April Poll Finds CEO Optimism At Lowest Level Since Fall 2016

Inflation, supply chain snarls and increasing concern about a recession push CEO confidence to its lowest level since the Clinton v. Trump election. “The Russian invasion of Ukraine became the tipping point.”

Chief Executive’s CEO confidence index rating plunged 9 percent this month, as America’s chief executives grow increasingly troubled over the state of business. Inflation and supply chain issues are the main drivers of their worries—as is the growing threat of a Fed-induced recession.

Our poll of 207 U.S. CEOs, presidents and chairmen, fielded April 5-7, shows their rating of future business conditions fell to 6.1 out of 10 from 6.7/10 in March. That is the lowest our indicator has been since the fall of 2016, amid the unsettled runup to the Clinton v. Trump election, Brexit and heighted terrorism around the world.

CEOs’ rating of current business conditions also fell this month, down 3 percent, its largest fluctuation since August. The rating now stands at 6.6/10, down 6 percent from one year prior when states began lifting Covid-19 mask mandates and vaccinations were ramping up.

Inflation has been weighing on CEOs’ minds even heavier than Covid-19 since the vaccine gained widespread adoption last spring. Inflation is now the major driver of sentiment, at 4.5 on a 5-point scale, where 1 is not at all impactful and 5 is significant impact. Following inflation, CEOs say that supply chain disruptions have a significance level of 4.2/5 on their optimism for future conditions. Far behind their top two concerns, CEOs rate the interest rate increase and the invasion of Ukraine a 3.5/5 and 3.3/5, respectively.

“I believe the Russian invasion of Ukraine became the tipping point in terms of stressors the economy can handle without an adjustment. We are experiencing a dramatic slowing of incoming orders over the past six weeks,” says Tim Zimmerman, president/CEO at Mitchell Metal Products. He expects conditions will drop to a 6/10 from 7/10 now.

Michael Uffner, CEO at AutoTeam Delware, an upper-mid size car dealer, expects conditions to drop to a 5/10 from 8/10 now. “We are worrying about the possibility of stagflation which is the worst of all worlds,” he says. This sentiment has been growing among CEOs as inflation becomes a larger issue for businesses and consumers alike.

A whopping 50 percent now expect conditions to worsen over the course of the next year, versus 38 percent last month. This is by far the highest proportion forecasting deterioration since we began to measure the metric at the start of 2021.

“In light of the potential shocks of a broader war, there are continued Covid-19 impacts, threats of new variants and increasing potential for stagflation all impacting my rating,” says Bradley Lundquist, president at ALFA International, a wholesale/distribution company. He also expects future conditions to hover at 5/10, down from the 6/10 he gives them currently.

Deborah Malek, CEO of United Equipment Accessories, a mid-size industrial manufacturing company, says, “We have limited capacity due to inability to find skilled talent. Automating but takes time; this gap is preventing us from capitalizing on increase business / revenue.” She shares that talent is a driver in why she believes businesses conditions will deteriorate from a 7/10 currently, to a 6/10 next year as businesses try to catch up in the race.

The Year Ahead

A declining proportion of CEOs expect improvements to profits and revenues over the next 12 months. In April, 60 percent of CEOs expect increases in profit and 75 percent expect the same for revenues, down 6 and 7 percent, respectively, from the month prior. This is the third consecutive month of declines in hopes for more revenues and the fourth for profits.

The proportion of CEOs planning to increase their capital expenditures also declined this month, down 7 percent since March to 55 percent.

CEOs have a similar sentiment towards hiring. Only 55 percent plan to add to their headcount over the next 12 months, down 15 percent since March. This is the lowest proportion since January of 2021, before widespread vaccinations.

Sector & Size View

CEO optimism in future business conditions is down across nearly all industries this month. Advertising and wholesale CEOs’ ratings fell the furthest, both down more than 25 percent. They share concerns over talent availability and labor costs constricting their ability to expand their business. Separately, fuel and transportation costs are a major reason why wholesale/distribution CEOs’ forecast dropped. And adv./mktg./PR CEOs are troubled by slowed projections and business.

“We have seen a number of clients slow their projections for the near term. Store traffic is down, etc. Our domestic policies seem to be causing a big increase in core inflation which effects everyone,” says the CEO of an upper-mid sized ad agency.

On the other hand, CEOs in professional services have dampened their rating of current conditions but boast the only month-over-month increase to their rating of future conditions. Their hope stems from the prediction of a legislative change in the midterm elections, bringing a more business-friendly and -forward legislative branch of government.

Year-over-year ratings are down by both size and industry. In April of 2021, many Americans were receiving Covid-19 vaccinations and businesses began to open up as states abandoned mask mandates and regulations related to the virus—plus, the variants of the future (namely, highly-transmissible Omicron) had yet to develop.  

Compared to last month, CEOs in companies with under $10 million in revenues are the only ones whose rating did not drop but increased slightly. Their concerns with inflation and staffing and balanced by hope for a favorable outcome in the midterm elections and increased demand.

CEOs in larger companies are concerned with inflation and political missteps which will lead to a recession in the future, even with a change in Washington.

Paul Hylbert, CEO of Kodiak Building Partners, a real estate firm with over $1 billion in revenues says plainly, “Inflation is the number one issue. The end of this story is recession.”

About the CEO Confidence Index

The CEO Confidence Index is America’s largest monthly survey of chief executives. Each month, Chief Executive surveys CEOs across America, at organizations of all types and sizes, to compile our CEO Confidence Index data. The Index tracks confidence in current and future business environments, based on CEOs’ observations of various economic and business components. For additional information about the Index and prior months data, visit ChiefExecutive.net/category/CEO-Confidence-Index/

 


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