Is the U.S. in a recession or heading for one? Will the Fed stick the landing? While the debate rages across the world’s editorial pages, Chief Executive’s latest polling finds America’s business chiefs increasingly optimistic about where the economy is headed, with a growing proportion expecting conditions to rally by the end of the year.
Chief Executive’s August CEO Confidence Index, a survey of 157 CEOs fielded August 2-4, soared 14 percent over last month’s reading, to 5.8 out of 10, where 10 is Excellent. After four months of continuous decline, optimism clawed back two months of losses, as CEOs report seeing early indicators that by this time next year, the country will be in a recovery.
“I am feeling more optimistic this month than in prior months that we may avoid a recession—or if we have it (or are in it), it will be brief,” said the CEO of a small PE-backed technology firm “The economy was ‘too hot’ which is why we couldn’t hire people, couldn’t get goods from point A to point B, and it was causing craziness. By cooling it down, we will actually get back to a semi-normal labor market, which will bring wages back in line and a semi-normal supply chain. These will be welcome changes.”
Polled CEOs say demand remains strong and pipelines active, supply chain strains have continued to ease, and overall costs are moderating. Infrastructure and semiconductor legislation along with a closer look at energy alternatives in light of recent events are also giving many hope that the country is building resiliency for the future.
As a result, 30 percent of CEOs now expect conditions to improve over the next 12 months, up from only 14 percent in July. That’s a 114 percent increase month-over-month, and a significant narrowing of the gap (see chart, below).
CEOs’ rating of current business conditions also increased in August, by 6 percent since July, to 6.2 out of 10, bringing the Index back within “Good” territory. CEOs say they are seeing signs of easing in some of the biggest business challenges of the past few months. The war in Ukraine, new military threats in the South China Sea, rising interest rates, and high labor, material and energy costs remain concerns, but many of those polled see these issues beginning to abate and believe that will continue over the coming months.
“Inflation will begin to taper off, supply chain will have improved, energy prices will be under control as countries dependent on Russian oil will have begun to find alternative sources and adapt,” said Manuel Flores, president and CEO at SBA lender SomerCor. “There are major government-supported capital investments through recently passed infrastructure bill and soon to be passed semiconductor support bill that may catalyze additional private investment.”
“Normalized supply chains, reduced commodity prices, past peak inflation for this business cycle, companies committed to bring production back from China to the U.S. and Mexico in a big way,” said Brian Conner, president of IT staffing company Select Resources, to explain why he foresees business conditions to be “very good” (8 out of 10 on our 10-point scale) by this time next year.
“Supply chain issues, inflation and labor shortages remain a threat to profitability, and inventories remain high with many of our customers, which is reducing the number of orders we receive,” said Will Symonds, president of family-owned consumer manufacturer Oggi. “[But] my expectation is that these factors will ease over the coming year. We are already seeing early signs of improvement in freight and raw materials. Barring any major geopolitical events, I am slightly positive about the near-term outlook.”
Many also expect, by then, to be working through the backlogs and pent-up demand from today’s more conservative approach to growth due to economic conditions.
“Business is picking up, and our clients are looking beyond 2023,” said Jes Vargas, CEO of Sacramento, CA-based business consultancy DPMG—who also expects the business climate to be very good in 12 months.
Several others say they’re betting on the outcome of the midterm elections, which they hope will help bring more business-friendly members of Congress. Thomas Harrison, chairman emeritus of Diversified Agency Services (DAS), a division of NYSE-traded Omnicom Group, said his improving forecast—though only from a 4 to a 5 out of 10 over the coming months—is driving by “midterms bringing in statesmen and women who support business vs want to destroy business,” he said.
“Expected replacement of non-business-oriented Congress members and limits on the Executive Branch,” echoed Michael Bush, president of veteran-owned Energy Vision.
For the past three consecutive months, Chief Executive has asked CEOs to share their near-term outlook for the U.S. economy. Is the U.S. in—or heading for—a recession? The answer to that question has wavered significantly from month to month—and not just among CEOs.
From 23 percent in June forecasting a recession by year end, to 44 percent in July, our August data finds 29 percent now saying they expect the U.S. to be or remain in a recession during that period. The most significant change, perhaps, is that while there is consensus that the U.S. economy is currently in either a recession or a slowdown (74 percent of CEOs), there is little agreement about what will unfold over the next 3 to 6 months:
Twenty-nine percent say the U.S. will remain in a recession in the second half of 2022, vs. 24 percent who expect a slowdown to continue, and 17 percent who forecast flat conditions. Interestingly, 11 percent now believe we’ll be in a recovery (up from 2 percent in July) and 8 percent expect the economy to be back in a growth cycle (from 0 percent the month prior)—and 5 percent chose to abstain from forecasting.
The Year Ahead
With optimism on the rise, our survey finds 53 percent of CEOs polled in August forecasting increasing profits over the next 12 months (+6 percent since July), and 63 percent expecting revenues to rise (up 10 percent month-over-month)—the first increase recorded since the beginning of the year, in January.
The proportion of those who plan to increase hiring over that time period has remained flat, at 46 percent, and the proportion planning to increase capital expenditures has dipped slightly, from 40 percent in July to 38 percent in August.
Sector & Size View
Looking at economic forecasts by industry, optimism is on the rise across the board, with double-digit increases in nearly all sectors represented in the August survey.
Technology CEOs say the semiconductor bill and easing of supply chains will be a great push for business, as the labor market unwinds and wages begin to give employers a bit of slack. Companies doubling down on their digital investments is also a boost to the sector.
CEOs in the professional services sector say their optimism stems from the fact that many companies are now shifting gears to prepare for the recovery ahead, while others are finding new ways to meet unrelenting customer demand.
Year-over-year data, however, remains down, although the gap is closing considerably in certain sectors, such as pharma, technology and consumer manufacturing.
Looking at the numbers by company size (annual revenues), the data shows significant variations between mid-sized companies and their peers at both ends of the scale: CEO optimism is up 7 percent at companies with $10 to $999.9 million in annual revenues, compared to 22 and 23 percent for their large ($1bn+) and small (<$10 million) counterparts, respectively.
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/