The US-China trade war (July 2018), the Russia-Ukraine conflict (February 2022), and the Israel-Palestine military clash (October 2023) has thrust geopolitical risk into the centre of corporate treasury discourse.
While corporate treasurers and finance leaders have had to spend more time on managing a variety of risks in the last few years amid the ongoing economic and political volatility and uncertainty, the persistent armed and trade conflicts have resulted in geopolitical risks climbing further up the treasury professionals agenda.
Here are the key geopolitical risks that are likely to linger and become pivotal concerns for corporate finance leaders and treasurers through 2024:
Trade tensions, armed conflicts, and a major terror attack
The global order, long characterised by the force of globalisation now finds itself in a landscape dominated by geopolitical fragmentation and fragility.
The cumulative impact of five years of the US-China trade war, over 20 months of combat between Russian-Ukrainian armed forces, and the intensifying war in the Middle East has heightened geopolitical risk, thereby building further uncertainty around global supply chains and international trade, national security being prioritised over economic growth, and greater risk exposures in capital flows, stock, bond, currency and commodity markets worldwide.
Additionally, if these military hostilities and trade frictions continue then the elevated geopolitical risk would increase the likelihood of interest rates in major economies such as the United States and the European Union (EU) remaining higher-for-longer, which may push up the borrowing costs for corporations and likely impact their future earnings and cash flow.
Given the interconnectedness and interdependency of corporations, financial systems, governments, central banks, technology, and cross-border trade in goods and services, the increasing prospect of prolonged military confrontations and fractious trade ties, is also likely to further slowdown globalisation, possibly hastening economic decoupling and deglobalisation.
This can become a growing concern for corporations and their treasury departments, particularly those organisations that have complex multinational supply chains, and can’t afford to be locked out of certain resource-producing or natural resource-rich markets.
According to KPMG's 2023 CEO Outlook survey, “CEOs now rank geopolitics and political uncertainty as the greatest risk to the growth of their business — be it navigating a company’s presence in a conflict zone or attempting to navigate disrupted supply chains and manage price fluctuations.”
Furthermore, Oxford Economics’ latest Global Risk Survey states that “Businesses now see geopolitical tensions as key global threat.”
“Geopolitical tensions – for example, related to Taiwan, Korea, and Russia-NATO – are now believed to pose the greatest risk to the global economy in both the near term and medium term”, the Oxford Economics survey report noted.
This shift indicates that finance chiefs, corporate treasurers and their team will have to embrace the reality that geopolitical risks are not only centre stage, but is also expected to extend into the foreseeable future.
Moreover, as per the global BlackRock Geopolitical Risk Indicator (BGRI) that tracks market attention to geopolitical risks, the latest Israeli-Palestinian war will “Increase the terror threat in the region as well as in the U.S. and Europe. Al-Qaida and ISIS continue to rebuild and reestablish their global reach, increasing the risk of attacks on Western targets.”
“In the U.S., the Biden administration has underscored the risk of domestic terrorism. We see a heightened threat given a polarized U.S. political backdrop and the 2024 presidential election”, warned the BGRI.
Staying resilient, vigilant, informed, adaptable, and farsighted in such uncertain times, while creating a strategy to mitigate growing geopolitical risks that includes leveraging risk intelligence to gain a competitive advantage, and testing risk appetite and limits under stress scenarios (scenario analysis, stress and reverse stress testing) will help treasury and finance professionals shield their corporations from future geopolitical conflicts or unexpected political threats.
Balkanisation of technology to control digital sovereignty
Technology is the engine that powers corporations, and technological innovation and dominance will define the future of a nation’s military might and economic leverage.
The advancing conflicts in Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine, along with the contentious and competitive US-China trade relationship are giving rise to a range of information exchange and security challenges. These challenges are fuelled by the increasing mistrust among certain nations. This not only has accelerated geopolitical risks, but may also lead to stricter regulations on technology access and usage to curb the unrestricted exchange of information.
The phenomenon, “Often referred to as the ‘balkanisation of technology,’ poses a growing risk to business operations”, observed corporate security intelligence service firm, Insight Forward in their report titled Top 10 Geopolitical Risks for Businesses in 2024.
“The balkanisation of technology means different countries or parts of the world having separate internets, technologies, or regulations that might be incompatible. These differences cover a wide range of areas including data privacy laws, access to various platforms and software, operating standards, and hardware requirements,” Insight Forward’s report added.
Insights Forward further explains that “It is increasingly likely that countries and supranational organizations will impose competing standards, effectively fragmenting the global technology landscape, and posing significant challenges.”
An increasingly fragmented technology landscape presents several risks for global corporations. These include reputational risks that may arise from exposure to misinformation and disinformation campaigns because of the way an adversary or enemy state seeks to control its content and digital sovereignty.
“The unpredictability of service interruptions is another issue, as varying degrees of control over technology infrastructure in different regions can lead to unexpected outages, disrupting business operations and affecting customer experiences”, the report mentioned.
Lastly, as per Insights Forward, certain technology restrictions might necessitate that companies provide proprietary or sensitive data, potentially putting them at a competitive disadvantage in specific markets. Such requirements could also lead to data breaches, leaving companies exposed to fines, as well as negatively impacting customer confidence and trust.
AI-powered cyber attacks: the growing threat to cybersecurity
As the war in the Middle East escalates, the US-China trade relations remain tense, and the Russia-Ukraine crisis continues to remain a pressing issue, cyber attacks are expected to surge.
“We see cyber attacks increasing in scope, scale and sophistication as geopolitical competition mounts. Hackers infiltrated the accounts of multiple U.S. officials this year, exposing the vulnerability of government infrastructure. We see cyber activity increasing in conflict zones and around upcoming elections, risking disruption. Technological advancements, especially in AI, could increase the risk of malicious attacks”, the BGRI sounded a note of caution in their October 2023 update on geopolitical risks.
“Although many corporations have dedicated cybersecurity teams, the threats for 2024 are extremely likely to include Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled cyberattacks. This is axiomatic for those in the profession, but corporations will need to alter their approach to cybersecurity because AI will allow even script kiddies to significantly advance their capabilities”, security intelligence service company, Insights Forward advocates.
Given that AI can enable threat actors to automate and enhance the sophistication and scale of their attacks, particularly for those cyber criminals who do not speak the same language of their targets, new and creative ways will be required to stay ahead of AI-driven cyber attacks.
Even though multinational corporations have dedicated cybersecurity teams, they will have to reconfigure their security vulnerabilities, deploy additional layers of protection, enhance their security intelligence, and prioritise consistent employee security training, with a specific focus on payment fraud training as measures for elevating their cybersecurity defenses.
Strained US-China relations, escalating military offensives in the Middle East and Ukraine, or “A worsening in other geopolitical tensions could reduce economic activity and boost inflation worldwide, particularly in the event of prolonged disruptions to supply chains and interruptions in production”, the US Federal Reserve’s latest Financial Stability Report said.
After decades of increasing global economic integration, the world is now teetering on the brink of political, economic and technological fragmentation, and that means geopolitical risks will remain a major threat to governments and corporations worldwide.
In a politically divided world, companies must be prepared for mounting geopolitical risks that could impact their revenue and drag on profit margins.
To that end, armed with the knowledge of the prevailing and most significant geopolitical risks that may likely extend into 2024, corporate treasurers and finance leaders can focus on business continuity planning and risk mitigation strategies to navigate these risks with greater thought and resilience.
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