Shifting Pattern of Unilever during Global Financial Crisis Finance Essay

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The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (ref) of April 2009 declared that the year 2008 saw the end of the growth cycle in international investment. The cycle started in 2004, and by 2007 foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows had reach a historical figure of $1.9 trillion. However, following the 2008 global financial crisis, FDI inflows declined by 15 per cent (ref). It is worth noting that most economists think that a further decrease of FDI inflows will continue beyond 2010 as the consequences of the financial crisis continue to unfold (ref). Economists have commented that the fall in global FDI in 2008/09 is the result of two major factors affecting both domestic and international investment. Firstly, the capability of businesses to invest have been reduced by a fall in access to financial resources, both internally – due to a decline in corporate profits – and externally – due to the lower availability of capita and higher cost of finance. Secondly, the predisposition to invest has been affected negatively by economic prospects, especially in developed countries that are hit by the most severe financial crisis of the post-war era. (ref) A very high level of global financial risk compounded the impacts of both factors. This led companies to extensively curtail their costs and investment programs in order to become more resilient to any further deterioration of their business environment. This business report aims to briefly discuss the widespread impact of the global financial crisis of 2008/09 on FDI such as Unilever. The shifting patterns of Unilever’s corporate decision making in a global crisis will be examined, and whilst linking it to their market viability. In addition, emphases will be laid on investment appraisal from Unilevers’ board of directors – how they’ve tried to select the best portfolios in order to maximize wealth. A big part of Unilevers corporate strategy is the fact that the business operates in an environment of uncertainty. Uncertainty can be in the form of an upside possibility of events turning out better than expected or vice versa. As such every MNC recognizes the risk of uncertainty, and any corporate decision must revolve around how to recognize, manage and build on the uncertainty. The report is divided into 3 parts. Part 1 will be on the present global financial crisis. Part 2 will look at how the company tried to respond to the crisis, whilst managing shareholders anxiety. Part 3 discusses factors that are being taking in order to minimize the impact of future financial crisis on the company. I will conclude the report with some personal views and recommendations for both Unilever.

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Sir John Grieve gave a speech to the European Business School in London in Nov 2008, on “Learning from the Financial Crisis.” Ref. In this speech, he commented that, “the years after sterling left the Exchange Rate Mechanism were the most successful and stable.” His comments were based on: lack of movement in the inflation between 1997 and 2007 growth in the output of the economy since 1992 a 5% fall in unemployment from its peak in 1990 better living standard low and stable interest rates However, the summer of 2007 saw the end of the “great stability.” And within 12 months we were in the biggest financial crisis that, when compared to the great depression of the 1930s, economists refer to it as the worst financial crisis to hit the UK and the world. (ref) At the peak of the crisis we saw the failure of key businesses, massive unemployment with a dramatic decline in consumer wealth, and a collapse of major financial institutions; to the extent that governments, in the UK and overseas, took on significant financial commitments in order to stabilize their country’s economy. The next step was to combat the associated economic downturn by introducing several fiscal strategies and stimulus packages such as “quantitative easing” (ref)

Where it all went wrong!

Most financial commentators agree that no one country is unique in this financial crisis. The crisis has it root embedded in the global imbalances in trade and capital flows between emerging and advanced economies. For example, the sudden growth of exports from Asia and the Gulf States resulted in vast amount of savings for countries within this region. China reported a national saving rate that exceeds 50% of GDP. Somehow, these funds found their way back into the developed world in particular the US. As such interest rate were kept low, whilst credit peaked. One of the first beneficiaries of this period was the dotcom bubble with a great deal of interest in fixed income investments that led to an increasingly risky search for yield. This proved to be the ideal stage for excesses of lending to the subprime housing market in the US, and a sharp rise in house prices. Subprime lending saw predatory lenders offer risky mortgages to the uninitiated and ill-informed consumer in the US. The subprime loans were disguised in what are referred to as mortgage backed securities (MBS) and Collateral debt obligations (CDO). But no one saw or predicted that there will be a sudden fall in house prices. As house prices fell, these so-called securities and obligations started to lose their value, whilst interest rate was spiraling out of control. Although the loss of one institution (Bear Sterns) was catastrophic, it was the expansion of the crisis into the financial markets and its footprints on many developed and emerging economies that threaten other firms. For example, widespread use of credit default swaps meant that the impact of bankruptcy was real and far-reaching to other firms. Emerging economy such as Iceland and Hungary had to rely on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for assistance. As the crisis were unfolding in the news and print media, shock waves with serious repercussions were being felt beyond the financial sector. For example, much tighter credit conditions unavoidably affected firms’ ability to spend, whilst consumer confidence fell sharply in many parts of the world. Some of the consequences of the crisis were reported in The Financial Times of 26 Feb 2009 (ref): “the US consumer confidence index plummeted in February to an all-time low since records began in 1975.” Similarly, the Economic Confidence Index in the Eurozone fell to its lowest level since 1995 (ref) Business cycle-sensitive industries like automobiles, electronic equipment, construction, building materials, steel and the airlines, were especially affected, while activities with a more cycle-resilient market base, such as utilities, telecommunications, food and beverages were less affected. Ref In an attempt to ease the global credit crunch, the reserved banks rolled out monetary policies to stimulate the economy. The impact of the crisis was not restricted to the US. The flow of capita into the US was re-channeled to advanced economies, especially through the growing “securitisation of markets,” and the acquisition of funds . These were used to finance the rapid increases in house prices in the UK and in many other economies around the world. The internationalisation of markets was reflected in the build up of UK bank portfolios ensuring that the AAA-rated securities offered a slightly better yield than traditional bonds. These bonds were based on subprime assets. “But equally as important was the impact on the liability side of balance sheets. Banks had not only expanded their balance sheets too far, they had in the process become reliant on wholesale funding markets which had not been tested in a downturn. In the UK, the gap between customer lending and deposits moved from zero at the turn of the century to over £700 billion in 2008…. That proved a structural weakness when investors realized that the AAA label concealed substantial and uncertain risks and withdrew from the securitisation markets.” In trying to stem the crisis, the central bank proposed three measures: to provide unprecedented opportunities for bank to borrow money to provide loans or make direct purchases to support certain market e.g the car industry the use guarantees to stabilize the market, especially after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. In the face of the global economic slowdown (and recession in a number of major economies), due to tighter credit conditions and falling corporate profits, many companies decided to curtail production, endure the displeasure of laying off workers and cut capital expenditure, all of which has implications for FDI. It is in this backdrop that Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch consumer good manufacturer finds itself. Unilever plc is one of the largest direct investors in the US. And in the face of the subprime crisis, the company executives are challenged more than ever on how to strike the right balance between reducing costs and making good-targeted investments that will ensure future success. And the continued uncertainty in the economic forecasts makes this balancing act even more challenging.

Why report on Unilever?

According to Jones (2002), Unilever was established in 1929, round about the great depression. It is an Anglo-Dutch business that became a PLC after 1981, with different shareholders by the same board of directors. The organizational complexity of Unilever worried some economist whilst the wide portfolio range of products, and the several changes that the company has made over the years captivated many investors. For example edible fats such as margarine, soap and detergent are all household essentials. By the 50s’, the company had branched into convenience foods such as frozen foods and soups, ice cream, meat product, tea and biscuits to name a few. See Fig 1 Dentally, Unilever came up with personal care products such as toothpaste and mouth rinses. The discovery of oil led the company to span into specialties such as chemical and animal feeds. As a multinational company, Unilever owned United Africa Company that traded in importing and exporting to West Africa. As mentioned, a board of directors that act in the interest of the stockholder controls Unilever. These directors delegate the day-to-day running of the business to senior managers, who in turn delegate to others. Its workforce is said to be seven times larger that Procter and Gamble, its main rival in the consumer goods market.

Financing Unilever in Global Recession

A source of finance for Unilever depends on what the money is meant for. Broadly, they are divided into two. Capital or revenue expenditure. Capital expenditure – spending on long-term non-current assets such as premises, machinery, equipment etc, Revenue expenditure – spending on the day-to-day business operation. As with most companies in the consumer market much of the money for new investment can come from short, medium or long-term finance.

Short-term finance

Bank overdrafts – Flexible, only used as required Interest rate are variable – according to the London interbank offer rate (LIBOR) Good in case where cash flow timing is uncertain However, it has an associated risk in that repayment can be demanded by the bank at any time Bank Loan Less flexible when compared to bank overdraft Interest rate are often fixed However repayments are certain as this aids financial planning The debt disappears over time hence self liquidating Receivables The raising of finance secured against trade receivable They are classified as declared or confidential Declared receivable such as factoring is when the trade debt of the company are bought by a factoring company, who assumes the credit risk of the debt thus providing the company with a working capital Confidential receivable such as invoice discounting occurs when a company receives an advance payment on invoices – up to 90% of the invoice value. The company will be required to pay any administration charge and interest to the value of 1% of the invoice

Medium-term finance

Leasing where ownership does not pass to the lessee finance lease covers the operational life of an asset operational lease last up to 3 years with the owner assuming some associated risk Hire purchases this is where an asset is under hire for a defined period at the end of the defined period, the hirer has the right to purchase the asset for a small fee. It is worth noting that the hirer takes possession of the goods as soon as the initial deposit is made, however, the ownership of the asset is only complete after full repayment has been made

Long-term finance

Ordinary or equity shares owned by the business owners, as they bears most of the associated risk. These share carry voting right especially at the annual general meeting Preference shares this is a form of rewarding investors in the event that the company goes into liquidation. The preference shares are paid out after the company loan has been paid, but before paying ordinary shares. Mortgage these are loans secured against long lease or freehold property Debentures the most common form of long-term finance for large companies these are loans used under a trust deed. They are frequently issued in units of £100 They may be secured against a fixed and/or floating charge or may be unsecured Loans payable at a fixed rate Debenture carries lower interest rates than overdrafts. Sale and lease back This is where a loan lease or freehold property is sold to a finance company in return for its freehold value and a long-term lease. Retained Earning – internally generated. Internally generated funds such as retained earning plus depreciation cover most of the cash needed for investment. It is held as a reserve and is part of the shareholders’ equity. These retained earnings are closely associated with dividend policy Dividend policy This policy ensures that dividend payment falls in line with retained earning. Retained earning can vary throughout the year, thus, dividend are paid in interim and at the end of the year. This is known as final dividend The combination of interim and final dividends is known as total dividend.

Financial Markets

Financial institutions are an integral part to large multinationals such as Unilever. Thus if the company want to raise money they could trade their securities within the “safety” of a financial institution. By so doing, the company gets its money, whilst the investor holds some securities in the form of stocks and bonds. This is referred to as a primary issue that exists in a primary market. The company can attract more investors, by trading on the stock market (a public market for the trading of company stocks and derivatives at an agreed price.) Trading of these securities has no direct effect on the company. This is known as secondary transaction and they take place in a secondary market.

Probing question

The above narrative causes one to question how companies like Unilever, with a $50 billion global business survives the economic downturn. The answer lies in its corporate governance – how it sets out its business, whilst engaging in strategic decisions.

Corporate Governance

Effective corporate governance by Unilever must address certain key issues if the business is to survive the global financial crisis. These key questions include: Effective operation (staff management, resource allocation, and customer service) Quality control (ensuring standard of product and service are maintained and improved upon where necessary) Compliance (maintain legislative requirement especially in the area of company tax) Risk management (ability to plan ahead in times of plenty)

Unilever performance under review

In his Feb 2009 keynote address to the company investors, the chief financial officer Jim Lawrence stated “in 2008 Unilever was confronted with unprecedented levels of commodity price inflation and an unpredictable A¢â‚¬A¦ deteriorating economic environment.” Against this background, the company delivered the following landmarks: Continued strong growth in developing and emerging countries Determined pricing action to recover cost increases These actions help make the business simpler and more efficient will help.

Strong Organic Growth (see fig 2)

Unilever reported that sales growth in the first quarter was 7.3% and by the end of the year it has risen to 7.4%. Growth is tied to price, in that price was adjusted in order to protect the business during the peak of the downturn, and in the face of commodity cost inflation. Conversely, as the recession peaked, consumers adjusted their spending and this was reflected in the volume. Volume declined by 1.6% in Q4 as pricing peaked at over 9%.

Sales Growth by Category (see fig 3)

The company stressed that in the savory category, Dressings and Spreads grew by over 7% in the year and by over 6% in the quarter. These were driven by vitality-focused innovation – examples include the launch of Knorr Stock Pots, Bertolli frozen meals, and Rama margarine for better taste and less fat supported by the “Goodness of Margarine” campaign ref. Ice Cream & Beverages grew by 6% in both the 4th quarter and the year with their of premium range of Magnum Temptations. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were well received by consumers’ as a treats despite the recession. Lipton tea performed well in Asia, Africa, and Central & Eastern Europe, as consumers’ “upgraded from loose leaf to regular tea bags to pyramid tea bags.” Home Care is said to be popular amongst consumers as there was close to 10% sales growth in the year and 12% growth in the quarter. Presently the company continues to rollout margin enhancing innovation using superior technology. Personal Care grew by over 6.5% in both the quarter and the year. For example, the company launched products such as “Signal White Now toothpaste”, Dove and Rexona hair minimizing deodorants. In addition the company reported that it was an excellent year for Clear Anti-dandruff shampoo and Axe with its chocolate scent now being the most successful deodorant variant ever ref.

Drivers of Operating Profit (see fig. 4)

Fig 4 shows what the company considers to be drivers of their top-line performance aside from the sales by category. For example the combined effect from volume, mix and disposal was around A¢”šA¬0.2 billion. Price increases added an additional A¢”šA¬2.9 billion, but, commodity cost increase reduced the operating profit by A¢”šA¬2.7 billion.

Drivers of Earning Per Share (EPS) Growth (see fig 5)

The company reported that EPS grew by 32% in 2008. 26% of the growth came from the net impact of restructuring, disposal and Impairment (RDIs)

Growth strategy for 2010 and beyond

With a main competitor like P&G, Unilever remained strong in 2008/09. This was in the face of restructuring the organization, and the sale of significant disposals. This according to Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, proves that the company has a strong “foundation from which to grow A¢â‚¬A¦” In spite of this, he was quick to acknowledge that the tough economic times suggests that recovery might not be for another 18 – 24 months. In addition the company have witnessed that tougher economic climate is making retailers to promote their own brand of products, whilst driving efficiency in the supply chain by reducing their inventories. Thus Unilever business priorities include: Delivering competitive growth Drive for sustainable margin improvement Invest selectively to gain market share

Unilever global brand positioning (see fig 6)

The company claims to have several elements of its business model that places in prime position to survive the current economic climate. In spite of these achievements, Unilever competitors are not immobile, and in the world of fast moving consumer goods, the company seeks to create gaps between it and the main competitors. To achieve this, the company aims to improve on its brand and portfolio, strengthen its go to market campaign and continue to evolve the organization and its culture.

Personal Views

Presently, it is difficult to say when the global downturn will end, however the extent of the current recession is clear for all to see. The company needs focus on creating the long-term value in today’s economic climate. I believe that for the company to do this it must continue to address the following key business areas as well as business priorities that have been mentioned:


Is there a process of identifying abnormal expenses to address their cause? How does the gross margin compare with the industry average? What factors have caused any trading losses?

Balance Sheet

Are movements in Assets and Liabilities reviewed so as to determine the sources and application of funds? Is there a risk to foreign exchange or interest rate?


Is the aging of debtors regularly reviewed? What is the trend? Does the business have policies to monitor credit extensions and collection? Are there policies in place regarding provision for and write-off doubtful debts?

Trade Creditors

Does the business record the employee entitlement liabilities in the balance sheet?


Are inventory levels in relation to sales closely monitored?


Are accounting systems adequate and enable the business to produce timely and accurate information?


It is clear that Unilever have set short-term priorities for growing volume whilst protecting cash flow with a good margin in the long-term interest of shareholders. Nonetheless, looking further one is optimistic that Unilever will be able to lift the growth profile of the business whilst steadily improving margins each year.

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Shifting Pattern Of Unilever During Global Financial Crisis Finance Essay. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved December 3, 2022 , from

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