The World Bank’s prediction that South African GDP could contract by as much as 8% in 2020 came just after the United Nations suggested Africa could lose up to half of all its jobs because of Covid-19.
And then the World Trade Organization really scared us, talking about global trade falling by as much as a third. Inevitably, the IMF weighed in, warning that the world faced its steepest economic decline since the Great Depression.
Things are going to get bad and it will be a long time before they ever get better again.
But in the face of the immense tragedy, fear and upheaval that the coronavirus is already causing, there is potentially some good news as well as all of the bad news we’re becoming accustomed to. Simply stated, such is the magnitude of Covid-19 that the pandemic could just present integrated reporting – particularly in Africa – with its greatest opportunity yet. (That’s the good news.) It could also represent its greatest threat. (That’s the bad news.)
Across sub-Saharan Africa, capitalism as we know it will almost certainly never be the same again. And in unequal, economically stagnating mismanaged poor old South Africa, the change wrought by Covid-19 will likely be more extreme than elsewhere on the continent.
So what might Covid-19 mean for integrated reporting in South Africa, particularly for that done by listed companies?
As lockdown wears on, companies are preparing to make fundamental, sweeping changes. They’re having another, careful look at their balance sheets and they’re asking what they can possibly do to preserve cash. Already some big corporations have declared force majeure and the Reserve Bank has asked banks to stop paying dividends.
By the time the South African economy emerges from its enforced lockdown to venture nervously into what will certainly be a long, lousy winter, most companies will have discovered that there are many costs and functions they can simply live without.
We don’t know what the JSE will do vis a vis integrated reporting but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we will see even more listed companies producing annual reports which are nothing of the sort – apart from using the word “integrated” on their covers. And you can bet that the glossy all-bells-and-whistles reports which have little to commend them beyond their satisfying thud factor are going to become increasingly endangered.
In the scary new world we’re about to embark on, integrated reports are going to have to work a lot harder than most of them have ever worked before. In our new upside-down world, companies are going to become fixated on the bottom line – and it will be the financial bottom line, not a triple bottom line, that they’re going to be fixated upon.
Unless, that is, there really is a new alignment of capitalism.
In a world of shredded company values and earnings and of soaring bankruptcies and unemployment, it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that we could see the emergence of a kind of capitalism that really does begin to look at value differently – because the financial value is almost non-existent. That we see, as the International Integrated Reporting Council puts it: “a shift from financial capitalism to one based on multiple forms of capital”. A capitalism that doesn’t spend all of its available cash on share buy-backs to create more financial value without caring two hoots about any other kind of value creation.
Most recently, as Covid-19 raged, the Financial Times unveiled a new campaign, Capitalism. Time for a reset. The pink paper is now arguing against what it calls shareholder primacy, insisting that companies need to set themselves a broader purpose, a purpose wider than the pursuit of profit.
Corporate reporting in this new order will require robust, meaningful and insightful disclosure on what companies stand for and what the point of them is. Wafflers, obfuscators and time wasters won’t be required.
In such a new order, integrated reporting could truly come of age. This could be our finest hour.