The Gray Rhinos of 2019: Where Did We End Up?

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The earliest Top Risks, predictions, and outlook lists for 2020 are out already. For the fifth year in a row, I am tracking these lists. At the end of the first quarter, when they’ve reached critical mass, I’ll analyze them to create a meta-list of the most-often and most-intensely cited risks: the obvious risks charging at us like a giant gray rhino. These are the ones that nobody can honestly say nobody saw coming: many respected analysts recognized them and raised the red flag.

Not just despite but sometimes because of their obviousness, humans aren’t nearly as good as we’d like to think we are at dealing with these clear and present dangers.

But first, let’s wrap up how the world did with the “Top Gray Rhinos of 2019.” Did we make progress resolving any of them? Did people with the power to do something outright ignore or merely neglect them?

The top gray rhino risks of 2019 were the following: US-China Tensions; Economic and Financial Fragilities; Geopolitical Uncertainty; Cyber Security and Data Integrity; and Climate Change, Extreme Weather, and National Disasters.

Since we last reviewed them in August, these risks have evolved.

1) US-China tensions. The trade war escalated mid-year and tensions rose over the unrest in Hong Kong and the US response to it. Things calmed down considerably just ahead of the planned December 15th tariff increase, when negotiators announced that they had reached a “phase-one” deal to scrap the increase and lower some tariffs. US President Donald Trump announced this morning that he expected to sign the deal by January 15th in Washington with high-level Chinese representatives and will travel to China later this year to start phase two negotiations. US complaints about Chinese subsidies to state-owned companies and key industries will be a major issue –though the US stance ignores the fact that the United States supports key industries through a combination of subsidies and regulatory frameworks. While China has state-owned enterprises, the United States has, in a sense, an enterprise-owned state. If China were to demand changes to the US economy of the scope that the US has been demanding of China, however, it could leave the US considerably better off. The easing, at least temporarily, of US-China tensions is a positive. As the two countries decouple their economies, however, many uncertainties –and the potential for more roadblocks- remains.

2) Economic and Financial Fragilities. You wouldn’t know it from the continued record-setting highs in the US stock market, but more storm clouds are gathering. Persistent troubles in the repo market have prompted the US Federal Reserve to intervene again and again, pumping in more liquidity that, along with three rate cuts, have gone straight into the stock market. How much those rate cuts have helped the real economy is debatable, especially with corporate investment sliding, a growing share of corporate earnings contracting, and debt levels sounding more and more alarm bells. An astonishing 40 percent of publicly quoted US companies do not have enough tangible assets to pay their debts: a ratio of “capitalists without capital” that is up from just 15 percent twenty years ago. What’s more, investors have been piling money into exactly such companies, John Authers wrote for Bloomberg: “Incredibly, a “negative-value” fund, composed of the shares of companies with negative tangible book value, would have beaten the main U.S. stock market, represented by the Russell 3000 Index, by 24% over the last 20 years. That outperformance has almost all happened since the financial crisis — before that, the negative-value fund had roughly tracked the benchmark.” A new Federal Reserve study has concluded that Trump’s trade war has backfired, destroying jobs and raising consumer prices.

3) Geopolitical Uncertainty. With the easing of US-China tensions, some of the landscape looks somewhat clearer –though certainly not obstacle-free– than it did as 2019 opened. Brexit looks more likely, with mixed implications for Europe. On one hand, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union may make it easier for core economies to work together more closely. On the other, there also have been rumbles of discontent with the EU from Italy and Spain. The biggest geopolitical uncertainty remains the ramifications of the US political environment following the impeachment of Donald Trump in the House of Representatives and the resistance of the Republican-majority Senate to holding anything other than a sham trial. The political battle over Trump’s fate has led to even more enraged tweet-storms and deepening concerns about his erratic and capricious behavior, which given the United States power and influence has potentially dangerous global implications. A recent German survey reflects that: 41 percent of respondents considered him to be more of a threat to global peace than any other leader. They are not alone in their sentiment.

4) Cyber Security and Data Integrity. With the total number of data breaches up by a third and the total number of records breached having doubled by the end of September alone, the concern expressed as 2019 began was certainly warranted. Like so many people, I had my own bout with compromised personal data. Corporate boards are paying attention to cyber readiness, to be sure, but it’s not at all clear that companies are prepared for the threat as it stands, much less for the ways in which it will escalate as 5G technology is introduced, as systems become more interconnected and complicated, and as humans become more and more dependent on technology.

5) Climate Change, Extreme Weather, and National Disasters. Here in Chicago, the couple of inches of snow that fell overnight were a welcome (at least for me) return to normalcy after what felt like a sub-tropical Christmas, with record highs. TIME Magazine named teenaged Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg its Person of the Year for good reason. But while public attention to the dangers of climate change and the need to reduce human-caused greenhouse gases has been rising, the concrete steps that governments, businesses, and citizens must take to head off disaster remain lacking.

I’m going to wrap up now as 2019 closes, lest I continue into 2020! I’d love your thoughts on whether we’ve moved closer or farther away from resolving these top risks over the past year -and what will keep you up at night in 2020.

In the new year, I will look closely at the new risk landscape emerging for 2020 and the priorities that will replace the top gray rhino risks of 2019. Stay tuned.

This article is part of my new LinkedIn newsletter series, “Around My Mind” – a regular walk through the ideas, events, people, and places that kick my synapses into action, sparking sometimes surprising or counter-intuitive connections. 

To subscribe to “Around My Mind” and get notifications of new posts, click the blue button on the top right hand on this page. Please don’t be shy about sharing, leaving comments or dropping me a private note with your own reactions.

Michele Wucker
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Michele Wucker is a global thought leader and the author, most recently, of THE GRAY RHINO: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore (St Martin's Press, 2016). Learn more about her at http://thegrayrhino.com/about/michelewucker

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