Grey swans spread their wings

Did companies miss the signs of Brexit and the US election? Here are steps for better readiness.
Grey swans spread their wings

In recent years, organisations and industries have sought to better anticipate "black swan" events, those highly improbable incidents with devastating consequences that no one sees coming. Now grey swans are starting to spread their wings across global markets and economies. Grey swans are events that can have equally significant results, but the outcomes are not so improbable given surrounding circumstances. Consequently, they should have been recognised as having the potential to materialise. These events can result in loss or opportunity. The more they are missed, the less likely they can yield a positive opportunity.

Two examples of grey swans have come in the past year. In June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU, causing a sharp but temporary drop in the FTSE 100 and other global markets. In addition, the pound began a precipitous drop to its lowest point since 1985, falling from 1.49 against the US dollar to 1.20, a nearly 30% decline in seven months.

Meanwhile, in the US, the November presidential election surprised analysts, investors, and executives, prompting Dow Jones Industrial Average futures to drop more than 500 points in the hours after the election. The Dow rebounded and by March had reached an all-time high, but other markets and currencies weren't so fortunate. For example, the Mexican peso fell sharply but had risen steadily in early 2017.

Donald Trump's presidential victory was "yet another blow to the pollsters and pundits following failures to predict the UK general election and Brexit outcomes," Scotiabank analysts Jean-Franc╠žois Perrault, Derek Holt, and Mary Webb wrote hours after the US election.

Both events had ample lead-up and two possible outcomes. Thus, the degree of surprise their outcomes elicited is, therefore, a surprise itself. The lack of preparation by the groups who would see the actual outcome as a negative risk shows how much more sophisticated the world needs to become in terms of risk management.

How to improve readiness

How best to prepare for grey swans may differ slightly depending on whether one is looking at an organisation, a nation, or global markets. In terms of organisations, large and small, here are some suggestions for managing grey swans:

  • Maintain an external view of what is happening in the overall marketplace.
  • Identify the most meaningful issues that pose significant risks for your business.
  • Create contingency action plans to mitigate those risks, even if conventional wisdom says that the issue will fade or will turn out favourably.
  • Monitor progress of significant risks and mitigation plans.
  • Do not overreact to the issue if it is not resolved in your favour; rather, implement your contingency plans with an appropriate sense of urgency.

In the case of Brexit, there were several days of negative reaction in the capital markets.

Insurance is a major industry sector in the UK. Many industry players had prepared for the grey swan materialising. For example, several insurers announced, after the June vote, plans to open additional offices in the EU to augment what they have in the UK, as a contingency. This could be viewed optimistically for business just as well as it could be viewed pessimistically as added cost. For example, insurers who opened new offices might expect additional sales and revenue from the new locations. The important point is that these insurers saw Brexit as a risk and were prepared to react quickly when the outcome of the vote was to withdraw.

At issue in the US election were matters related to taxation, regulation, and trade agreements. What business decisions were based on the incorrect expectation that will now have to be reversed? What strategies will have to be redrawn? Businesses practising enterprise risk management would have been following the steps outlined above and would have been prepared for either eventuality to some degree. No grey swan for them.

Grey swans on the horizon

Many sources provide information on emerging or escalating risks that businesses could be and should be watching. Here are some of the risk areas which tend to top most lists:

  • Business interruption (including supply-chain disruption).
  • Cybersecurity (crime, sabotage).
  • Terrorism and political unrest.
  • Unintended consequences from new technology (driverless cars, robotics, 3D printing).
  • Fiscal instability among nations.

These issues are apparent and knowable, hence not potential black swans. They may be grey swans to the extent that businesses have become so inured to their existence that they do not pay adequate attention to them.

Given the scope and potential severity of these risks, organisations should be aware of them while creating risk mitigation plans and make sure that business processes are as robust as possible to offset the effects of these risks.

Al Decker and Donna Galer are authors of two books on enterprise risk management, including Enterprise Risk Management: Straight to the Value.

For more insight into preparation for unforeseen events, read the CIMA report Thinking the Unthinkable.