In this blog, as a part of the Breaking down the Boardroom Bellwether series, we examine the sentiments felt by the boards of some of the UK’s biggest companies towards the UK and the overall global economy.
The FTSE 350 Boardroom Bellwether is a yearly survey by the Financial Times and The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland that seeks to gauge the sentiment inside British boardrooms. It canvasses the views of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 company secretaries to find out how boards are responding to the challenges of the economy, market conditions and the wider business and governance environment.
The global economy
Overall, the respondents to Bellwether are more optimistic towards the future growth of the global economy, in stark contrast to last year. In the summer of 2023, 48% anticipate an improvement in global economic conditions meanwhile in 2022, 76% of those surveyed expected a decline. This was predominantly due to the war in Ukraine which heavily impacted global markets, which were already reeling from post-COVID fallout. Nearly all businesses to some degree, were impacted by rising costs of goods and energy as a result of the war.
This demonstrates that UK boards are no longer as pessimistic as in 2022, with this year showing that only 29% expected a continual decline in the global economy. While a lot of this gloom and doom was spurred by the war in Ukraine, even back in 2018 and 2019 similar anxieties were sparked by the trade wars between the United States and China. It will be interesting to see whether this slight increase in optimism will continue in 2024, with both the UK and US both having upcoming elections alongside the increasing tensions between China and Taiwan.
This increase in optimism falls in line with most major global economies having a projected growth in GDP throughout 2023 and 2024, despite the cost-of-living crisis continuing to bite. The US, China, India and the Eurozone (excepting Germany) are all projected to continue increasing their GDP. As the saying goes, “when the US sneezes, the whole world catches a cold” (originally the phrase was referring to France during the Napoleonic era), it seems UK boards are particularly sensitive to economic conditions in the US. The slight growth in the US economy is mirrored by the growth in optimism reported in the Bellwether. This falls in line with the UK’s export figures, with the US being the UK’s second largest trading partner after the EU.
The UK economy
In contrast to the sentiments felt by FTSE 350 boards towards the global economy, the outlook for the UK is not as hopeful, but still not as dire as last year. In 2022 only 3% of Bellwether respondents felt that the UK economy would improve, meanwhile the figure has risen to 33% in 2023. The original forecast for the UK itself was a slow growth in GDP, unlike most other nations globally. However, perceptions could change with the latest revisions by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to be far more positive. Due to this information only being released in the past few days, it is no wonder that boards at the time of the survey had a far more negative perception.
It is interesting to see, that UK boards are optimistic about overseas economic conditions, while being more reserved about their own domestic markets. Could this lead to FTSE 350 companies looking more towards foreign markets to sustain their growth over the next few years? The current government has been looking to ease access to other markets through a number of much touted trade deals with various international partners such as Australia, India and the UK’s accession into the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), thus it could help to alleviate boardroom economic concerns. However, time will tell on the effectiveness of these trade deals.
One important finding, despite the rather dreary outlook, is that boards are not cutting back on their R&D investments. 46% of respondents will maintain their current expenditures, with 33% expecting to slightly increase their budgets. This shows that nearly half of the surveyed FTSE 350 businesses are taking a ‘bunker mentality’, maintaining their course but waiting for economic recovery, while others are actively growing their spending despite the economic instability. In fact, only 10% of respondents are looking to reduce their expenses slightly.
Overall while the perceptions of the UK economy among the FTSE 350 are pessimistic, they are better than last year, and in practice they are not looking to scale back their R&D investments at present. Meanwhile, the global outlook is slightly more positive and shows that the views of UK boards are governed largely by the economic prospects of the wider world, not just internal worries.
“It is great to see that boards are more confident about the future of the UK’s economy in 2023, which is reflected by the recent revisions from the ONS regarding the post-COVID strength of the economy.” – Sara Drake, CGIUKI CEO