The predictions game has never been more difficult. As 2013 came to a close, who would have guessed that an oil price collapse would wreak havoc on Russia's economy, geopolitical chess games would dominate the headlines, and yet, global equity indices, job markets and M&A activity would surge to record highs? What will this year bring?
With global finance and economics moving faster than ever, the sometimes unenviable task of answering this question falls to those most qualified to do so. CFA Institute asked more than 5,000 of our members (a combination of C-suite executives and investment professionals) to look ahead at what 2015 has in store for the economy, capital markets and the financial services industry. It's a complex question, and the results might surprise you.
As we have seen with destabilising events around the world last year, and the Russian currency crisis in December, political instability is a key concern for our experts, with 20% of respondents naming it as the most underestimated risk that could impact markets. That concern was second only to continued weakness in developed economies at 30%. In the UK, next year will see a General Election, for which the economy, banking reform and public spending remain key battlegrounds, inevitably affecting investor confidence.
Alongside these external factors, our members believe that internal industry threats to watch include market fraud, such as insider trading (considered the most serious threat to market integrity at 25% of responses), and the integrity of financial reporting (a close second at 24%) - once again a hot topic in the UK as debates around executive pay, corporation tax and offshoring continue to dominate the agenda.
Which leads us to views on trust in the banking industry: our members tend to agree that the industry is not helping itself win back the confidence of the general public. Well over half of respondents - 63% this year, up from 54% last year - blamed a lack of trust in the industry on a lack of ethical cultures within financial firms, suggesting the problem stems more from flawed (unethical) internal firm culture than from poor government regulation and enforcement. A recent University of Zurich study concurs: "The prevailing business culture in the banking industry may favour dishonest behavior and could thus have contributed to the current loss of confidence in the industry."
The most needed firm-level actions, according to surveyed investors? 1) Better alignment of compensation with investor objectives (31%), 2) A zero tolerance policy by top management for ethical breaches (27%), and 3) Increased adherence to ethical codes and standards (21%). These priorities were summarized very succinctly in a recent study by State Street's Center for Applied Research: "True success includes not only producing alpha, but more importantly, it also requires helping investors achieve their long term goals, sustainably, over time." Unless industry leaders collectively recommit to serving underlying investors and the public good, we will continue to be plagued by misdirected incentives, misplaced priorities and resources, and ultimately bad behavior.
How about the markets themselves? Our members said that they expect the world economy to grow by an average of 2%, substantially lower than the recent World Bank estimate of 3.4%. The cautious posture is due to the negative impact of central banks' tapering of quantitative programs and muted world economic activity largely offsetting continued strong growth in China and India.
Global indices, however, are expected to continue to show respectable results, with investors predicting that from now until 31 December 2015, the S&P 500 index is expected to increase 4.8 percent, the EuroStoxx 50 by 1.9 percent, and the Nikkei 225 by 1.6 percent. Survey respondents predict the US 30-year Treasury bond will yield 3.46 percent, up from 3.21 percent as of 30 September 2014.
The findings from our survey taken in the light of recent events from currency crises to rogue revolutionaries give industry participants at all levels plenty of food for thought for the upcoming festive break. How can the industry better articulate its role and societal purpose? How can we improve the way we report our results, educate our employees and incentivise for success? How can we work better with governments and activists from all political spectrums to engage in informed, constructive dialogue?
We all want to see growth next year, and not just because individual success rides on it, but because the success of communities, businesses, nations and international relations depends on it. Let all of us engaged in the business of finance, from whatever perspective, reflect on our own personal role within that endeavour, and I hope that when we once again survey our members in 2015 we see greater, universal levels of optimism, reduced risk and societal benefit.