Alastair Winter looks at the current economic climate and the priority for CEOs to focus on the strategic needs of their business
My work encompasses geopolitics, macroeconomics and global financial markets. Those big words may sound grand but it’s mostly quite practical stuff: analysing current developments and providing a framework for plans to invest, borrow and hedge interest rate, currency and commodity exposures. The details and complexities can be difficult to communicate accurately in interesting and engaging ways, so as to differentiate myself and my output. I’ve combined here some insights from my analysis together with reflections on communication challenges I face in creating compelling, memorable (‘sticky’) content, for audiences who are familiar with the subject matter.
The media is currently making much of Inflation and, indeed, it’s a worsening bane on the lives of the less well-off in every country, who are already experiencing hard times. However, soaring CPI numbers need not always be the main issue for those companies able to pass their own higher costs on to customers.
Businesses and financial markets are instead much more worried about the various threats to global economic demand. The CPI in the US is likely to peak in the current quarter and fall to 3-4% over the next 12 months. Even if, for much of the rest of the world, eye-watering Producer Price Indices (including notably in the UK) mean that the peak is some months away.
It’s rather worrying that few seem to understand how inflation works any more (see visual below), or how it can be contained. I am often having to (re) explain it, for example, too many references are being made to the bad old days of rampant inflation in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Current economic and social conditions are very different to those decades: employment is high and, outside monopolistic industries, unions have much less influence over a workforce with mortgages and credit card debts to service.
These are factors I need audiences to appreciate. And, because there are currently some less typical factors in play, it’s become a little easier to make such observations stand out. There’s been an unusual coincidence of high profile, and highly impactful, unhappy developments. I find examples help, including a pandemic causing both a supply shock and a demand shock, a Russo-OPEC price-fixing cartel and a major war in Europe, leading to a global food crisis.
All those factors make it easier to explain inflation, with a further bitter twist that higher energy prices can quickly become deflationary, in the same way as tax hikes. Consumers are cutting back on energy usage while reducing spend on other less essential items. Higher profits are being transferred to producers overseas.
Moreover, higher food prices can be expected to have similar, if less severe, effects in richer countries. Although my audiences may be more attentive than usual, given these challenging circumstances, it remains a complex mix of factors to untangle and communicate clearly to them.
For “heartless” financial markets, a much greater worry has been what the central banks will do to combat a combination of inflation and slowing growth (increasingly described as ‘stagflation’, another concept that needs to be re-explained). This worry is aggravated by disillusionment, after three decades of hubris on the part of various individual central bankers.
Another unwelcome policy change is the unprecedented unwinding by the ‘Fed’ and other central banks of their vast asset purchase programmes. Unsurprisingly but also unusually, both bond and equity markets have been hit hard at the same time.
Putting all these elements together, we’re in a period of international political stress (and domestic stress in many countries). This feeds into an already slowing global economy that’s in the grip of inflation that will soon turn deflationary. This will hit corporate earnings and increase the cost of debt for all borrowers and undermine investment portfolios. Essentially, almost of us will be worse off.
Nevertheless, the good news is that most of us (and the organisations we work for) will find a way through. Downturns are nothing new, even if the upturns of the last 30 years have not felt that great at times.
I work with CEOs and CFOs on the macro challenges and opportunities they face. I help these clients to understand the main developments affecting them and to consider the various possible outcomes. They must, in turn, explain and justify themselves to the whole gamut of their own stakeholders: customers, suppliers, staff , board colleagues and shareholders so I have to cut through the media and general noise to help focus them on the true key issues in play for their businesses.
To do this, I try to provide clear and compelling interpretations on which they can make critical decisions. At the same time I must maintain their trust in me (my credibility) as a confident and reliable subject matter expert. It’s important that logical propositions and deductions form the basis of my content. But I also need to ensure that these audiences find my key messages engaging. So I use a range of relevant Rhetorical Tools. These include: comparisons, contrasts, and a variety of verifiable evidence (e.g. data, examples and statistics). I also sprinkle in what I hope is appropriate dry humour to season the mix, along with the odd metaphor (see GPB’s list of Top Rhetorical Tools)3.
Even if circumstances make audiences more attentive, it’s important to remember that the best informed advice is only fully appreciated when it’s communicated clearly and persuasively. That feels as true as ever, in these current harder times.
By Alastair Winter
Our guest author, Alastair, is a Director at Argyll Europe Limited.
- Inflation graph picture. Available at Adobe Stock.
- Meeting image. Available at Adobe Stock.
- GPB’s Rhetorical Tools—https://www.gpb.eu/2021/08/rhetorical-tools-list.html.zz