What we’re watching in 2024
Andrew here. As we look ahead to the new year, the DealBook team has identified about a dozen themes that are likely to become running narratives that could define the business and policy ecosystem for the next 12 months.
Of course, the presidential election, perhaps one of the most polarizing in history, is going to infect every part of the business world. Watch out for which C.E.O.s and other financiers back candidates — and, importantly, which ones go silent — and how companies deal with outspoken employees. Also: Look for some wealthy executives to avoid giving directly to candidates but instead donate to PACs as a shield, of sorts, from public scrutiny.
Another story line that will probably remain part of the water cooler — er, Slack and X — conversation in business is the backlash against environmental, social and corporate governance principles, or E.S.G. This fight has manifested itself into a political battle and increasingly found its way in the past year into a debate about free speech on campuses (another theme that isn’t going away).
Here’s a bit more detail on what we’re looking out for this year.
The U.S. presidential election. The race seems set to come down to a rerun of 2020, with Donald Trump leading opinion polls to be the Republican candidate despite his mounting legal battles. The big question is how business leaders will respond. Will they coalesce around (and direct their money to) an anyone-but-Trump candidate? Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, is leading that race, but she has a long way to go to catch up to Trump. President Biden, who has made a series of consequential decisions on the economy, hopes voters will start to feel an economic upswing to reverse his sagging poll ratings.
Private credit could be hit by a wave of defaults. Just as 1980s-style leveraged buyouts have been rechristened “private equity,” so too has “shadow banking” been rebranded as “private credit” and “direct lending” in time for the business to reach its highest levels yet. Direct lending by investment firms and hedge funds has become a $1.5 trillion titan, with scores of companies turning to the likes of Apollo and Ares for loans instead of, say, JPMorgan Chase.
But the industry may face a test in 2024: Indebted borrowers, facing looming debt maturities and high interest rates, already are turning to private credit for yet more loans, raising concerns that lenders could face a wave of defaulting clients. A string of failures could hit these lenders hard, skeptics fear — leaving pension funds, insurers and other backers of private credit funds holding the bag.
Media deal mania? Reports that David Zaslav, the C.E.O. of Warner Bros. Discovery, held talks last month about a potential merger with Paramount set off a wave of speculation that 2024 would be a year of media consolidation. The industry has been transformed in recent years by the growth of streaming, changes in the way people consume media and big tech’s encroachment into sectors typically dominated by old-school media companies. Now, the industry is on the cusp of the next major shift with the rise of artificial intelligence.
One date to put in your diary: April 8, 2024, the two-year anniversary of the merger of Warner Media and Discovery to create Warner Bros. Discovery — and the first day that the new company can be sold without risking a big tax bill.
Will unions maintain their momentum? Organized labor had a banner year in 2023, with big wins in fights with Hollywood studios and the auto industry. Whether that signals a permanent turnaround for the labor movement is up for debate. But the election most likely will be a key factor. Both Biden and Trump tried to woo striking autoworkers this year, so expect more efforts to win over blue-collar voters.
Middle East money will keep flowing. Tensions with China and economic sanctions have made it increasingly difficult for companies to raise money from a place that used to be top of the list. Middle Eastern investors have picked up the slack. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others are spending money as they look to diversify their fossil fuel-dependent economies. The sectors are wide-ranging, including sports, tech companies, luxury, retail and media. Critics say the petrostates with dubious human rights records are trying to launder their reputations, but that hasn’t stopped Western business from seeking their lucre.
One trend to watch: the growing ties between China and Middle Eastern money. Beijing is trying to deepen links with countries outside of Washington’s orbit or, at least, with those willing to play both sides.
More antitrust fights. A tough year for regulators — like Lina Khan at the F.T.C. and Jonathan Kanter of the Justice Department — ended with two wins after both Illumina and Adobe called off multibillion-dollar takeovers in the face of government pressure. Enforcers could already claim some success by forcing deal makers to weigh whether a big deal is worth pursuing, given the potential risk that they might have to spend months in court defending it. Don’t expect Khan to ease the pressure; do expect more antitrust fights.
New climate disclosure rules. Public companies have been bracing for years for new climate-related disclosure rules from the S.E.C. In 2021, the agency signaled that climate change would be one of its priorities. About a year later, Gary Gensler, the S.E.C. chair, proposed new rules. The most contentious aspect of the draft regulations was a requirement that large companies disclose greenhouse gasses emitted along their value chain. The new rules are set to be finalized in the spring. But the probable lawsuits could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Another election to watch: India’s. The world’s biggest democracy and a rising superpower, India will go to the polls in April and May. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is benefiting from the West’s search for a regional bulwark to counter China. Business is looking at opportunities in India, as companies work to diversify their supply chains and tap into a fast-growing economy. The election will also be a crucial early test of how A.I. can factor into the spread of (mis)information during an election.
Workplace shake-up. In late 2022, the release of ChatGPT propelled A.I. into the public consciousness. In 2023, companies experimented with new ways to build the technology into their operations, but few had yet to overhaul their procedures to cope with it. It’s still not clear exactly what A.I. will mean for jobs, but in 2024 we may see more companies making decisions about its use in ways that will have consequences for workers.
The other big topic workplaces are grappling with is the response to the war in Gaza. Some companies are already considering changes to their workplace diversity, equity and inclusion programs, and executives face some of the same pressures as university presidents when it comes to how to handle their statements and responses to incidents related to the war.