyses, and statistics. He mentions Russian News Agency TASS as a valuable source. “I’m interested in the views and rhetoric of Russians, which TASS helps to understand.”
Pedersen repeatedly emphasizes how understanding is a fine art of balancing personal views with what is actually happening. Personal views need to be kept separate. He mentions that a clear analysis may require giving up looking at issues through the filters of political correctness.
Networks are important, as they take you behind the reports.”
Pedersen does not spend too much time reading through the studies of consultants. In his view, especially the reports of Anglo-Saxon consultancy firms favor certain views.
As an example he mentions the euro crisis, and the persistence of consultancy firms on the dissolution of the euro.
Pedersen has reliable sources in Greece, in Spain, and other parts of the world. Networks are important, as they take you behind the reports. “I talk with them a great deal.”
Pedersen mentions his wife, Slovak-born Lubica, whom he met in 1983, when the East Block was still thriving. He thinks he owes a great deal of his understanding about continental Europe to his art historian wife, such as why Hungary decided to erect fences to prevent immigrants from entering.
In addition to professional literature, Pedersen reads fiction and “loves visiting art exhibitions”. He is particularly fascinated by the period between 1870s impressionism and World War I.
“Europe was in tumult also then.” It begins to sound like achieving a decent analysis takes a smart person and a long life. The kind of civilization mentioned by Heidi Schroderus-Fox and Sixten Korkman.
Pedersen emphasizes the importance of history, mentioning the noticeable international status and connections of lilliputian Denmark. The thousand-year-old kingdom has been a colonial empire and naval power, so internationality and global impact pretty much come as a given.
“It is much harder for young countries to establish their international position.”
Pedersen begins to talk about due diligence, which for a good director goes beyond numbers, risk, and responsibility.
Pedersen’s view of due diligence links it with history and culture. A good general knowledge serves as a starting point for analyzing international politics. And humility.
“A humble and respectful attitude towards the counterparty takes you a long way.” He shares the same message with Heidi Schroderus-Fox: you shouldn’t think of your own views as the only right ones.
Analysts concentrating on specialized fields have in-depth knowledge, immediately noticing whether the order books are getting thinner.”
Again it is a balancing act. Pedersen thinks that another person’s religion “must not be intentionally offended under any circumstances,” while not giving up one’s fundamental values either, which for Europeans comprise democracy, equality, and freedom of speech.
Another example comes for the world of financial politics. As a result of the financial crisis, interest rates are now at a record low. The top floor views from the Nordea headquarters are dominated by a pompous, streamlined box on the other side of the harbor - Denmark’s central bank designed by Arne Jacobsen, where negative interest rates are now part of daily life. It’s a strange moment in history.
Keeping an eye on interest rates is part of normal life for corporate directors, yet they are just numbers. What really matters is seeing the political and social consequences of the current negative interest rates.
It goes along these lines: instead of consuming, Europeans are focusing on debt payment. At the same time, the aging of the population has resulted in a considerable interest in pension revenue compared to a decade ago. Low interest rates mean that pension investments generate less revenue.
“A paradigm shift may be underway in consumption, which changes the dynamics of the economy”, Pedersen concludes. Such a powerful change has an inevitable effect on both domestic and international politics. The change itself and its political consequences have rapid, direct repercussions on businesses.
Instead of being preoccupied with surprises and small bumps in the road, it is important to gaze at the bigger picture, although the key to the big picture may be hidden behind the minute details.
“Analysts concentrating on specialized fields have in-depth knowledge, immediately noticing whether the order books are getting thinner.”
And tapering order books just may indicate a looming political crisis, when interpreted deeply enough.