Uncertainty is mounting for technology, media and telecommunications (TMT) businesses amidst a turbulent economic and political backdrop, according to the latest research from Grant Thornton.
The optimism of over 450 TMT leaders – surveyed as part of our International Business Report (IBR) – fell to net 29% in the first half of 2019, down from 45% just six months earlier. Expectations around revenues, profits and employment have also taken a hit.
But with businesses in other industries increasingly looking to new technologies as the path to transformation, this is also a time of opportunity. So how can the TMT industry ride out the turbulence and thrive?
Regulatory and political scrutiny intensifies trade barriers
The higher levels of economic uncertainty in the industry aren’t surprising. In recent months, regulatory scrutiny has mounted for some of the TMT’s biggest players. In two years, the European Commission has imposed $9.5 billion in antitrust fines against Google, while Facebook has been subject to probes from data protection authorities since the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect last year(i).
As Nick Watson, global head of TMT at Grant Thornton explains, “Regulators are starting to wake up to threats, and debates about data protection and privacy are only just beginning. An increase in regulation will drive up costs. And this can also get very political as trade barriers start springing up.”
These higher costs are reflected in the research results, which show expectations for selling prices and exports in the next 12 months falling for TMT firms, compared with six months ago.
The impact is particularly pronounced in global electronics, which are heavily traded and operate across complex cross-border chains. Activity has declined for many producers, and semiconductor sales are falling at double-digit rates(ii).
Technology is also at the forefront of heightened US-China trade tensions. Only 30 IPOs were recorded from Chinese TMT companies in the first half of this year, compared with 40 during the second half of 2018(iii).
“A lot of the TMT businesses Grant Thornton works with are born global”, Nick explains. “Increased tariffs and trade wars will hurt, creating issues around the sustainability of some of the industry’s complex supply chains”.
Talent shortage presents challenges
Trade barriers have also exacerbated long-standing concerns around skill shortages and migration of labour. Some 49% of TMT businesses report availability of skilled workers as a major constraint, second only to the transport and healthcare sectors.
“The war for talent is particularly prominent in the TMT industry because its needs are tighter, and specific skillsets are more difficult to obtain”, Nick explains. “To ensure access to the best talent the market has to offer, TMT firms can look to build a greater presence near the talent pool”.
Software company Planixs, recently ranked as one of the UK’s fastest growing tech firms, moved their operations to Manchester in late 2018 to access the right talent. In close proximity to four major universities, Planixs now has access to a steady talent pipeline, and can take full advantage of Manchester’s new position as a centre for tech investment(iv).
Shy of moving their entire headquarters, mid-sized TMT businesses can also tackle the issue by locating R&D activity near these centres. In the US, greater Boston, home to 55 major research institutions, has become a real draw from such activity in recent years(v).
As Nick explains, “while education still isn’t moving fast enough to keep up with demand, there is a lot that TMT businesses can do to attract and retain the talent they need to thrive”.
Long-term investments can help turn risk into opportunity
In the midst of these headwinds, TMT businesses are battening down the hatches when it comes to investment. Projections for both R&D and information technology investment in the industry are down, at odds with healthier – even rising – expectations across the broader mid-market.
“The best management teams we talk to are technology optimists but business realists. Some of their plans are contingent on raising capital,” Nick explains. “The TMT industry is typically cyclical, and mostly in line with global economic sentiment. Thinking longer-term can help businesses ride out uncertainty.“
With tech investment intentions broadly healthy across the mid-market, TMT businesses have a real opportunity to respond. The demand for certain technologies is likely to grow, particularly cloud services, fintech, video games and streaming, as well as internet of things (IOT) and differentiated online services.
With governments worldwide using a variety of incentives to stimulate R&D, including grants and tax incentives, mid-sized TMT businesses can gain access to the tools they need to transform their products and services. And with the lines between technology, media and telecommunications becoming increasingly blurred, firms can look to partner with other organizations in the industry to accelerate the innovation process.
“Mid-sized TMT businesses have the opportunity to act as trailblazers as companies look to transform their digital and technological offerings”, says Nick. “What is required is to recognise where demand is likely to grow and make strategic investments to this end”.
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(i) CNBC, June 2019
(iii) Shine, Sep 2019
(iv) Invest in Manchester, Nov 2018
(v) HBR, Jan 2018