William De Vijlder, Group Chief Economist, BNP Paribas zooms in on increasing geopolitical uncertainties.
The slowdown of the global economy which became increasingly visible in the second half of last year has many causes, but there is broad agreement that rising trade tensions, import tariff hikes and concern about the pace of US monetary tightening acted as clear headwinds. In Europe, Brexit-related uncertainty played a role, as well as sector-specific issues, like new emission standards for the automobile sector. Clearly, uncertainty, in various guises, was a big issue: uncertainty about the economy (the international consequences of China’s slowdown), about economic policy (the Federal Reserve’s monetary stance), about political decisions (soft or hard Brexit, Italy’s budget) and about geopolitics (considering that the build-up of commercial tensions between China and the US is about more than the bilateral trade deficit).
Geopolitical uncertainties on the rise
Whereas economic, economic policy and political uncertainty tend to come and go, depending where we are in the economic and political cycle, research based on media coverage of geopolitical tensions shows that geopolitical uncertainty has on average been higher since the turn of the century compared to the 1990s. This higher average is associated with an increased frequency of uncertainty spikes, triggered by events like 9/11, the Iraq war, the Arab spring, the Crimea, Syria, terrorist attacks, etc. These events illustrate that geopolitics now covers a broad range of issues, well beyond the older concept of how nations project their power internationally and react to the behaviour in this respect from other nations.
Empirical research shows that an increase in geopolitical risk weighs on industrial production, employment, international trade, consumer confidence. Moreover, whereas certain events can have a short-lived economic impact, because after a spike, uncertainty drops quite quickly, geopolitical threats (without an event necessarily occurring) can cause a sustained increase in uncertainty and hence have a longer lasting impact. This issue of resolution of uncertainty (“how much longer do we need to wait until we know the outcome?”) has been clearly visible in the reaction to the postponements of Brexit day.
A top priority?
Newspaper articles about geopolitical risks may be numerous but, judging from the mapping in the Global Risks Report 2019 of the World Economic Forum, companies are, in recent years, more concerned about climate change and cyberattacks. In the assessment of their likelihood and impact, they score above average, whereas issues related to geopolitics score around average. This is still sufficient for companies to pay particular attention to it, given the macroeconomic headwind coming from protracted uncertainty or the possible non-linear consequences of risk events. The list of questions to be tackled is long but, as usual when dealing with uncertainty, it is about how can uncertainty be monitored, what is my exposure and how can I manage it. The monitoring is the easier task of the three, considering that there is no lack of research on geopolitical topics. High quality, media-based uncertainty indicators are even available for free on the internet.
“The tensions between the US and Turkey in the summer last year turned out to be short-lived, but they remind us of the necessity to define in advance how to cope with short-lived versus sustained increases in geopolitical risk. “ William De Vijlder, Group Chief Economist, BNP Paribas
Direct and indirect exposure
Assessing the exposure is already more complex, in particular when dealing with indirect exposure. Moreover, one should not only assess where geopolitical threats or events can impact your business, but also, and this is the more difficult question, to which extent.
Direct exposure is about: does geopolitical uncertainty influence how and where I produce (which commodities, which intermediate inputs, how complex a global value chain); does it influence the markets into which I sell; does it influence my financing costs, my access to financing, the use of my cash-flow, the repatriation of foreign profits?
When analysing indirect exposure, the questions ultimately are the same, but the channels are different, more complex and hence challenging to assess. Globalisation has enabled companies to broaden their customer base and lower their cost base, but, with a slight exaggeration, it implies that anything can hit them anywhere. When the US and China are negotiating on trade, it can end up impacting third party countries when it leads to trade diversion (the innocent bystander syndrome). There can be political contagion with unrest in one country spreading to other countries which suffer from similar problems. Financial markets can act as an accelerator or a channel of transmission. The increasingly harsh tone between the US and Turkey in the summer of last year unnerved international investors and contributed to the significant weakening of the Turkish lira. It also raised concerns about financial contagion to other emerging market currencies. Eventually, the tensions turned out to be short-lived, but they remind us of the necessity to define in advance how to cope with short-lived versus sustained increases in geopolitical risk.
Accepting or avoiding the exposure
“Coping with” can mean to just accept it as a fact of life, to build a robust strategy which takes uncertainty explicitly into account or to simply avoid the exposure. Accepting the exposure could make sense if, all in all, the financial impact of risk events would be rather limited. The cost of protracted uncertainty can be taken into account by using a sufficiently high return on investment target before committing money.
Avoiding the exposure could be justified if the trade-off between return and (tail) risk is unattractive, if it would trigger a disproportionate attention by shareholders or creditors, if attractive alternatives to grow the business are available, etc. ‘Avoiding’ could also mean ‘waiting to decide on an investment’ but this raises the question of the opportunity cost of waiting. If a company was contemplating to build a factory in the UK before the Brexit referendum, is there an opportunity cost to waiting for the type of Brexit when alternative locations, outside the UK, are available? When time is money, waiting ends up being expensive.
The question of building a robust strategy is the more interesting and challenging one. It starts from the observation that we are (or need to become) active in a country (e.g. because it is a huge market or because it is key to remain competitive) but that this could increase the exposure to geopolitical risk. In designing a robust strategy, different scenarios are analysed and eventually, the chosen approach should do well under a multitude of environments, without being optimal in any specific one, simply because, in deciding under uncertainty, we are (by construction) not in a position to anticipate which one will materialise. Ongoing geopolitical risk monitoring will allow to plan for corrective action if need be as time goes by.
Exportation: risk control in the palm of your hand
The Credendo mobile application provides a solution to mastering the export risks and information associated with the various world markets...
The importance of exports for the economic strength of companies, especially SMEs, is no longer in doubt. Nevertheless, the uncertainties associated with going international can keep some companies from taking the leap. To turn uncertainties into opportunities: Credendo!
Exporting: opportunities to be taken
In an increasingly globalised world and with an explosion of digital tools, most companies sooner (sometimes much sooner) or later dream of conquering foreign markets. And with reason. Whatever the size of your company – even if big companies are more active on this issue – exporting represents an opportunity to leave the limitations of the Belgian market behind in order to energise your turnover, make economies of scale, explore new outlets for your products or even benefit from advantages in terms of employment and innovation.
Given their increasing confidence, companies will be even more attracted to going international in the future. In any event, this is what the Credendo and Trends-Tendances export barometer reports, indicating that four out of five Belgian companies are expecting a growth in exports during the next few years. An optimism that is only slightly dampened by the fear of protectionist barriers being raised in different regions of the world... One more fear to add to the classic obstacles in exporting, such as different legal systems, increased risk of non-payment, political-economic uncertainty in the destination country and the burden of administrative formalities.
Credendo: a new tool for exporters
Zero risk is a myth and even more so when dealing with business overseas. This is why the European credit insurance group Credendo has developed an application promising to "turn uncertainties into opportunities". How? You download the application to your smartphone and choose to export (long term) from Belgium to Portugal, for example. You immediately receive an up-to-date assessment, practically in real time, of the risks for any country or continent. In the blink of an eye, you can access various important risk parameters and also set up alerts for countries or sectors, benefit from risk analyses and in-depth thematic studies on the economy of emerging countries, for instance. The main advantage of this solution is that it provides information from the point of view of the exporter and directs you to customised solutions. Final detail: the application is free!
For more information for SMEs on going international, the Economy FPS has produced an interesting pamphlet on "International expansion of SMEs: clear findings and operational measures for SMEs" (available in French and in Dutch).
Cover yourself before embarking on a quest for global markets
Any company that begins to trade abroad is buying into the idea that it can conquer brand new markets, but also that new risks are an inevitability. And although the risks are often worth taking, informed directors will evaluate the danger in order to be better prepared.
In love, as in business, distance makes things more complicated. However, in an increasingly globalised world, expanding your business activity into other countries remains essential – especially in an export-oriented country like Belgium. This strategic challenge demands an appropriate approach that will allow the company to move into new territory successfully. Whether internationalisation takes a physical or virtual form, a number of risks of a new type will join those you are already managing at local level, including hazards associated with transportation, exchange rate risks, poor knowledge of regional regulations, cultural or ethical "gaps", and difficulties arising from unpaid sums and recovering these abroad, etc. To minimise the impact on your business, take precautions and correctly signpost the pathway separating you from your international customers.
Where should you venture to?
If you have identified a particular continent or country of interest, you have presumably spotted obvious commercial benefits. You know your business and are convinced that this move can work well. But before you take the plunge, a step back is necessary so that you can analyse the country-related risks: from the geopolitical context (an embargo would be disastrous for your plans) to the political and socio-economic situation on the ground. It is not uncommon, for example, for elections to have a destabilising effect on the climate of a nation.
Do you have sufficient local knowledge?
This question may appear trivial at first, but culture and traditions have a major influence on the way trade is conducted – even in a globalised world. Beyond market expectations and the chances your product has of success, it is imperative to grasp the cultural differences that could have an impact on your business. A Japanese company does not take the same approach as its equivalent in Chile. Do not hesitate to recruit a trustworthy consultant who fully understands the region.
Have you planned for the worst?
This piece of advice is highly pertinent when the country in question uses a currency other than the euro because foreign exchange rates fluctuate continuously, with the result that you could be obliged to convert money according to less favourable terms than those initially expected. Adopt an effective foreign exchange policy (stabilise your profit margins, control your cash flow, mitigate potential adverse effects, etc.) and employ hedging techniques that best suit your situation.
How do you evaluate your international customers?
Once you have analysed the context, drop down a level to gauge the reliability of your customer in terms of their financial situation and history (e.g. of making payments), their degree of solvency, etc. While such research may not be simple, it is decisive in order to prevent payment defaults that can do enormous harm. If in doubt, take out an appropriate insurance policy to protect yourself. Paying for this could prevent you from becoming embroiled in perilous (not to mention costly) recovery action abroad. Should you end up in a crisis situation, you should ideally obtain local support in the country. Finally, be aware that in the EU, debt recovery is simplified by the European Payment Order procedure.
Have you adequately adapted the tools you use?
One of the greatest risks of international trade is transportation (loss, theft, accidents, seizures, contamination, etc.) in addition to customs formalities. Once dispatched, the goods are no longer within your control, and so you must ensure your carriers accept adequate liability. This means, for example, having suitable insurance cover, but also anticipating the multitude of procedures to be launched in any dispute. More generally, you will need to review and adapt the contracts you have with transport companies, as well as your international customers. Ensure you clearly set out the terms and conditions that apply (payment deadlines, exchange rates, compensation, etc.) and include realistic clauses that safeguard your own interests.
Not words, but actions: how can you realise your internationl project?
Gaining a foothold in a foreign country is no easy task, and some good advice alone will not suffice. Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis is the perfect partner to turn theory into practice!
Many companies want to try their luck outside our borders and gain a foothold in new markets. This is necessary not only to be able to continue to grow, but also to remain competitive. But if you don't know where to start, it's hard to put your money where your mouth is. How do you find the right market? How do you find prospects? How do you prepare the whole operation in all its aspects? What risks do you need to cover? And which partner can you trust? All important questions that can make or break your project. And this is how international ambitions are sometimes left on ice....
"We want to help companies achieve their international ambitions", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis.
"We look at the local market into which the company wants to launch and make sure the underlying potential is sufficient." And so, the first step towards success is taken.
WHEN GOOD ADVICE IS NOT ENOUGH...
There's a deep gap between theory and practice that managers do not always dare to cross. It's essential to collect a lot of data and information, but this is certainly not enough. Talk must then be followed by action. Your growth project's first stone must be laid... preferably with the greatest possible chance of success and as few risks as possible. In such an adventure, (good) guidance is not a superfluous luxury. Even more reason to call on the support of Trade Development: a partner who can assist you with a wide range of solutions and help you establish a long-term strategic vision. In Belgium and beyond.
"In their project's first phase, companies often find a lot of information and support from the Belgian export promotion agencies", says Rob van Veen. "But they don't get all the practical answers they need to roll out their activities in a given country."
Given that growth prospects in Belgium are rather limited, companies must therefore look for international growth. But where? This is where the Trade Development team comes in. Your choice of target market is certainly crucial. A vague, poorly thought-out decision can have dramatic consequences: examples of failure abound – partly because companies don't understand the local 'culture'. Companies sometimes gravitate towards exotic markets because others have gone before them. But every international project is unique: does the market fit into your overall strategy? Are you aware of all the challenges that lie ahead (regulatory, commercial, etc.)?
"Let's take the example of a company that wants to set up in Brazil. Our first question is then: what activities have you already been carrying on in Europe? Might there be new, undiscovered opportunities there? For example, it's much easier for a company to set up in Poland than in Brazil, where taxes on imports are extremely high" , continues Rob van Veen.
HIGHLY NECESSARY 'LOCAL' CONTACT PERSONS
Your project has taken shape and you've determined your target market. The time has then come for Trade Development to roll out one of its greatest assets: access to a global network of competent and reliable partners.
"We introduce the client to local specialists who can support their project abroad from start to finish. One deals with the roll-out of activities, another specialises in legal and tax issues, and a third takes care of the administrative side of things. We prefer to work with small, local agencies, most of whom are long-term BNPPF network partners", says Rob van Veen.
These contact persons have a perfect knowledge of the national rules and customs and know how to adhere to that specific framework. The company therefore has the great advantage that it can benefit from such a skilled team: a win-win situation. "In addition, our permanent contact persons are evaluated by the client after each project. This way, we can guarantee the quality of our services!"
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: Save TIME AND gain EFFICIENCY
Are you looking for an effective distributor or a reliable representative? An ideal on-site supplier? Do you want to determine these contacts' actual potential or get to know possible new partners? Not easy for a company…
"Most of them are looking for a white knight. Our trade developers draw up realistic selection criteria in consultation with the client. They carry out a financial analysis of the commercial partners and check their technical baggage and their reputation", explains Rob van Veen.
First, a list of four or five serious and interested candidates is drawn up, and then the contact phase follows. "Our local contact introduces the candidates to the Belgian company to ensure that both parties are interested in a partnership. Once all these issues are clarified, the relationships can be rapidly explored in depth."
SUCCESS IN THE FIELD
Every target market has its problems and risks: from the language to cultural and commercial differences. Very specific problems that are often difficult to solve from Belgium, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. Hence the importance of being surrounded by specialists who know the country like the back of their hand. Need an example? "To be able to supply retailers in the UK, you often need to be able to invoice at a local level", explains Rob van Veen. "Our trade developer can then act and take care of the local invoicing and accounting on the company's behalf at a fixed and transparent rate for each transaction. This is a simple initial structure that does not require major investments but is very interesting professionally." The client can naturally then seek its own local partner. "That too is a task they can leave to our contact person, who has the necessary experience to do so." Need another example? Russia, where everything takes a huge amount of time... Trade Development's network of experts can also speed things up considerably here and solve problems more quickly.
Who is the key partner in your international growth?
Your bank! In particular, the network of experts at BNP Paribas Fortis' Trade Development department. The missing link between your foreign ambitions and your growth project's success.
Conquering foreign markets raises new expectations within companies. Needs that go way beyond a bank's 'traditional' services... We at BNP Paribas Fortis have understood that well, and that's precisely why we established the Trade Development department. This department advises clients and provides them with a full range of support in their international ambitions. "A bank can provide practical assistance to companies' expansion projects abroad: it can open accounts, provide guarantees, underwrite cash flows, and more", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis. "But that's not all clients need: they also expect their bank to think about strategy and to help them approach the market in an intelligent and efficient manner. And that's exactly what we do." What does that mean? The service provides unique and highly essential support – especially now against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis – for expansion beyond our national borders, reassuring business owners and connecting them to a global network of local experts or providing long-term follow-up.
KNOWN TERRAIN... EVEN ABROAD
A good example of this successful partnership between a company with international ambitions and the bank is the Besins Healthcare group, founded in 1885 by Abel Besins, and which has been expanding globally since the 1980s. Great ambitions, which the company fully embraces with BNP Paribas Fortis' sustainable support. "Once we've got new plans abroad, we first discuss them with our contact person at BNP Paribas Fortis", says Leslie Grunfeld, CEO of Besins Healthcare, which is currently active in over a hundred different markets, and has local branches in several of them. "Our treasurer will check whether the bank is present in the country in question or whether it has partnership links with local institutions." This approach means that the group never goes into a blind adventure, as it has a similar range of services throughout the world. "That's great! Especially when you consider that the local problems you have to solve can vary greatly from one country to another."
ACCESS TO A KNOWN AND RELIABLE NETWORK
One of the Trade Development team's biggest advantages is that it can provide companies with a real network of local specialists. Professionals for whom the target market holds no secrets. They know the reality of the country in question like the back of their hand and provide the company with support through all the local steps: from exploring business opportunities to bureaucratic formalities.
"Even in countries where BNP Paribas Fortis doesn't have branches, we were able to benefit from the bank's network, which made the establishment of local branches particularly smooth. We didn't have to start from scratch every time we went abroad: we had immediate access to a structured network and reliable banking partners. And that means huge time savings", Besins Healthcare's CEO emphasises.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Personal contacts with preferred partners are of great importance in an international growth project. Not only to have reliable and proactive contacts, but also to gain access to useful information and to unlock new local opportunities. These 'local' contacts are usually long-term partners of the bank... a guarantee of reliability for the company that should not be underestimated. They are specialists with various skills and profiles – legal, business or administrative – who assist the company in question from start to finish. This includes assisting with setting up local establishments, starting up a new activity, recruiting staff (management, local contracts, etc.), setting up a new legal structure, seeking suitable suppliers and other partners (e.g. banks), responding to clients' needs (cash credit, leasing, fleet management, currency hedging, etc.) and offering them tailor-made solutions. And what happens when the company is 'launched'? Trade Development then remains on standby to continue the banking relationship and to closely monitor the client's evolution. For the long term!
A bank like BNP Paribas Fortis – through its Trade Development teams – is therefore the key partner for companies' international growth. And that goes way beyond simply offering financial services. It also provides:
- exploration of new markets and partners for the company. In this capacity, it can collaborate in determining the strategy at the source and opening the range of possible relationships on the ground as widely as possible;
- risk mitigation: the bank analyses and assists with the preparation of a realistic profile of the future partner (finances, real interest, reliability, reputation, etc.) and with reducing the margin of error;
- creation of ready-to-use solutions. In this regard, the bank is always available to listen to the client, anticipate their expectations and offer solutions adapted to their specific situation;
- acceleration of the foreign process to establish themselves in a market or gain a foothold there, thanks to local contacts with useful local knowledge and experience;
- facilitation of the whole process, making its extensive network available to rapidly put the company in question in contact with local partners, but also to manage or advance all kinds of situations;
- long-term support – Trade Development's experts closely monitor the company's international journey, on-site or remotely, and oversee the project's success.