7 minute read 27 Mar 2023
Two trapeze artists performing release move

Why a level head is needed to deal with geopolitical risk

Courtney Rickert McCaffrey

EY Global Geostrategic Business Group Insights Leader; EY Global Research Institute Director – EY Knowledge

Geopolitical analyst and strategist. Creative methodologist. Proud feminist. Passionate about generating insights to help executives make better-informed decisions.

Oliver Jones

EY Global SaT Markets, Sustainability and Geostrategy Leader

Passionate about providing outstanding support to governments and businesses. Deeply committed to excellence in public policy. Team builder. Mentor. Flexible worker. Loving husband. Father of three.

7 minute read 27 Mar 2023

Identifying the right strategy to manage political risk exposure can create new growth opportunities. 

Three questions to ask

  • What is your company’s exposure to political risk across its revenue, footprint and suppliers?
  • How robust are your company’s political risk management activities and governance structures?
  • Will your company’s political risk profile provide opportunities or challenges in the new era of globalization? 

Global political risk has risen to historic highs and geopolitical volatility is likely to persist in the years ahead – and companies are responding accordingly. The latest EY CEO Outlook Survey January 2023 (pdf) found almost all CEOs (97%) have altered their strategies in response to geopolitical challenges. For instance, 41% have reconfigured their supply chains, 34% are exiting businesses in certain markets and 32% have halted a planned investment.

Many executives may wonder if they’re doing enough to transform their company’s strategy to adapt to heightened geopolitical risks. Others may worry they’re overreacting and therefore missing out on potential growth opportunities. To answer these questions, they first need to assess their company’s specific political risk profile – their exposure to political risk and their political risk management capability – to make better-informed shifts in their global strategy.

  • How the analysis was conducted

    EY teams used two proprietary datasets to analyze companies’ political risk profiles.

    The EY Business Relationship Economic and Threat Analysis (BRETA) is an analytics platform designed to analyze and identify multi-dimensional risks facing companies and their connected parties. For this analysis, EY BRETA provides company-level data on political risk exposure based on revenue, footprint and suppliers.

    The EY Geostrategy in Practice survey explores how senior executives of companies perceive, identify, assess and manage political risk. The survey was in the field during January and February 2021. For this analysis, EY Geostrategy in Practice data indicates which actions companies take to manage political risk, including the governance and processes that adapt risk management practices to overcome challenges and seize opportunities associated with political risks.

    Combined, these datasets create a quantitative and actionable company-level view of political risk exposure and management.

We identified four political risk profiles for public companies:

  • Passive mitigators
  • Risk-ready companies
  • Active managers
  • Exposed entities

Companies within each of these political risk profiles have a different set of strategic imperatives to improve management of their political risk exposure and optimize their global strategy in the new era of globalization.

Interestingly, there were no strong trends among companies’ political risk profile by sector. Nor were revenue size or headquarter location decisive factors. This wide variety of results among companies’ suppliers, customers and competitors increases the imperative for executives to understand their own company’s political risk profile before shifting their global strategy in response to geopolitical risks.

  • Image description

    A matrix showing 356 companies, with the horizonal axis measuring political risk exposure (from low to high) and the vertical axis measuring political risk management (from low to high). The companies are spread across the four quadrants, with the highest concentration in the upper left (“risk ready”) and the upper right (“active managers”). The chart can also be filtered by the sector in which companies operate. Most sectors have companies spread across the four quadrants.

Passive mitigators have diversified their risk but lack a geostrategy

For passive mitigators, diversification enables risk mitigation. These companies tend to be smaller in terms of revenue, but they are also the most globalized – 42% of them operate in more than 20 countries. Passive mitigators’ globalized business models tend to lower their aggregate political risk exposure scores by operating in a mix of higher-risk and lower-risk markets.

Such diversification can effectively mitigate political risks – assuming risks are uncorrelated along companies’ supply chains or across key markets. But this condition is increasingly less likely in the new geostrategic era of heightened volatility and uncertainty.

Moreover, passive mitigators are poorly positioned to respond to geopolitical shifts because they lack a strategic approach to political risk management. They are the least proactive group in terms of political risk identification, impact assessments and incorporating political risk into company strategy. This may explain why passive mitigators feel the most exposed to political risks, and only 43% of executives at these companies are extremely or highly confident in their ability to manage political risks – the lowest confidence level of any group.

What should these companies do?

Passive mitigators should improve their political risk management governance by strengthening their ability to identify risks and integrate political risk into broader enterprise risk management systems. More active political risk management could help to widen the strategic options that passive mitigators have globally. 

These companies should also consider shifts in their global footprint to build greater resilience to geopolitical risks – particularly if the world moves toward a “Cold War II” or “Self-reliance reigns” scenario (see below). For instance, EY teams recently advised a pharmaceutical company on how to assess the risks to their globalized supply chain based on these scenarios. We then identified strategies to adapt their operations to build resilience to likely geopolitical shifts in the next decade.

Select a future of globalization scenario below to explore its key characteristics and high-level business implications. For more information on these scenarios, read The CEO Imperative: Prepare now for a new era of globalization.

  • Self-reliance reigns

    “Self-reliance reigns” would result from decaying alliances and weak economic growth pushing countries to promote domestic production and seek greater self-sufficiency. This scenario offers a rerun of the 1930s but with greater isolationism. It would create a variety of challenges for international companies.

  • Cold War II

    “Cold War II” would arise from a hardening of alliances and ideological competition combined with nationalist and statist economic policies. This scenario matches many of the characteristics of the first Cold War. Companies would have to navigate distinct economic blocs organized around geopolitical alliances. 

  • Friends first

    “Friends first” would be characterized by strong geopolitical alliances, but trade and capital flow relatively freely among allies, leading to companies “friendshoring” key operations and supply chains. This scenario is a less familiar environment, somewhat reminiscent of the early 1900s. Companies would face a combination of challenges and opportunities within a complex geostrategic environment. 

  • Globalization lite

    “Globalization lite” would be a relatively liberalized and globalized operating environment with lower geopolitical tensions. This scenario presents a partial return to the 1990s and early 2000s. It presents a variety of opportunities associated with more open markets – as well as some lingering challenges. 

Risk-ready companies have license to pursue bolder global strategies

Risk-ready companies have relatively low political risk exposure. They are somewhat international, with 75% operating in fewer than 20 countries. They also tend to be larger in terms of revenue – 42% reported annual revenue of $30 billion or more. Companies in this group are diverse in terms of headquarter locations and sectors, although most technology companies in our sample fall into this segment.

Despite their low exposure, risk-ready companies are the most active managers of political risk. They especially outperform the other groups on integrating political risk into broader risk management systems and on incorporating political risk analysis into strategy. This likely explains why executives at these companies are the most confident in their ability to manage political risks.

What should these companies do?

Risk-ready companies have an opportunity to leverage their effective political risk management capabilities to confidently expand into strategic growth markets that increase their political risk exposure – if other factors in those markets are favorable. For instance, a manufacturing company recently approached EY teams to help assess and strategically manage the political risks of entering a new market that offers significant revenue growth opportunities. EY teams mapped a political risk assessment to corresponding mitigation actions for entering the new market, including strategy and supply chain recommendations.

Expansion opportunities for risk-ready companies should be viewed through the lens of future globalization scenarios, as countries that are allied or friendly with a company’s home market are likely to provide the most robust opportunities. As they expand, these companies should maintain their competitive advantage in political risk management by simultaneously implementing better processes for communication and collaboration of political risk management across functions and business units.

Active managers are balanced but may be overconfident

Active managers address their high levels of political risk exposure through active management. These companies tend to be less globalized, with about half operating only in one country and 64% headquartered in Asia-Pacific. Many companies in this group are from sectors that governments consider to be “strategic,” including energy and life sciences.

As their name suggests, active managers proactively manage political risk in a variety of ways. But while they are confident in their ability to manage these risks overall, this may be creating a blind spot on the risks that matter. Fully 75% of active managers are extremely or highly confident in their ability to manage geopolitical risks – an area that is less relevant to them, given they tend to have smaller global footprints. Conversely, they are far less confident in managing country (46%), regulatory (39%) or societal (37%) risks that are more relevant to their current operations. It is these latter types of political risk that require more proactive management.

What should these companies do?

Active managers should refine their political risk management approach by focusing activities on the primary risk types they face, particularly regulatory risks. For instance, EY teams helped a consumer goods company set up a geostrategic committee so that senior management could better understand and prepare for the specific regulatory and societal risks emanating from their company’s key markets around the world.

Executives at these companies should also assess whether their confidence in managing geopolitical risk is warranted in an era of heightened volatility and uncertainty. While their small global footprint would likely enable active managers to perform well in a Cold War II or Self-reliance reigns scenario, they could face competitive disadvantages in a Globalization lite or Friends first scenario.

Exposed entities can improve strategy and risk management

Exposed entities have the most problematic mismatch: high levels of political risk exposure and low-quality political risk management. This group tends to be fairly international – 73% of them have a footprint in 20 or fewer countries. Since many are headquartered in Europe, exposed entities may have a large regional, rather than a global, footprint. Given the strategic and operational challenges associated with this mismatch, it is perhaps no surprise that this is the smallest group of companies in the sample.

These companies have the highest level of political risk exposure across revenue, footprint and suppliers. They are also the least proactive in terms of overall political risk management. In any scenario except Globalization lite, this mismatch is likely to lead to significant downside impacts on growth and limit new opportunities.

What should these companies do?

Exposed entities should better prepare for geopolitical volatility by revamping their approach to political risk management. They should invest in capabilities across the board, including the ability to identify risks, assess their potential impact and incorporate these assessments into strategic decision-making. EY teams helped an energy company do just that once the senior leadership realized they were overexposed to political risks in a key market. Then EY teams audited their internal political risk management practice to identify and close gaps.

Exposed entities should also explore establishing a geostrategic committee comprised of people from various functions and business units – including operations, finance, government affairs and strategy – to better coordinate political risk management in the future.

Strategy shifts need to be informed by a company’s political risk profile

It’s not revenue size, sector or headquarter location that determines how well companies manage political risk exposure. Rather, a company’s specific political risk profile is determined by the strategic choices that executives make regarding their company’s global business model and political risk management activities. 

Executives should not leap to make strategic changes without accounting for their company’s unique political risk profile. Companies need to figure out where they sit on this matrix and the specific political risks to which they are exposed. That positioning will influence many of the opportunities and challenges companies will face as the new era of globalization unfolds.

No matter what political risk profile they have, companies can seize strategic opportunities by rationalizing their political risk profile. Amid an uncertain outlook for globalization, there is increased urgency for companies to align their political risk capabilities with exposure levels – and to incorporate these assessments into corporate strategies to be poised for future growth. 

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Companies face distinct strategic imperatives based on their political risk exposure and the quality of their political risk management. Executives need to understand their company’s political risk profile to avoid over- or under-reacting to specific geopolitical risks. Rationalizing political risk exposure and the quality of risk management can help companies strategically position themselves to flourish as the next era of globalization evolves. 

About this article

Courtney Rickert McCaffrey

EY Global Geostrategic Business Group Insights Leader; EY Global Research Institute Director – EY Knowledge

Geopolitical analyst and strategist. Creative methodologist. Proud feminist. Passionate about generating insights to help executives make better-informed decisions.

Oliver Jones

EY Global SaT Markets, Sustainability and Geostrategy Leader

Passionate about providing outstanding support to governments and businesses. Deeply committed to excellence in public policy. Team builder. Mentor. Flexible worker. Loving husband. Father of three.