The FT–ICSA Boardroom Bellwether is a twice-yearly survey of FTSE 350 companies that seeks to gauge the sentiment inside UK boardrooms. It canvasses the views of their company secretaries to find out how boards are responding to the challenges of the economy, market conditions and the wider business and governance environment.
Questions cover a range of business concerns, topical issues and specific governance concerns to provide unique insight into what British boards are thinking. Some questions change from survey to survey, but the core remains the same to reveal trends and shifts in opinion.
Use the tabs below to explore the key findings of the most recent FT–ICSA Boardroom Bellwether Survey, published in December 2016.
Boards continue to be pessimistic about growth prospects in the UK and overseas. The UK position is particularly bleak with only 8% of respondents predicting any improvement in economic conditions, a significant drop from the 40% predicted in December 2015 and an even more substantial drop compared with 74% in July 2015.
How linked this pessimism is to Brexit is hard to tell, but the uncertainty around the UK’s exit from the EU is bound to be weighing heavily on respondent’s minds. Our last survey took place in the weeks just before the June referendum and respondents were more relaxed about the prospect of leaving the EU, possibly because they were expecting a ‘Remain’ result. There is more concern now, with nearly 60% saying that leaving the EU will cause some damage to their business.
Despite this, less than half (43%) of all respondents are reporting Brexit as a principal risk and plans for capital expenditure are largely unchanged. Nearly half of the companies that responded are making no changes to their plans to expand during the next twelve months and 34% anticipate an increase. The FTSE 100 is slightly more optimistic than the FTSE 250, with 40% of FTSE 100 respondents suggesting that capital expenditure would increase.
The structure and composition of boards remains in the spotlight and the drive to improve board diversity continues. Although significant progress has been made on improving gender diversity as a result of the targets set by Lord Davies, there is still much more to be done to encourage wider ethnic and cultural diversity. Ethnic diversity has dropped to 22% from 34% in May 2016 and we are seeing lower ratings across all categories of diversity.
While good progress has been made on increasing the number of women on boards over the last three years, results this time are disappointing. Across the FTSE 350 just over half of our respondents have met or exceeded Lord Davies’ target, with a further 20% nearly there. This leaves 28% who have achieved less than 20% representation.
Companies face mounting pressure to pay more attention to identifying and developing future talent from a much wider pool of candidates in order to improve the spread of experience and perspective. Board composition and building a sustainable pipeline through a transparent long-term succession plan should be a governance priority for all companies.
The pressure on boards to become more actively involved in risk management and reporting has increased over the past year and most boards receive regular updates from a chief risk officer or equivalent.
Cyber risk is considered to be the risk that is increasing by the highest number of people (80%), followed by social media risk (52%) and reputational risk (51%). Political risk, which could have included Brexit, was rated joint lowest with legal risk at 41%. As cyber security is seen as the main risk, 69% of companies have assessed the vulnerability of their information assets and over half (59%) have discussed and acted upon the Government’s 'Ten Steps' guidance. There is much less take up (32%) of the government’s Cyber Essentials scheme which would seem counterintuitive given the large number of companies that believe their exposure to cyber risk is increasing.
Past surveys have regularly asked about the extent of companies’ engagement with investors. Negative attitudes to the influence of proxy advisors remain unchanged with a high majority of respondents continuing to rate them significantly more negative than positive. Only 5% rated them as positive, compared with 11% a year ago.
There is a lot of work to be done to understand engagement issues better and ICSA is working with the Financial Reporting Council, the Investment Association and the Pensions and Lifetime Saving Association to get a more detailed understanding of the issues and how they may be resolved.
Coverage of the survey's findings: