Following the Reflections On The Waterfront gala evening on the Thursday night, delegates at the ACT Annual Conference could be forgiven for being a little worse for wear on the Friday morning for the final few hours of the conference. Fortunately, as well as a hearty brunch and coffee refills available in the exhibition hall, the 'Foresight' focus of this final day offered plenty for delegates to ponder.

The morning culminated with a Question Time session, hosted by broadcaster and journalist Jeremy Paxman. The panel for this roundtable featured:

- Andrew Macfarlane, CFO, Aer Lingus Group.

- Becky Worthington, CEO, Lodestone Capital.

- Magnus Lindkvist, Trendspotter and Futurologist

- Trevor Williams, Chief Economist, Lloyds Bank Commercial Banking

Understanding the job titles of 75% of the panellists, I was keen to hear their thoughts on the future.


The first question from Paxman asked the panel to look forward 12 months and speculate what state the economy would be in. While Lloyds' Williams suggested that we are through the worst of the bad times, he also said that there is a long way to go before the economy fully recovers. Aer Lingus' Macfarlane had a more negative outlook, and said it was very hard to see signs for optimism. One issue that Macfarlane had was with the employment strain on the public sector - he stated that 1 million of the 5 million public sector employees in the UK need to be transferred to the private sector immediately.

Panel trendsetter Lindkvist, replete in a fashionable scarf, sounded a rare note of positivity, saying that he was optimistic about how cities across Europe will fare in the future. He also suggested that in 12 months time there will still be the same number of countries in the eurozone as there are today.

Worries about Europe persisted on the panel despite this outlook however, with Lloyds' Williams pointing out that the underlying problems with the eurozone had not been solved. Macfarlane stated that his concerns lie beyond 12 months, suggesting that the voting public won't stand for continued austerity. He painted the picture of a possible future where Greece exits the eurozone and yet is able to survive the current crisis. If this were to happen, Aer Lingus' Macfarlane warned, there would be a queue of other countries at the eurozone exit door.

Addressing the topic of bank reform, Paxman questioned whether this has actually happened. Lloyds' Williams, perhaps understandably, said that banks have learnt their lesson from the excessive pre-crisis optimism. Lodestone Capital's Worthington took the view that reform was mainly forced on the banks by regulators, and that new regulatory initiatives were often not very well thought through. Furthering this point, Aer Lingus' Macfarlane suggested that there are two sides to reform - economic and cultural - and that the jury is out on whether there has truly been a deep cultural reform within financial institutions.

The Women in Treasury session proved to be one of the most visited workshops on the previous afternoon, and the issue of gender came up in the Question Time session as well. Paxman wondered what could be done to get more women board members in UK companies. There were some diverse opinions on this, kicked off by the sole woman on the panel, Lodestone Capital's Worthington, who said that she is absolutely against quotas as they smack of tokenism. She suggested that to get these results at the top of the business, work and investment had to be targeted lower down the organisation - for example, sponsorships that support women in business and create pools of talent. Lloyds' Williams took a different perspective and supported quotas. He pointed to the fact that Norway had trialled a quota programme a decade ago and was now reaping the rewards. Aer Lingus' Macfarlane opted for a 'third way', suggesting that the current environment of setting targets should be given a chance before looking at quotas. The amount of divergent opinions on the panel certainly suggests that this will remain a challenge faced by women in business for a number of years to come, although futurologist Lindkvist did then state that in 50 years from now the question will be whether we should have quotas for men on boards.

As always, the Question Time session captured a range of opinions about the future of finance and beyond, and proved the perfect end point of an ACT Annual Conference that has led with the themes of hindsight, insight and foresight. I'm looking forward to seeing what's changed (and what hasn't!) in our industry when next year's conference arrives in Glasgow.