CEO Confidence Dims Amid Geopolitical Worry and Congress Standoff

After months of patient waiting and little change, CEO confidence is showing signs of faltering amid a cascade of political drama, growing concern about America’s role in the world, and worry that the new president cannot deliver to business what he promised during the campaign.

According to the two latest surveys by Chief Executive, September and October’s ratings for expected business conditions 12 months from now have slumped to their lowest level since November 2016. In September, respondents rated their level of optimism for the year ahead at 6.75 out of 10. In October, it was slightly higher, at 6.85. This was a sharp decline from the period of May to August, when confidence ranged from just 7.03 to 7.01, with little change.

CEOs we talked to during the September survey said that while they remained highly confident in their market opportunities and the economy in general, political turmoil here and on the world scene was making it difficult to stand tall in that belief.

In October, factors such as uncertainty over the outcome of tax reform, particularly with respect to corporate rates and the foreign profit repatriation plan, as well as the Fed’s upcoming interest rate strategy and the wavering future of the health care bill appear to have further clouded earlier optimism.

“We were expecting more in areas of infrastructure programs, buy-American legislation, health care reform and cost control, and tax reform than has materialized,” said the president and CEO of a mid-sized manufacturing company who regards current business conditions as weak. “We still believe that the changes President Trump is working toward are needed, but the deadlock in Congress has had a very negative impact on the sectors we serve, so far.”

Another manufacturing company CEO said he didn’t expect to have any new hires or capital expenditures over the coming 12 months. “Companies are sitting on record levels of cash, either waiting on tax relief and less government regulation or, in case something isn’t accomplished, hoarding to facilitate bridging a downturn in economic activity,” he said.

But even as many of the nation’s chief executives wait on presidential promises to materialize, three-quarters of those surveyed nevertheless say they are anticipating a boost in their firm’s revenue (78%) and profits (73%), and half plan to increase the number of employees (51%) along with capital expenditures (52%).

That’s fairly steady compared to January, when 81% and 71% expected revenue and earnings to climb over the next 12 months. As for investing those gains, 49% then said they’d be hiring new staff and 55% expected to increase capital expenditures.

The next few months will reveal whether the overall drop in confidence for future business conditions reflects a short-term phenomenon or if it is the beginning of a long-term trend. In the meantime, the average forward-looking confidence index for the first ten months of 2017 ranks at 7.04 (out of 10), its highest annual average since 2004 (7.47), and most CEOs we surveyed say barring an international incident, they believe they have the right personnel, capital and opportunities to stay on schedule for continuous growth in 2018.

Transportation, Energy and Health Care Confidence Among Most Volatile
Month-over-month variations in confidence levels across an industry are not abnormal observations, especially in light of the recent power switch in Washington, but October data is revealing some interesting reversals in industry rankings.

While transportation started the year as the least confident of sectors, with a forward-looking index of 5.40, it has since clocked in an upswing of 34%, making it the second most confident industry this October, tied at 7.25 with Energy. Government plans to increase infrastructure spending, the appointment of a new EPA chief, and the greenlighting of projects like Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline may be what’s putting a new spring in both these industries’ step.

On the other end of the spectrum, health care flip-flopped from its number one spot as the most confident sector in January, with a rating of 8.25, to the bottom of the pack in October (5.82)—a drop of 29% over ten months. It is important to note, however, that in January the sector had just come off the heels of a 6.64 rating in December 2016 and, as data shows, immediately returned to a somewhat similar level in February with 6.13. Year-over-year, the sector’s CEOs have gained 14% confidence in future business conditions, from 5.10 in October 2016.

CEO Confidence in Business Outlook Unaffected by Size
When broken down by company size, the confidence of small (6.88), mid (6.70) and large company (6.61) CEOs in business conditions one year from now is relatively in line with the overall index of 6.85 for the month.

Some volatility is, however, emerging among CEOs at upper middle-market companies (revenues between $100M and $1B). After holding at 7.09, 7.07 and 7.06 for three consecutive months this summer, their confidence rating fell by close to 7-and-a-half percent, to 6.58, in September, the lowest it had been all year, before doubling-back and retracing all of those steps and more in October. Our latest indicator reports their current confidence rating in future business conditions at 7.18, the second highest level it has reached so far in 2017.

When contrasting today’s forward-looking confidence with that of the beginning of the year, mid-sized companies ($10 million to $999.9 million) have experienced the biggest retreat, moving down 6% from 7.11 in January to 6.70 in October. In comparison, small companies have lost 3%, from 7.06 to 6.88, while large companies have remained steady (6.60 to 6.61).

About the CEO Confidence Index
The CEO Confidence Index is America’s largest monthly survey of chief executives in the country. Each month, Chief Executive surveys 90,000 CEOs across corporate America, at organizations of all types and sizes, to compile our CEO Confidence Index data. The index was based on 463 responses in September and 240 responses in October.

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Melanie C. Nolen
Melanie is research editor for Corporate Board Member and Chief Executive. She has more than ten years of experience writing for the corporate and financial industry across Canada and the United States. She is based in Nashville, Tennessee.

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