In an increasingly volatile world, companies are finding it more difficult to forecast various factors, and that is creating greater uncertainty around corporate earnings.
A survey of North American finance executives by the Association for Financial Professionals (AFP) and Oliver Wyman Group found that 53% said earnings uncertainty is a bigger concern than it was five years ago, prior to the financial crisis. And there’s little relief in sight, with 52% predicting that earnings uncertainty will increase over the next three years.
“The overall number of people who felt that forecasting is more difficult than five years ago, that’s a startling number,” said David Beckoff, manager of survey research at AFP and the author of the report. “It also jumps out that when you say what about the next three years, basically an equivalent number say it’s going to get more challenging.”
Macroeconomic factors such as GDP growth were the biggest source of increased earnings uncertainty, cited by 30% of the 547 respondents. Twenty-three percent of the executives cited financial factors, such as credit availability and liquidity, while 19% cited external factors like regulatory risk. Bringing up the rear were business and operations, cited by 17%, and commodities, cited by 11% of the executives.
Looking ahead, 44% of executives said their company’s ability to satisfy and retain customers was the factor that could have the biggest impact on their earnings in coming years, while 37% cited regulation and 35% GDP growth.
The fact that key upcoming risks involve areas outside of the purview of finance and treasury departments, like customer satisfaction and retention, helps explain the heightened earnings uncertainty, according to Beckoff.
When asked which aspects of the business were most difficult to forecast, 72% of the executives said natural catastrophes, 67% cited regulatory risk, and an equal percentage cited product liability.
Part of the problem with forecasting may lie in the companies’ skill level. The majority of executives were critical of their company’s forecasting abilities, with 47% saying forecasting needed to be improved and 10% describing their company’s skills as “weak to non-existent.”
Asked to pinpoint the weaknesses in their forecasting, more than half (52%) of the executives cited problems in capturing relevant data from within the company, while 47% said that integrating risk and forecasting data to make strategic decisions was a challenge and 44% cited difficulty in gathering data from external sources.
“Finance respondents saw that the challenge with their forecasting is not so much about resources, like staff, it’s about data capture and integrating information,” Beckoff said. “More of them put the finger on what I would describe as big data challenges¾making sense of a lot of information and being able to act in a quick time frame.”
Certainly the most prevalent action in response to business risks was increasing the company’s investment in IT systems, which was cited by 57% of respondents, while 53% said they had increased their revenue growth targets and 52% said they had increased the focus on risk culture and awareness.
Further, companies with good risk management practices have a greater awareness of the complexity of risk, generally speaking, and a greater understanding of the interrelationships between risks, according to Theresa Bourdon, a group managing director at Aon Global Risk Consulting, citing data from Aon’s Risk Maturity Index, a tool that customers can use to assess their risk management efforts.
Companies that score well on the index also fine-tune their forecasts by incorporating risk-adjusted return expectations for each of the company’s units or departments, Bourdon said.
Companies should also be taking into account external parties such as their suppliers and competitors, she said. “Don’t set your forecast and planning and strategies all internally. There has to be external input around what you’re doing in forecasting.”
Top performing companies also include information about their industry. “When they develop a forecast, they’re doing it very specific to the industry they’re in and the market assumptions,” Bourdon said. “Take the construction industry–if you’re in a robust period, you should be building that into your projections. If the market changes, you’ve got to adapt to that, build it into your expectations.”
“Really mature companies are making those adjustments as they develop their forecasts and projects,” Bourdon said. “As a result, they’re minimizing the volatility of their results.”
Research by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School shows that companies that score well on Aon’s Risk Maturity Index perform better financially than those who don’t, she added. “There’s definitely a return on the investment for having a strong risk management program,” Bourdon said.