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Survey Report

2021 Political Risk Survey Report

How are leading companies managing today’s political risks?

Financial, Executive and Professional Risks (FINEX)|Credit, Political Risk and Terrorism
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March 9, 2021

It has become an annual tradition: in January and February, the world’s leading geopolitical analysts publish their lists of the top global risks for the year ahead.

Each year, Eurasia Group publishes its top ten; Control Risks produces a top five. The World Economic Forum undertakes perhaps the most comprehensive effort, ranking a long set of emerging risks based on a survey of more than 1,000 global leaders.

Last year, the novel coronavirus played havoc with these lists. Only a few weeks after the risk lists were published, countries worldwide imposed unprecedented lockdowns and restrictions on exports of food and medical products. None of the risk lists, including ours, anticipated this development, of course. Some risk lists were updated midyear to take account of the pandemic’s impact.

That said, the top ten risks in last year’s survey proved to be a prescient guide to the political risk threats that the pandemic brought to the fore. Risks from US trade policy, new ESG expectations for companies, and US-China strategic competition were identified as top ten perils, even before the pandemic intensified each of these issues. Perhaps most strikingly, our risk list last year identified emerging markets fiscal crises as a top risk. While pandemic-related economic downturns were not foreseen, the hidden dangers posed by an already-significant emerging market debt burden were. In 2020, despite global bailout programs by the IMF and G20, there were more emerging-market debt defaults or restructurings than in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis.

Of course, the credit for this foresight goes not to us, but to the external affairs and risk management professionals who joined last year’s panel. Clearly, these individuals knew their business.

As with last year’s study, this year’s research combined in-depth panel interviews with a broader survey of more than 30 major corporations. We expanded the size of the panel slightly, from ten members to fourteen, and conducted longer interviews. Because the executives who joined the panel and survey were primarily clients of Willis Towers Watson and Oxford Analytica, they should not necessarily be seen as representative of typical firms worldwide. Rather, our study participants tended to represent companies that have extensive international operations and invest heavily in the management of political risk.

Perhaps partly as a result, our sample was biased towards larger firms. More than 70% of respondents worked for companies with revenues of $1 billion or more. In terms of job functions, the largest set of respondents worked in country risk management or external affairs (at 18% each); risk management and finance functions were also well represented. The sample was widely distributed across industries, with about a quarter from the natural resource sectors, a quarter from manufacturing, and the remainder from the technology or service sectors.

We thank the survey participants and panellists for their time and insights. We hope you enjoy this 4th annual edition of our political risk survey and find the contributions of these expert analysts to be as valuable and thought-provoking as we have.

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