Decision makers are inundated these days with possibilities. There are myriad opportunities to seize, hundreds of competitive threats to avoid, and the constant awareness that any relevant trend — the price of oil, the popularity of a new interactive medium, the viability of an overseas market — may shift dramatically at any time. That’s why the first step of an effective strategy is separating signal from noise: recognizing the most telling indicators of the trends that will have real impact in the coming year. Fortunately, some signals have extra clarity and resonance right now, even amidst the cacophony.
At strategy+business, which is published by the management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton, we continually seek insight from industry experts at our firm: people with years of experience working with automotive, financial-services, consumer products, energy, industrials, media, oil and gas, health-care, and high-tech companies. We have learned that the most significant trends in any one industry tend to cross over to others as well. Right now, for instance, the credit collapse affecting the financial-services industry has ramifications for many sectors around the globe. Similarly, if the trend we see toward IT regaining relevance is borne out, it could not just influence individual industries, but have a benign, and largely unanticipated, macroeconomic effect.
We think eight critical trends will be most important in the coming year that apply to every sector. They’re not sending the most obvious signals — indeed, they’re important precisely because many leaders are overlooking them. But we think they deserve attention.
1. Faster, more frequent bubbles. Although the effects of the housing bubble deflation will continue to play out during 2008, there remains a surplus of capital around the world that requires places to invest. But many of the favored places seem suddenly uncertain. Another bubble may be about to burst around credit cards; unsecured consumer debt is higher than the underlying fundamentals of employment and wages would support, particularly as overtime dries up in many industries. The emerging economies within the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations and elsewhere continue to grow, but the amount of growth is uncertain. Competition from companies based in those emerging nations is heating up and will grow far more dramatically in the next year — symbolized, perhaps, by Tata Motors’ introduction of its US$2,500 automobile in early January. Private equity capital will be increasingly vulnerable if the cost of debt rises — at least that part of it that expects to get returns through speculation on corporate assets. And it’s not clear how far the value of the dollar will drop.
These uncertainties will all exacerbate one another, and they will be reinforced by the increased velocity of capital. There were periods of similar financial turbulence, for example, in the 1970s and ’80s, but money was still constrained at that time by the fact that an investor had to call a broker to place an order. Today, as soon as an opportunity is perceived to have potential, billions could flow there instantly.
The result, as Booz Allen’s financial-services experts put it, will be “more frequent bubbles” appearing at an ever-faster pace. The definition of a bubble is simple: a state in which asset prices are inflated beyond the support of underlying cash flow. As some bubbles pop, other sectors will attract sudden speculative investment (for example, export-focused services and high tech this year) and then they may also become vulnerable.
Unfortunately, when bubbles burst, the capital markets tend to overreact. That’s why an economy of faster, more frequent bubbles could be difficult to live in. And this situation could last a while, perhaps as long as five years or more. If the downturn of 2001 was like the economy catching a cold, this year will seem more like having the flu: debilitating, longer-lasting, and making it hard to keep up day-to-day activity. Yet people cope with the flu, and many corporations will find they can operate effectively, perhaps even masterfully, in a time of high uncertainty.