CEO Confidence Rebounds In December To Pre-Election Levels

Chief Executive’s latest poll of more than 250 CEOs finds optimism in 2021 business conditions back on track after plunging in November in the immediate wake of the election.

After plunging more than 6 percent post-election, CEO optimism rebounded in early December, with many CEOs betting on a vaccine and a politically hamstrung Biden administration to stabilize conditions enough to get through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Chief Executive’s most recent polling of 256 U.S. CEOs—fielded December 1-2—shows confidence in the current business environment ticked up above 6 on our 1-10 scale of CEO confidence, into “Good” territory at 6.1/10. That is a 2.7 percent increase from prior month and the closest it has been to pre-crisis levels all year.

CEOs’ outlook for the business environment 12 months from now jumped a whopping 7.3 percent, by far the largest month-over-month increase in confidence recorded since November 2016, on the heels of the last presidential election. At the time, the forward-looking indicator had risen by 10.8 percent on beliefs that the future president would help support business growth and the economy.

CEOs we talked to say they’re hopeful an effective and widely distributed vaccine will support a full reopening of businesses across all sectors and a return to normalcy in the near term, stressing the importance of balance and stabilization across political, social, economic and financial conditions to move the country out of this crisis.

“Most of the economy seems to be doing fine,” says Bruce Levitt, president of Levitt-Safety Limited, a supplier of fire and life safety solutions. “Lots of government aid being sprayed around to keep things running. A successful vaccine should slowly bring us back to more normal next year, hopefully partially offset by a decline in government largesse.”

Jim Contardi, CEO of AutoQuotes, a provider of “Quote to Cash” technology solutions, says the expectation of a vaccine and a “return to normalcy in many parts of the economy, especially hospitality, dining, travel and entertainment” are fueling his optimism in business conditions 12 months from now. He gives them a 9 out of 10 rating, compared to a 6/10 for the current environment.

“In one year, most people in the U.S. should be vaccinated and the noise from the election should have settled down,” says Karim Chichakly, co-president of isee systems, a maker of modeling and simulation software. He rates his outlook a 6 out of 10, adding “It will take a year or so to bounce back from this.”

“Conversation with clients and their response to getting things back to full scale work in 2021,” says Walter F. Payne Jr., CEO of NC-based production agency ImageMark Business Services when asked to explain his optimistic view of business conditions next year. “I do think it will be more near the third and fourth quarter, though.”

“The areas that are strong will remain strong for 2021, and the areas that are slow will only improve as the year progresses,” says Jeff Schumaker, president of Fishbeck, a civil engineering company in Forest Hills, Michigan. He rates business conditions by the end of 2021 a 9 out of 10, or “Excellent” on our 1-10 scale.

Not everyone is so optimistic, of course. “Even with a vaccine which will not reach the general population before summer of 2021 leaves much uncertainty, as it impacts all facets of business and employees at every level of decision-making,” says Denise McIntosh, CEO of Custom Powder Systems in Springfield, Missouri, echoing others’ comments.

The Year Ahead

When looking at the impact of the business environment on their respective companies, the proportion of CEOs who anticipate increases in profits and revenues also highlights the growing optimism, at 65 and 73 percent this month, respectively, compared to 54 and 64 percent the month prior.

Similarly, the proportion of CEOs planning to increase their investments over the next 12 months neared its February peak this month, at 48 percent compared to 41 percent the month prior.

Most striking: For the first time this year, more than half of CEOs surveyed believe there will be increases in hiring over the next 12 months, at 56 percent in December compared to 47 percent in November. This is the highest proportion since December 2018, a clear sign that business leaders are optimistic we have now turned a corner in this pandemic.

All measures are now back to pre-Covid levels and near their 2020 peaks.

Sector & Size View

December data shows an uptick of CEO confidence in future business conditions across most industries, with only three sectors reporting a decline: Travel & Leisure (-19 percent), Advertising/Media/Entertainment (-10 percent) and Pharma (-3 percent).

Despite the dip MoM, CEOs in those sectors remain more optimistic than some of their peers, including within Real Estate (5.7/10) and Financial Services (5.8/10), where concerns over less business-friendly policies by the new administration and potential gridlock in Washington are taking precedent over otherwise-optimistic vaccine news.

On a year-over-year basis, Nonprofit/Government CEOs, as well as their peers in the Construction, Tech and Utility sectors are among the most optimistic in the future, with Real Estate and Financial Services CEO falling to the bottom of the list.

Looking at confidence levels by company size, all size groups are reporting increasing confidence in the future—a stark turnaround from November, when they were all on the decline due to concerns over what the election results meant for business.

Year over year, we observe a similar picture, with all cohorts up to varying degrees. All currently forecast a “Good” business climate by the end of 2021.

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. She has two decades of experience writing for the corporate and financial industry across Canada and the United States. She is based in Nashville, Tennessee.