This is how an insurance broker typically describes political risk: “low frequency, high severity.” Political risk is, in short, a catastrophe risk, or “cat risk,” much like many types of natural disaster. Political risk losses occur rarely but tend to be devastating in effect. As with other catastrophe risks, these statistical characteristics tend to make political risks difficult to model.
We are going to have to rethink that description: this year, more than 9 in 10 of the companies we surveyed reported a political risk loss (up from 35% only a few years ago). This year, political risk became everyone’s risk.
|2023 Political Risk Survey Report
The escalating conflict in Ukraine, on top of its humanitarian impacts, had a “devastating” business impact, according to a European member of the panel of business executives we interviewed. “We have decided to end all our operations in Russia and Belarus,” said a panelist from a US technology company. “We suffered a loss of almost $1 billion.”
That said, we found a differentiated impact across world regions. 86% of Western European respondents reported a net negative financial impact of the conflict, while only 33% of North American firms did so.
Whatever the financial impact, the shock of war on the European continent had triggered a “paradigm shift” said one member of our business panel; it is a “watershed moment,” said another. An executive in the automotive sector perhaps put it best saying: “Business and politics have lived in two different realities. The events of the past year have now aligned realities.”
100% of the companies we surveyed had made at least some enhancement to their political risk management capabilities since February 2022. The proportion who reported purchasing political risk insurance nearly trebled from 25% in 2019 to 68% this year. Following the escalation of conflict in Ukraine, “we find ourselves in a new investment climate,” said a panel member from the oil and gas sector, “and are trying to come to terms with this shift.” But what, exactly, does this new climate look like?
Compared to last year’s survey, respondents were far more likely to select the worst-case outcome across geopolitical trends. The proportion who predicted deglobalization would “greatly strengthen” was 16% last year; this year it was nearly 50%. The proportion who predicted decoupling from China would “greatly strengthen” was 12% in 2022, but 42% in 2023.
Companies reported that such geopolitical divides were being mirrored in their internal operations. “Global decoupling, which to some extent has been accelerated by the war, has meant that we have had to, or are in the process of, decoupling everything, including HR systems, production systems, and so on,” said a panelist in the industrial sector.
Each year we conclude this study by asking our business panel about the top risks for the year ahead. This year, complications from the Ukraine conflict led the list, followed by decoupling with China. A surprise third place was taken by the European Union, which faces an energy crisis, but is also reshaping the rules and standards of global businesses with its willingness to regulate in areas such as technology, data, supply chains and climate.
We hope you enjoy this 6th 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.
Sam Wilkin is WTW's director of political risk analytics, meaning he constantly monitors emerging and existing politically-linked threats to companies. He also leads WTW's annual political risk survey.