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Like many management disciplines, international business is divided between company-internal topics, such as corporate philosophies or cultures, and things happening outside companies but shaping the general environment in which they operate. It may be impossible to survey every external factor affecting companies’ cross-border dealings but the main ones can be identified and their effects analysed. This is what consultancy Grant Thornton does in its International Business Report, whose winter 2012 issue offered findings from interviews with more than 13,000 practitioners in 40 economies.

2011 was tumultuous, featuring among other events the European sovereign debt crisis, the Japanese tsunami and the Arab Spring. Add to this sustainability problems like the rising global population or political problems like the US Congress’s budgetary problems and it is no surprise that global business confidence fell very low, particularly in the older industrialized countries. The Grant Thornton scale started 2011 at a mere 34 per cent level of confidence that profit growth prospects were improving. By the third quarter of 2011, confidence had shrunk to 3 per cent, reflecting a growing sense of hopelessness.

General sentiments like this are extremely important in a social science like business, which is often driven by personal psychology. In the absence of confidence, many initiatives will never happen, particularly in foreign environments that are considered riskier because they are comparatively unknown. The factors determining confidence in 2012 were expected to be a continuation of longstanding trends, led by a shift of economic activity to the newer industrialized countries. Significant variations in gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates in different parts of the world have been mirrored in the fact that businesses operating in emerging economies like Vietnam, India, and Mexico are expressing an optimistic view of the future, with 90, 79, and 68 per cent of all companies, respectively, forecasting profit growth in 2012.

This should be compared with figures in troubled older industrialized countries like Spain, Japan, and Greece, where confidence figures were 15, −8, and, −11 per cent respectively. The study also identified other constraints impeding countries’ growth prospects. Companies in the more mature markets, especially the European Union, were concerned that high debt levels would prevent them from making the kinds of investment they need to consolidate their future, particularly involving research and development. Emerging economy players did not have the same worries but faced another constraint, namely poor transportation and ICT infrastructure. Of course, companies that are sufficiently ‘agile and adaptable to change’ might also view these problems as opportunities. In international business, many clouds have a silver lining


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