The question “Where’s The FD?” (it’s shortens, conveniently, to “WTF?”) really ought to be on more people’s lips right now. It’s been more than ten years since Lehman Bros. collapsed, more than 12 since the credit crunch presaged the global financial crisis and Great Recession. But we seem to be blithely oblivious to financial concerns that shape our future. We need more people who understand what's going on.
A rather obvious example is the current “government”. (It earns the scare-quotes by dint of not having a majority in a Parliament that is not sitting, while it fails to make decisions, preferring to campaign for an election that is not happening. Yet.) Years of austerity aimed at balancing the national books seem to have been junked in favour of a spending splurge to extricate ourselves from a rather successful trading bloc; and, latterly, win over utterly disaffected voters.
A corporate analogy? We had a cost-cutting CEO for years, with an FD reminding us how important it was to manage down losses. The CEO failed to convince shareholders not to junk a lucrative (and perpetual) supply chain contract, then disappeared. As is so often the case, a woman took over when the organisation was in trouble (oh, yes, that is a thing…), bringing with her a dour, by-the-book accountant finance director (whose nickname is literally “Spreadsheet Phil”).
Together they managed to do a deal to meet shareholder demands (even though most of them only ever turned up to the AGM for the tea and freebies). But a section of middle management torpedoed the plan, the CEO and her FD eventually gave up and handed the show over to the marketing director – who turns out to have no idea at all about finance, deals, supply chains or even (surprisingly) marketing.
But he does know how to spend, so he hopes shareholders and customers alike will forget the fact that the factories and offices are looking a bit shabby, and the pension fund is on the brink of bankruptcy (seriously: £5.3 trillion of government pension liabilities, almost all unfunded). More money for eye-catching initiatives – a new break room! – is secured from the new FD. And even though he’s scrapped the board meetings and lied to the board chair, the CEO thinks the shareholders might buy it.
It’s unedifying, really, whatever you think of the “new CEO”, the original cost-cutting programme or the decision to de-merge. Which brings us back to the question: WTF?
We need some pretty solid answers on where finance is going to be over the next five years. True, public markets keep going up – although with less-than-stellar returns, in fact – but most of you reading this know that the sheer level of uncertainty makes company-level planning tough. Market rises are also masking some genuine worries about the chances of stagnation (although outright UK recession has receded… for now.) When Germany’s manufacturers catch a cold, you know you’re overdue a flu jab.
Perhaps most importantly, regulatory and monetary-policy whack-a-mole might have disguised the fundamental problems in the world financial system, but there are some pretty weighty imbalances that continue to cause concern. Ultra-low interest rates and on-and-off QE, for example, a bubble in the bond market (there’s a LOT of corporate borrowing at those low rates that’s got bite-your-behind potential in the medium term, regardless of ratings downgrades), and consumer borrowing that’s still, shall we say, problematic.
The responsible finance director in this situation doesn’t just slam on the brakes. Growth, investment and innovation, especially at the company level, will always be a sound objective. But looking at the way things are right now, applying prudent tactics towards a sustainable strategy is the order of the day. And the old disciplines – deep and contextual financial analysis; robust risk management; smart deal evaluation; and, yes, rigorous control of costs – are a bulwark against the uncertainties that have thrived with a lack of financial thinking.
Prudent tactics? Sustainable strategy? Where have we heard that before? It’s notable that former prime ministers are having a real day in the sun during this crazy period. John Major is coming out as the voice of sanity in the Tory party. Gordon ‘Prudence’ Brown looks like a beacon of delightful dullness. Even Tony Blair is managing to cut through with rational advice despite almost everyone still hating him for the Iraq farrago.
The real hero? Why, if it isn’t the nation’s favourite finance chief, former chancellor Ken Clarke. Whether you’re Remain or Leave, almost regardless of political affiliation, you will have at least been interested in the idea of him leading a government of national unity to get us through this mess. Because when there’s a mess to be sorted out, it’s normally the CFO who will deliver the hype-free, rational and sustainable course out of it.
In a time of uncertainties, we should look for our inner Ken Clarke. He's one FD you always knew where to find (even if it was often the bar or a jazz club...)