The Top Gray Rhino Risks of 2020

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This is a strange year for my fifth annual round-up of the things that keep the world’s risk observers up at night. Why? Because the big thing on everyone’s mind right now did not make it on to most lists.

That thing is, of course, the novel coronavirus outbreak and its outsized impact on the global economy. Most top-risks-of-the-coming-year lists are designed to attract headlines at a time of year when news is often slow because the world is on holiday or just emerging from it. So most were issued before COVID-19 really took hold.

There were some relevant references in lists issued early on: the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report included pandemics as number ten on its most impactful risk list. Related supply chain, business continuity and resilience risks appeared on other lists. The Economist Intelligence Unit, which issued its report February 29th, was able to include the coronavirus, as did risk.net on March 4th.

While the coronavirus itself wasn’t evident in this year’s trend, the pandemic has interacted dramatically, with many concerns that were expressed, particularly economic and financial fragilities. The smartest people on Wall Street have been concerned for some time that markets are a house of cards that could be collapsed by any number of ill winds. That is, indeed, what has happened with the coronavirus.

As regular readers know, I release my annual Top Ten Gray Rhinos list near the end of the first quarter so that I can capture a global sense of the top-risks and predictions lists for the year. I then circle back mid-year and as the year closes, to see how these risks –and our responses—have progressed.

It bears repeating: this list is about perceptions by a wide range of organizations, analysts, and survey participants including policy, general business, and specific disciplines like insurance and audit. It’s not necessarily what I think, but rather a meta-analysis intended to capture the mood and the issues that are important to others. Comparing lists is like comparing apples, oranges, bananas, and pears, because different constituencies see risks very differently. Some look through an operational lens; others, policy, strategy, or market relevance. Nevertheless, common themes quickly emerge as some topics appear with greater frequency and intensity than others.

With that said, here are the top five gray rhino risks that emerged from my meta-analysis of dozens of this years’s top risks, predictions, and outlook lists:

1) Economic and financial fragilities. This year’s predictions and top-risks lists included many mentions of slowing economic growth, possible, credit and liquidity events, market volatility and deteriorating sentiment, high global debt, and interest rate changes. Financial market volatility was top on the North Carolina State/Protiviti survey of 1063 board members and executives globally (released in December), and economic concerns echoed throughout its list: 4) access to capital impact on growth; 5) economic conditions restrict growth; and 9) sudden interest rate changes. Though it was not always said outright, the assumption often appeared to be rising interest rates rather than the sharp drop we are seeing; the coronavirus has changed that. Many predictions saw a slowing global economy but not outright recession; the coronavirus similarly has quickly put those forecasts out of date. The theme of uncertainty was strong, for example with the PWC CEO Report noting both economic uncertainty (third place) and policy uncertainty (fifth). The coronavirus has added a considerable amount of uncertainty: what will the total impact be, including the length of the economic disruption and the strength of the recovery.

2) Political uncertainty, both domestic and geo-political. From the US elections to simmering geopolitical tensions. The coronavirus will have an outsized political effect, from the way that publics view their leaders’ responses to it; to a rise in fear of travel, outsiders, and the unknown; to the knock-on effects of economic slowdown. The Atlantic Council opened its report, issued in December, with a warning: “Either a Trump reelection or a victory for a Democratic challenger is bound to deepen US political tribalism.” Control Risk cites among its top five: 1) geopolitics and the US campaign trail, 2) the activist society passes judgment; and 3) leaders without strategies. The latter emphasizes the “uncertainty” part of this risk. In the United States, the government’s bungled response to the coronavirus, combined with market weakness and the hit to the economy, will play into this year’s election dynamics. There were political risk worries -mainly the Korean peninsula, Venezuela, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, India, Iraq, and of course US-China, but compared to past years, 2020 worries were focused on big-picture, cross-regional macro trends. It’s the general sense of uncertainty people fear, not so much specific political risks.

3) Climate change. The World Economic Forum’s top five most likely global risks (based on a survey of 750 global leaders and released in January) were all climate related this year: extreme weather, climate action failure, natural disasters, biodiversity loss, and human made environmental disasters. Climate action failure topped its most impactful list as well (and all but three of the other top five, with weapons of mass destruction in second place). Climate change jumped sharply on Willis Towers Watson’s list to 9 from 53 last year, as did natural catastrophes, up to 8 from 28 last year. Climate change also topped the Baldwin Global/Institute of Risk Management list. Climate concerns included not just worries about the potential economic and supply chain shocks, but also regulatory changes and reputational risk related to rising expectations of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) reporting and actions. Eurasia Group cited the tension between the politics and economics of climate change as seventh on its list (where, related, US political uncertainty was on top). The political-risk firm noted that nation-states have fallen way short on achieving the Paris Accord goal they set five years ago, of limiting global warming to two degrees by the end of the century. “This year that failure will lead to suboptimal corporate decision-making, operational business disruptions, and political instability,” it added. While the coronavirus thrives in cooler weather, scientists have established a link between climate change and tropical infectious diseases by expanding the habitat of mosquitoes that carry them.

4) Cyber and digital risk. As happened in 2019, cyber and digital risk appeared in many forms: cyber crime, IT failures, data breaches, regulatory risk, as well as digital disruption. Cyber risks topped the Allianz Risk Barometer, up from second place last year in its poll of 2,700 risk managers in 102 countries. Cyber also was top for Willis Towers WatsonEY/Institute for International FinanceKroll (data theft), and. Risk.Net (IT disruption). The Institute for Internal Auditors put cybersecurity atop its list, followed by 2) data protection, 3) regulatory issues (including data privacy), 5) data and new technology, and 10) data ethics. It noted, “The growing sophistication and variety of cyberattacks continue to wreak havoc on organizations’ brands and reputations, often resulting in disastrous financial impacts.”

5) Supply chain risks. This includes natural disasters, extreme weather, and trade shocks. Supply chain risks were second on the University of North Carolina/Protiviti list. For the first time, resilience risk appeared on Risk.net, in fifth place. “The growing complexity of banking and the interwoven nature of the financial system, both now rooted in technology, have combined to make resilience a subject of boardroom discussion,” risk.net’s editors noted. They added that regulators are taking a magnifying glass to banks’ ability to respond quickly to disruptions. And of course, it’s worth noting that the coronavirus has already disrupted supply chains from China and now others, as it spreads in other countries.

Finally, though conduct and reputational risk missed the top five, this year’s lists had an increase in mentions, coming in third on Kroll’s, ninth on Association of Financial Professionals, and fourth on the IIF/EY list. Given the number of recent CEO departures under storm clouds, this is not a surprise.

I’ll be writing more on each of these risks in coming weeks, so 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. 

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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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