ACT Conference 2017 preview: Peering through the mist

Twelve months ago, when the UK’s Association of Corporate Treasurers (ACT) held its annual conference in Liverpool, the referendum on the country’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) was five weeks away.

As GTNews reported at the time, an audience poll at last year’s event asked: ‘Are you leaning towards leaving or remaining in the EU?’ and “while opinion polls indicate only a fairly narrow lead for the ‘Remain’ camp, most British financial professionals are aghast at the prospect of a ‘Brexit’ with 85% of the audience voting for ‘Remain’ and only 15% for ‘Leave’.”

Delegates also made clear that uncertainty over the referendum income was having a major impact on their business; more so than regulation, digital disruption or bank retrenchment. The fact that the referendum outcome on June 23 aggravated rather than relieved the problem is reflected in the theme – ‘Opportunity from Uncertainty’ – chosen for the 2017 conference, to be held at Manchester Central on May 16-17.

When the ACT conference was last held in Manchester two years ago, George Osborne, then the chancellor of David Cameron’s newly-elected Conservative government, had just appointed a minister for his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ plan to boost the economies of the north of England. It will be interested to see if the project receives as much attention this year as it did in 2015.

While media coverage has lessened, Manchester has already felt the benefits and in January this year prime minister Theresa May, who last summer succeeded Cameron, announced a £556m (US$720m/€662m) funding boost. This was followed in February by the official launch of the Northern Powerhouse Investment Fund (NPIF) to support projects in the region.

However, peering through the mist to assess the post-Brexit world will inevitably be higher on the agenda. One of the opening sessions on day one of this year’s conference is billed as “an expert and trenchant analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) that present themselves to the UK in a post-Article 50 world”.

Given the continuing prevalence of uncertainty, is it realistic for corporate treasurers – both in the UK and mainland Europe – to be actively searching for opportunity? “There has always been uncertainty in the environment where treasurers operate – it’s the nature of the role and what business thrives on,” says conference chair Peter Matza. “By understanding the drivers of business and finance, treasurers offer value to their colleagues in driving business growth.”

Both the ACT and its continental European cousin, the European Association of Corporate Treasurers (EACT), have made it clear they don’t intend to adopt a stance on the Brexit issue, although the ACT has regularly offered technical guidance, both in the period leading up to the referendum and subsequently. “What treasurers will do and have always done is analyse issues, look for solutions and offer outcomes for financial and business strategies,” adds Matza.

Having had most of the past year to absorb the decision, he believes that in any case this year’s conference audience – expected to number at least 1,000 senior treasury and financial professionals from more than 15 countries – won’t be overly focused on Brexit. “According to our recent survey, renamed ‘The Business of Treasury’, treasurers are spending more time on strategic issues – diversification of finance, regulatory risk, business efficiencies – than ever before,” he reports.

Beyond Brexit

In addition to a Brexit roundtable, workshop sessions at this year’s conference tackle issues that include the evolving role of the treasurer, the global interest rate landscape, European Money Market Fund (MMF) reform, open banking and application programming interfaces (APIs) and automation of corporate risk management activities.

On the topic of the impact created by artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, which GTNews has been covering this month. Matza reports: “This was a very popular topic at our annual Europe Conference held in Düsseldorf in March. It’s up to treasurers to ensure their roles remain relevant for their organisations which is why there’s plenty of discussion on all aspects of technology change at the conference.”

Also on the first day’s agenda are keynote presentations on ethical hacking and the future of business in today’s volatile geopolitical environment. Jamie Woodruff, technical director of cyber security specialist Metrix Cloud will examine lessons learned from the high-profile cyberattacks of 2016 and present a live demonstration of how vulnerable businesses are to sophisticated cybercriminals.

Andrew Garner, chief executive officer (CEO) of board effectiveness coaching and mentoring specialist Garner Associates, is speaker for the Day One closing session, which considers the leadership gap in the post-financial crisis and post-Brexit era. He will consider the future of businesses “at the crossroads” and what leadership qualities are needed to navigate the organisation to success.

Among the highlights on Day Two is a workshop session entitled ‘Emerging markets: a world of opportunity’, which will be chaired by Matza and focus particularly on the business opportunities presented by Latin America, Asia and Africa.

We work in an international environment and treasurers are increasingly expected to offer strategic advice on developing their organisations in emerging markets – whether driven geographically, by technology or by competition,” he notes.

“As well as these markets offering ‘big hopes’, the board – and other senior stakeholders – look to qualified treasurers to understand and explain the risks and how we should approach them. This will be an interesting discussion with some real-life experiences of working in varied markets.”

Sessions such as the Question Time panel, one of the closing sessions of Day Two, could reveal future challenges starting to register on the radar of treasurers and likely to move up the agenda in the years ahead.

“The role of treasurers in strategic business management is dramatically increasing as our latest survey will reveal,” says Matza. “In addition, the survey shows how treasurers are working with and in some cases leading on wider challenges to their organisations, such as digital change, corporate policy and governance and continued changes in G-20 driven business and financial regulation.

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