UK: FT-ICSA Boardroom Bellwether Summer 2016

Last Updated: 31 May 2016
Article by Sarah Gordon

What struck me most about this most recent boardroom bellwether was how gloomy British boards are about prospects for the UK economy – yet how relatively unworried they are about the prospect of an exit from the European Union.

Just 13 per cent of FTSE 350 company secretaries expect an improvement in the UK economy over the next 12 months — the lowest since the FT/ICSA surveys began in 2012.

It's not just about the UK that boardrooms are feeling gloomy.

Only 16 per cent of respondents anticipate any improvement in the global economy over the next year, down from 28 per cent in December and 57 per cent in June 2015.

This gloom chimes with recent economic data which has shown both manufacturing and construction activity slowing sharply. More surprising, to me, were boardroom attitudes to a potential UK exit from the European Union after the June 23 referendum.

Fewer than half the company secretaries — 43 per cent — believe that a UK exit from Europe as a result of the referendum on membership on June 23 would be potentially damaging and only 49 per cent of boards had considered the implications of a Brexit on their business.

Earlier this month the Bank of England warned that a vote for Brexit could cost jobs, raise prices, see the pound fall sharply and even lead to recession. And some boardrooms acknowledge the risks. Nearly a quarter of company secretaries believe the UK's economic position in twelve months' time will depend on the outcome of the EU referendum. Yet, despite this — and the warnings from the Bank and international bodies such as the IMF and OECD about the economic impact of the UK leaving the EU — only 49 per cent of respondents said boards had assessed the risks or planned for a possible exit.

Admittedly, this was double the 26 per cent of boards which had done scenario planning in December. But the fact that fewer than half the boards of Britain's biggest listed companies have been talking and preparing for a Brexit is a significant finding.

Less surprising was that – whatever their feelings about the impact of a Brexit – boards are still very unwilling to play an active role in the referendum debate. Of those who had supported a campaign, 24 per cent were from FTSE 100 companies and 5 per cent were from the FTSE 250 — all supporting campaigns to remain.

These donations aren't making much of a difference either.

Two weeks ago the Electoral Commission released data on the donations made to both sides of the campaign. Although the big US banks like Morgan Stanley, Goldman, JP Morgan, have contributed substantial sums to the Remain side, big business was largely absent from the list of the largest Remain donors.

In contrast, business people and entrepreneurs have dug deep into their pockets to support the Leave campaigns, which have out-fundraised their rivals so far. The largest donation since February to either side of the campaigns was £3.2m from Peter Hargreaves, of financial advisor Hargreaves Lansdown.

Big British business, this survey suggests, appears to be underestimating the risks from a Brexit – and are doing very little to avoid such an outcome.

Download the survey

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