Despite phenomenal long-term share price performance, Big Tech has been besieged from all sides – governments and regulators have been forced to increase scrutiny, investors are questioning the future economic consequences, while consumers question the FANGs’ social licence to operate. In response to the major issues faced by Big Tech, Sickly Tech, a report by Eoin Murray, Head of Investment at Hermes Investment Management, raises deep questions about Big Tech’s future, the risks for investors, and outlines the necessary steps to drive reform.
Even the market ruckus earlier this year failed to derail the trajectory of the Big Tech leaders. Instead, the market witnessed dramatic outperformance by Big Tech and the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google), which benefit from the ongoing growth in internet commerce. Indeed, if the FANGs (plus Nvidia and Microsoft) are stripped out, the S&P 500 has fallen over the year to date – such is the influence of their phenomenal momentum. Even from a global perspective, the FANGs are a vital positive story, with global markets overall having fallen slightly in 2018.
However, according to the report, concerns over data privacy have cast a shadow over the strong returns. The report highlights the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal as illustrative of the potential vulnerability of the FANGs. CA obtained data from 50m+ Facebook users and quite possibly used it for political purposes. What seems beyond doubt is that it used this information without either Facebook’s knowledge or consent.
Eoin Murray, Head of Investment at Hermes Investment Management says: “Facebook claims this technically wasn’t a data breach, but it does bring into light the sophisticated algorithms used to target adverts – and similar tools in use at other Big Tech providers. It has not yet become clear exactly what CA did with all the data, but the public reaction thus far is largely one of incredulity that Facebook could fail to understand that the data could be used in dangerous ways.”
Stewards of responsibility
What is increasingly obvious, is investors need to think more deeply about FANG stocks and question their standards of responsibility.
Murray continues: “They are an important part of US and global business, and influence the fortunes of a vast ecosystem of companies. They dominate consumer growth, technical innovation and economic trends. Furthermore, they influence our communication, are pre-eminent in logistics, and are looking to burgeon into new industries, including healthcare and insurance. However, the question is: are they are responsible stewards of the power they control?”
There are serious questions around accountability and this has been played out clearly in the realm of publishing. Companies such as Facebook and Google are disseminating content, but without the same checks and balances as conventional publishers. This has led to well-publicised issues around fake news and the promotion of rogue content, such as terrorist or paedophile activity.
In June 2017, the European Union fined Google €2.42bn after finding the technology giant abused its internet search monopoly, promoting its own shopping service at the expense of other price comparison sites. It was the biggest competition fine to date from the European Commission, and according to the report, Big Tech could not necessarily be trusted.
The dominance of data
From shopping records to political affiliation – the prize for Big Tech is data. European policymakers have been worried enough to bring in the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which represents a robust set of requirements guarding personal data.
“This pushed Facebook to publish privacy principles for the first time and to roll out educational videos helping users understand and exert some control over who has access to their information. Moreover, Big Tech has the backing of a powerful lobby looking to limit future reform. While it is less powerful in Europe, the US Federal Communication Commission’s decision to roll back ‘net neutrality’ rules demonstrates the power of this lobby,” says Murray.
Moreover, FANG stocks are increasingly monopolistic in their individual spheres and Amazon’s dominance has been implicated in the failure of high street rivals.
Murray continues: “US antitrust policy is clear: If a company brings clear consumer benefits, it can be as big and powerful as it wants. In the short-term, Amazon is pushing down prices and giving consumers choice, but will it have the incentive to do so if its monopoly builds? There are questions over whether antitrust legislation is fit for purpose in the digital age.”
Poor engagement with shareholders
According to the report, shareholders can play an important role in holding companies to account, but only if a company needs to listen to them.
Murray says:“In many cases, big technology companies don’t need additional capital. They have vast cash flows and cash mountains large enough to support whatever innovation (or corporate acquisition) they choose to pursue. Many of these companies have multi-class share structures that make it harder for shareholders to call company management and boards to account, as voting control is concentrated around the founder.”
Technology companies’ aggressive tax planning arrangements are increasingly concerning. Many technology companies have structured their financial arrangements to avoid domestic taxation in countries in which they operate. For example, Amazon paid just €16.5m in tax on European revenues of €21.6bn reported through Luxembourg in 2016.
So what are the risks for investors?
While Big Tech has seen significant share price growth, sustainability issues pose a risk to its ability to grow revenues, profitability and – ultimately – its ability to operate effectively in a societal context.
The report outlines three major risks:
Increasing regulatory intervention
UK Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged in September that Facebook and other tech companies had made progress in their efforts to tackle these issues, but added that they still needed to go “further and faster”. In particular, the speed at which terrorist-related material should be erased has been a contentious issue and signals the potential for intervention.
Advertisers are sensitive. Wary of their reputation by association, advertisers do not want their products associated with rogue content. Ultimately, businesses such as Facebook or Amazon are dependent on consumer engagement. If they become disillusioned, or switch off, their business model will struggle.
This is a tail risk: low probability but with high potential impact. For the time being, most of these companies have not engaged in the type of anti-competitive behaviour that would bring them to the attention of antitrust legislation. However, there are signs of more aggression. Amazon named one campaign to approach small publishers “The Gazelle Project,” designed to target them “the way a cheetah would a sickly gazelle.”
Positive change in Big Tech can be achieved by collaborative action between companies, government and asset managers and outlines areas where progress needs to be made.
- Checks and balances
The fortunes of many of these companies are wrapped up with those of their charismatic founders, who may or may not have political ambitions, but have philanthropic ambitions. For many companies, this is the main check to their power and ambition. But is it enough? After all, this still rests with one person. Given the prevalence of data, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to charge Big Tech with acting as an information fiduciary
- Digital Geneva Convention or Tech Magna Carta
It took until 2015 for the UN to follow Microsoft’s suggestion that existing international law applies to cyberspace. Microsoft, among others, has proposed a Digital Geneva Convention. Under their proposals, there would be ample scope for the involvement of all stakeholders, whether government, individual citizens or Big Tech. Agreement on a basic set of principles is an obvious first step.
- Engagement with governments
These companies are increasingly recognising that they need to engage with governments and tax authorities to prevent a more onerous and intrusive clampdown. Googleagreed a deal with British tax authorities in 2016 to pay £130m in back taxes and promised to bear a greater tax burden in future. However, countries may continue to arbitrage tax laws, so an international agreement may be difficult.
- Changing business models
Apple and IBM recently launched public relations efforts to demonstrate their responsible use of data. Apple’s new privacy website shows features that differentiate it from, say, Google – algorithms that work at the level of individual devices rather than in the cloud. There is increasing mileage in being seen to use data responsibly.
- Role of asset managers
As asset managers and asset owners, it is not good enough to simply place Big Tech on a banned list of companies unless they reform – asset managers’ role as stewards of capital must be to engage with those companies directly in order to help change their modus operandi, earn their social licence, and to seek the help of government in reclaiming ownership of our data.
Shareholders have the ability to reinforce the need to manage personal data more carefully, to be cognisant of the unintended effects on democracy, and to call into question the societal propriety of social media.
Murray states: “Existing share structures with dominant founders make this challenging, but careful, well-structured engagement on these difficult, but vital issues, should be able to make a difference.
“It has been easy to see Big Tech as a one-way bet with a uni-directional positive societal impact, but sustainability considerations are its Achilles Heel and present an only recently acknowledged risk to investors. As it becomes an increasingly important component part of the US indices, investors need to consider whether these companies are adequately addressing governance and myriad other considerations.”
Return to Work Doesn’t Mean Business as Usual When it Comes to Travel and Expense
By Rob Harrison, MD UK & Ireland, SAP Concur
The last few months have been an exercise in adaptability for businesses across the UK. With the sudden mandate to work from home, company processes that were ingrained in employees’ day-to-day routines were either put on hold or turned upside down. The new office normal now includes virtual meetings, conversing through instant messaging instead of in the hallway, and the redefining of “business casual” attire.
Many of the processes that have undergone changes fall into the category of travel and expense. With most business travel on hold and the nature of expenses changing, finance managers have had to adjust policies and practices to accommodate the new world of work. Recent SAP Concur research found that 72% of businesses have seen changes in the levels and types of expenses submitted, but only 24% have changed their policies to support this. Examples of travel and expense related changes that were made at the beginning of work from home mandates include:
- A halt to business travel and its associated expenses.
- Temporarily ending expensed meals for business lunches, dinners, or in-office meetings.
- Increase in office expenses like monitors and chairs as employees furnish their home offices.
- New expenses to consider like Internet and cell phone bills for employees who must work from home.
Now, as companies begin thinking about return to work plans, finance managers are discovering it’s not simply business as usual again. SAP Concur research found that many expect finance will return to normal quicker than general workplace practices, but vast majority see the process taking up to 12 months. New policies and processes need to be put in place to accommodate travel restrictions and changes in expenses. While finance managers need to stay flexible as the business environment continues to evolve, spend control and compliance should still be a high priority.
Here are a few questions that can help finance managers prepare for return to work while keeping control and compliance top of mind:
- What will travel look like for the company? Finance managers must work with travel and HR counterparts to determine the need for employee travel, if at all, and how to keep employees safe. At SAP Concur, we surveyed 500 UK business travellers and found that health and safety is now seen as more than twice as important than their business goals being met on trips (34% versus 16%. Clear guidelines should be developed, even if they are temporary or evolving, so it’s clear who can travel, when they can travel, and how they can travel. Duty of care plans should also be re-evaluated and businesses should ensure they know at all times where employees are traveling for business and how they can communicate with them in the event of an emergency.
- Who needs to approve travel and expenses? While it may be temporary, businesses may have to implement a more stringent approval policy for travel and other expenses. Due to health concerns related to travel and the need to conserve cash flow, business leaders like CFOs may want to have final approval over all travel and expenses until the situation stabilises. To help ensure new approval processes don’t cause delays and inefficiencies, finance managers should implement an automated solution that streamlines the process and allows business leaders to review and approve travel requests, expenses, and invoices right from their phones. According to SAP Concur research, 11% of UK businesses implemented some automation of financial processes in response to COVID-19. This is definitely set to increase post-pandemic.
What types of expenses are within policy? Prior to social distancing, employees may have been allowed to take clients out to dinner. In-person team meetings held during the lunch hour, may have included expensed lunches. As employees return to work, finance managers need to determine if these activities and expenses will be allowed again. Clear guidelines must be put in place and expense policies need to be updated to reflect any changes.
- What happens to home office items that were purchased? While new office equipment may have been purchased for employees’ home offices, they remain the business’s property and what to do with them as employees return to work needs to be determined. Perhaps employees will continue to work from home a few days a week and need to keep the equipment to ensure productivity. However, if a full return to work is expected, finance managers have options that can maximise their asset investment and possibly save the company money, like replacing old office equipment with the new purchases, reselling to a used office furniture company, or donating to a non-profit.
- How can cost control be ensured? For many businesses, cash flow will be tight for the foreseeable future. Spend needs to be managed to help ensure recovery and stability. An important aspect of controlling costs is having full visibility of expenses throughout the company. Implementing an automated spend management solution that integrates expense and invoice management brings together a business’s spend, giving finance managers an understanding of where they can save, where to renegotiate, and where to redirect budgets based on plans and priorities.
Once finance managers have asked themselves the questions above and determined how they want to approach travel and expense procedures, it’s vital they create guidelines and communicate clearly to employees. Compliance can only be ensured if employees have a clear understanding of what has and has not changed with travel and expense policies and what’s expected as they return to work.
Spotting the warning signs – minimising the risk of post-Covid corporate scandals
By Professor Guido Palazzo is Academic Director at Executive Education HEC Lausanne.
A recent report from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) found that almost seven out of 10 anti-fraud professionals have experienced or observed an increase in fraud levels during the Covid pandemic, with a-quarter saying this increase has been significant. Almost all of those questioned (93%) said they expected an increase in fraud over the next 12 months and nearly three-quarters said that preventing, detecting, and investigating fraud has become significantly more difficult.
For corporations, banks and financial directors, this is a clear warning signal of new risks ahead. Indeed, it’s not difficult to predict that the birth of next big corporate scandal will be traced back to this period. As the ACFE put it, the pandemic is “a perfect storm for fraud. Pressures motivating employee fraud are high at the same time that defenses intended to safeguard against fraud have been weakened.”
If we want to stop corporate misconduct, where should we be focusing our efforts? What should we do to minimise the chances of corporate scandals, fraud and unethical decision-making? Compliance and risk management are obviously critical in detecting fraud, but given that corporate scandals keep happening, perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves whether we need to take a different, more holistic approach to combat unethical behaviour.
Bad Apples or Toxic Cultures?
Most compliance is based on the premise that we need to keep bad people in check and to root out the ‘bad apples’ who usually get blamed when there’s a corporate scandal. When the scandal breaks, we all ask, “how was that possible? What were they thinking?” And we also tell ourselves that we could never behave like that and that it could never happen in our organisation – it’s not our problem.
But are those who succumb to this temptation really ‘bad apples’ or rather people like you and I? Most models of (un)ethical decision-making assume that people make rational choices and are able to evaluate their decisions from a moral point of view. However, if you made a list of the character traits of a rule breaker in an organisation and then compared it to a list of your own, you might be surprised to find a lot of overlap.
When we examine corporate scandals, what we invariably see is good people doing bad things in highly stressful circumstances. If you put sufficient pressure on an individual and they start making ill-advised decisions or behaving unethically, the first reaction is fear as they realise what they are doing is wrong. But then they will start to rationalise their actions to justify what they are doing. Over time, such behaviour becomes normalised and they convince themselves that there is no wrongdoing involved. That’s something that my HEC Lausanne colleagues, Franciska Krings and Ulrich Hoffrage, and I have termed ‘ethical blindness’, and it is a phenomenon that plays a fundamental role in systematic organisational wrongdoing.
The trouble with conventional technical and regulatory compliance strategies is that while policies, codes of conduct and formal processes are all very necessary, they don’t take into consideration the importance of leadership behaviour or human psychology. We can’t pre-empt those who succumb to the temptation to do bad things in difficult circumstances unless we understand why they behave in the way they do. If we simply attribute problems to the psychological failings of ‘bad apples’ while ignoring the context, culture and leadership style which made their wrongdoing possible, then the barrel will still be contagious.
So what can be done to reduce the chances of new corporate scandals emerging in these challenging times? One take-away from previous scandals is the learning how to read the warning signals. This entails a deep understanding the psychological and emotional factors behind human risk, which surprisingly is not included in most compliance and ethics training. These small signals viewed in isolation may seem insignificant, but over time they can combine to create a dysfunctional context and culture where it can be all too easy for people to slip into the dark side.
Develop a Speak Up Culture
One of the most potent antidotes to that sort of dysfunction and the ethical blindness it encourages is a culture in which individuals at all levels feel able to speak up to their superiors about problems and ethical issues without fear of retaliation. But that will only happen if their own bosses are prepared to speak up and the tone for this must be set at the top. So, the critical question every executive needs to ask themselves is, “do I speak up?” Then they need to reflect on whether people come to them and speak up freely without fear of the consequences. That’s an approach to compliance that offers real protection against the onset of ethical blindness in a way that no conventional strategy can match.
This understanding of human risk element also elevates compliance to a leadership topic with all kinds of positive implications beyond compliance. Whilst on the one hand, this approach helps to boost the status of the compliance and risk function, my experience of working with senior executives is that when they start to understand the psychological elements of the dark side, it shines a light on their own behaviour. One thing they realise is that, yes, it perhaps could have been them doing those things in one of those scandals. The other is understanding that their leadership style can unwittingly creating the context for unethical behaviour.
That’s one reason I invited two former senior executives who were involved in corporate scandals to share their first-hand experience as teachers on our new certificate in ethics and compliance. Andy Fastow is the former CFO of Enron and Richard Bistrong is a former sales executive involved in an international bribery scandal. Amongst other things, the valuable insights of people like these can help others to understand how risks accumulate over time and how this can impact the integrity of an organisation. Their stories also highlight the temptation that people can face as a result of the tension between the pressure to succeed and the pressure to comply.
Traditionally, compliance training and development has been technical and regulatory – what are the rules, what are people allowed to do or not allowed to do, and how do we demonstrate to the authorities that we did everything possible to ensure that people understand the laws and regulations? But what’s becoming increasingly clear is that it’s time for a multi-disciplinary approach if we are to start redressing the balance between the legal dimension of risk management and the human element.
Trust is a critical asset
By Graham Staplehurst, Global Strategy Director, BrandZ, explains how it’s evolving.
Trust is what makes us return to the same brands, particularly during times of uncertainty and crisis.
Pampers is an instinctive choice for many parents. It’s the go-to global nappy brand whether they shop online or in-store. By our reckoning, it’s also the world’s most trusted brand, driven primarily through its perceived superiority over competitors, which it has honed through a relentless focus on technological improvements that make its products the best in the category.
BrandZ has been tracking Trust since 1998 because it’s a critical ingredient in delivering both reassurance and simplifying brand choice, thereby boosting brand value. It’s also become extra critical in delivering business performance at a time when consumers are uncertain and often anxious.
Even brands that haven’t been available during Covid-19 lockdowns, brands that are already trusted, have found that they are more reassuring to consumers when they start returning to market with new safety measures such as protecting staff, which will be seen as evidence that the brand will take similar steps to protect customers.
With a growing demand from consumers for more responsible corporate behaviour, this in turn amplifies the need for brands to make a positive difference.
Alongside Pampers, other brands in this year’s BrandZ Top 100 Most Valuable Brands ranking that have strengthened their trust and responsibility credentials include the Indian bank HDFC, which has supported customer initiatives across its consumer and business banking and life insurance operations – with innovations such as mobile ATMs, and DHL, which has proven itself even more essential as a delivery service during the COVID-19 outbreak.
New brands too have managed to grow Trust relatively rapidly. Second in the Top 10 most trusted brands was Chinese lifestyle brand Meituan with a trust score of 130. This delivery and online ordering brand, which was launched just over a decade ago, has clearly demonstrated its understanding of what consumers want and developed a strong reputation for customer care.
Then there’s streaming service Netflix – founded in 1997 but which only became a streaming service in 2007 – which scored 127 and was the fifth most trusted brand in our ranking. Netflix has created a strong association with being open and honest compared to other ‘content’ platforms, despite the fact that it uses customer’s personal data to suggest future viewing options.
Top 10 Most Trusted Brands in the BrandZ Top 100 Ranking 2020
|Position||Brand||Category||Trust Score (Average is 100)||Position in Top 100 ranking|
|3||China Mobile||Telecom Providers||129||36|
What defines trust?
The nature of trust is evolving with ‘responsibility’ to consumers forming an increasingly large proportion of what builds perceptions of trust. This amplifies the need for brands in all categories to act as a positive force in the world.
Traditionally, consumers trusted well-established brands based on two factors:
- Proven expertise, the knowledge that the brand will deliver on its brand promise, reliably and consistently over time.
- Corporate responsibility, which is about the business behind the brand. Does it show concern over the environment, its employees, and so on?
In recent years, the latter factor has become increasingly important. It is now three times more important to corporate reputation than 10 years ago and accounts for 40% of reputation overall, with environmental and social responsibility the most important component, alongside employee responsibility and the supply chain.
Companies such as Toyota, with its emphasis on sustainability, Nike, with its campaigns around social responsibility, and FedEx focusing on employee responsibility, highlight the fact that responsibility is high on the agenda for many brands in the BrandZ Global Top 100 Most Valuable Brands, which has been tracking rises and falls in brand value via a mix of millions of consumer interviews and financial performance data since 2006.
Such actions explain why trust in the Top 100 brands has been increasing not declining, filling the gap as trust declines in other institutions like government and the media. This is being driven largely by consumer concerns over the bigger issues including sustainability and climate change that society faces today.
One of the challenges that we face in assessing trust is understanding how and why consumers will trust brands they hardly know or have never used? Why do we trust Uber the first time if we’ve never used the platform before, or Airbnb the first time we rent an apartment or holiday accommodation?
The answer is that there are three elements that build trust and confidence when a brand is new to a market. These are:
- Identifying with the needs and values of consumers
- Operating with integrity and honesty
- Inclusivity, i.e. treating every type of consumer equally.
New brands that can develop these associations not only build trust rapidly and more strongly but also tend to outperform their competitors in growing their brand value.
As a result of this new understanding we have added an additional pillar to our previous understanding of Trust builders. Alongside proven expertise and corporate responsibility, we have a new quality of ‘inspiring expectation’ driven by our three key factors of identification, integrity and inclusivity.
Airbnb, for example, has long had promoted a platform of inclusivity for both renters and users of properties on the platform, helping it to build an overall Consumer Trust Index of up to 105 – and 110+ on the specific dimension of Inclusivity.
Flying Fish in South Africa is a premium flavoured beer that has gone from a launch in October 2013 to being the second-most drunk brand in the country, with trust equal to the vastly more established Castle and Carling brands. It has appealed to a new generation of beer drinkers with strong integrity and inclusion, using a playful mix of young men and women in its messaging to portray South Africa’s multicultural society.
Brands have a unique opportunity to earn valuable trust and create change, providing this is seen to be genuine. Being sincere, empathetic and ensuring your brand remains consistent with its core values will ensure your corporate reputation is not compromised.
Return to Work Doesn’t Mean Business as Usual When it Comes to Travel and Expense
By Rob Harrison, MD UK & Ireland, SAP Concur The last few months have been an exercise in adaptability for...
Why technology is key to the future of auditing
By Piers Wilson, Head of Product Management at Huntsman Security The Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which is responsible for corporate governance,...
Staff training crucial for SME recovery post-COVID
47% of UK’s top performing SMEs provide regular, formalised training for all staff Despite this, 15% of small businesses report to...
What Is Globalization
What is globalization? Globalization, or inter-connectedness, is the ever-growing process of integration and interaction among countries, individuals, businesses, and even...
What Is Microsoft Teams
Microsoft Teams is an application and web-based collaboration tool that combines chat, videos, online collaboration, document storage, and collaboration with...
What Is Capitalism
What is capitalism? Is it a great economic system or just another economic system that is not so great? Well,...
How To Start A Youtube Channel
How to Start a YouTube Channel For Your Business: Do you have a blog or website? If you do, it’s...
What is URL
A Uniform Resource Locater, colloquially known as a URL, is an identification to a certain web resource, a directory or...
What Is Seo
Search engine optimization, also known as SEO, is the process of increasing the quantity and quality of site traffic from...
How Much Rent Can I Afford.
How much rent is too much to pay? Sometimes, apartment complexes look at an annual income that’s over forty times...