CEO Confidence Falls To Decade Low, But Few Predict Recession

Chief Executive’s June survey of 278 U.S. CEOs shows leading confidence indicator now at 5.5/10, the lowest reading in nearly a decade. Majority forecasts worsening conditions in the year ahead, though not a recession.

Nearly 300 U.S. CEOs participated in Chief Executive’s CEO Confidence Index poll in June, sharing their prospect of the U.S. economy and business landscape. While their ratings of current business conditions remained flat month-over-month, at 6.4 out of 10, their forecast for business 12 months from now dropped another 6 percent, down to 5.6/10 from 5.9/10 in May. 

That reading is now 20 percent off where it was at the beginning of the year, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when CEOs told us they were increasingly hopeful that persistent issues in the supply chain and growing inflation—and even Covid-19—would wind down this year. It is the lowest level it’s been since January 2013, on the heels of the “Fiscal Cliff” drama in Washington and ahead of further debt ceiling negotiations. 

CEOs say it’s the uncertainty of the situation more than specific issues that is driving their forecast down, although the list of concerns they shared continues to grow each month. Among those: market volatility, a chaotic geopolitical scene, uncontrolled inflation, record-high oil prices, and continued labor and supply chain shortages are all adding to the mix fueling doubts over the future.

“The economy runs on oil, and until we get more, things are not getting better,” said Darrel Box, CEO at Lafayette Regional Health Center in Lexington, Missouri, who also lists labor and supply costs and shortages as reasons for his 4 out of 10 rating of business conditions 12 months from now (considered “Weak” according to our 10-point scale points).

“Supply chain issues remain and do not seem to be getting any better,” said the CEO of an electronic component manufacturer participating in the poll. “Finding people is another major problem, so even if we find the parts, we will still have issues executing.”

Labor Shortages

Challenges with talent acquisition resonated as a top issue for CEOs in our June polling. Many reported that demand has remained unrelentingly strong despite inflation, but finding ways to fill orders without sufficient resources is impeding growth.

“Labor and supply issues are buffering continued demand in excess of our ability to respond,” said the CEO of a large commercial truck dealership.

“We are in the recruitment space, and the demand on the client-side is strong, [but] the job seeker side is challenging,” said the CEO of a midsized recruiting firm.

“We are a design build construction company that specializes in warehouses and industrial buildings and our opportunities are unlimited… if we had the people to perform the work,” said F. Douglas Reardon, president of family-owned construction company EXXCEL Project Management.

“There is quite a bit of uncultured value in the economy that organizations know how to capture. The biggest challenge in capturing it is the labor shortage,” said Danny Gutknecht, CEO and co-founder of Pathways, a small HR firm in Glendale, Arizona.

“Tech bubble bursting is probably beneficial for us,” said the CEO of a tech consultancy. “A lot of these VC-backed product tech companies are driving up salaries in the space and making it hard for professional services firms to keep up salary wise. A reality check and market correction will help normalize across the industry.”

“I need staff, but wages for entry-level positions are very high,” echoed the owner and CEO of a small professional services firm. “I think more potential clients are going to put projects on hold.”

Several polled CEOs also mentioned customers now taking longer to make buying decisions due to uncertainty over the future. The CEO of an industrial manufacturing company in Pennsylvania said these very fears of worsening conditions are also, by themselves, driving down optimism.

“There is growing sentiment that things are going to slow down… which will cause things to slow down,” he said, adding inflation was also a big factor behind the hesitation.

 

Political Divide

Amid all these challenges, CEOs say they’re most frustrated with Washington and the decisions made by Congress, which, they say, are preventing business from ramping up and getting the U.S. economy on track to a recovery.

“Unprecedented quantitative tightening that is in response to gross monetary policy from a government and central bank that has printed money like it grows on trees,” said Dan Levin, co-founder, president and COO at ViralGains, a digital video advertising company. “The level of growth we’ve seen, not just the last couple of years but decade, was unnatural and not rooted in proper fundamentals.”

“With the national debts at the highest level as they are, the administration will realize that keeping printing money is not the answer; it’s people getting back to work with their permanent jobs,” said Andrew Ly, co-founder and CEO of Sugar Bowl Bakery. “This administration’s ability to repay its debts depends on low-interest rates. They will need to do something today moving forward to tackle it.”

“We need a federal government that will use USA resources, fuel and activities to grow from the USA out,” said Christopher Carter, CEO of SAP company Approyo. “Because of the failures in the federal government, we feel the growth [will be] slowing until they work with businesses to allow us to succeed.”

“We need leadership in Washington to focus on key drivers,” said the president and CEO of a publicly traded retailer, citing high gas prices and labor shortages as part of those issues. “We will not build sustainable growth without affordable energy, a motivated workforce and an efficient supply chain.”

“Wages cannot keep up with this inflation, and frankly, the current administration just doubles down on bad ideas daily,” said Paul Lefebvre, CEO of Illinois-based Specialty Print Communications.

“Inflation is too high, supply chain is too constrained. I suspect we are going to see reduction in demand leading to massive cancellations of backlog that will cause many companies to overact with layoffs. Government policy will likely make matters worse and prolong recession,” said Dan Call, president at New Prague, Minnesota-based WINCO Generators

Summing up general sentiment: “Economy will not take off until politics get out of the way,” said the CEO of a mid-sized transportation company.

No Recession

Despite the gloomy forecast for the year to come, the majority of CEOs polled say they only anticipate a slowdown of the U.S. economy over the next 3 to 6 months; less than a quarter expect a full-on recession.

Some are even hopeful that by this time next year, U.S. business conditions will thrive.

“The Fed seems to be doing a very good job with the balancing act of managing inflation. Also, Covid should be firmly in the rearview mirror a year from now, and even if the war in Ukraine continues, the whiplash effect on oil and wheat will have been figured out and somewhat normalized,” said the CEO of a software company in Central Florida, who forecasts conditions will improve to an 8 out of 10, or “Very Good,” by this time in 2023.

“Supply chain should normalize within the next 12-15 months, inflation will have eased somewhat, optimistic for a soft landing based on strong U.S. employment,” said John Archer, executive chair of Kent Watersports. “Having said that, we are only looking for things to not get worse; overall business will not improve.”

“By then, the labor balance will be in the business hands, out of the labor’s hands, forcing people to work instead of jumping jobs for more money and less work,” said John Haronian, president of Wine & Spirits Retail Marketing, a family-owned business based out of North Providence, Rhode Island. “Prices will be stable with the over abundance of goods flattening out.”

Both he and Archer are forecasting business conditions to be a 5 out of 10 by May 2023—not deteriorating but certainly not a major improvement from current readings.

Fifty-four percent of the CEOs polled on June 7-8 now forecast business conditions to worsen over the next 12 months. That proportion is up from 46 percent in May. Only 19 percent expect conditions to have improved by this time next year.

The Year Ahead

The proportion of CEOs forecasting increases in profits and revenues over the coming year continued to fall in June, now down 21 and 10 percent respectively. Only 46 percent of polled CEOs say they expect profits to increase over the next 12 months, down from 58 percent just one month prior—and from 71 percent at the beginning of the year.

Sixty-three percent said they expect revenues to rise, but that proportion is down from 70 percent in May and 88 percent in January.

Hiring plans have been put on hold for 45 percent of CEOs participating in the survey, with only 42 percent saying they still plan to add to their headcount over the next 12 months—a decline of 29 percent since May.

Plans to increase capital expenditures have also been put on the backburner amid high levels of inflation and a potential slowdown: Only 37 percent of CEOs surveyed in June say they still plan on increasing capex in the coming months, compared to 53 percent in May—a 30 percent drop MoM.

Sector & Size View

When observing industry-specific forecasts, optimism is low across the board with month-over-month declines in rating for all sectors except 2. Wholesale and Professional Services CEOs reported a slight uptick in confidence this month, compared to May, up 2.7 and 2.2 percent, respectively.

Sixteen percent of Professional Services CEOs rated their forecast for business either a 10 or 9 out of 10, by far the largest proportion across all sectors.

“We’re seeing, and predict, a slight decline in purchases from WD’s and Retailer’s as demand moderates. However, we believe the metrics for our industry remain positive and will continue to be so through 2023, absent a fall into a significant recession,” said the CEO of a family-owned business in the sector.

“My company has a great client base with new opportunities every day,” said the CEO of a management consulting firm.

Several other industry peers also said demand was strong and unabating, despite headwinds. Wholesale CEOs had similar comments, with strong pipelines and pent-up demand.

“Lower Covid numbers, back the office trends, interest in travel increasing, and individuals and corporations still have strong balance sheets,” said the CEO of a midsized investor-owned supplier.

Both sectors, however, say they remain cautious in their outlook due to continued supply chains snarls and inflation levels.

Across all industries, approximately 51 percent of respondents mentioned inflation as a topic driving their forecasts.

“Inflation is totally out of control. The talking heads are fueling the fire, and there seems to be a race to the top on pricing to determine the ceiling,” said the CEO of a healthcare consulting firm.

When looking at ratings by company size, forecasts are also evenly down.

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/

Melanie is Research Director for Chief Executive Group and Research Editor for Corporate Board Member and Chief Executive magazines. Prior to joining in 2015, she spent nearly two decades writing for the corporate and financial industry across Canada and the United States.