CEO Optimism Holding Steady, though BlackRock’s Fink has his Misgivings

The Conference Board's confidence index reached its highest level in 13 years, though BlackRock, the world's biggest fund manager, is concerned about policy stagnation in Washington.

Two-thirds of the CEOs questioned in a new confidence survey say they intend to hire more people this year, indicating they’re keeping faith in the economy, despite signs the president may struggle finding political consensus for his pro-growth agenda.

The Conference Board, a nonprofit peer group, said its first-quarter index of CEO confidence increased to 68—its highest level in 13 years—from 65 in the final quarter of last year, when it rebounded sharply. A reading of more than 50 reflects more positive than negative responses.

“CEOs were considerably more optimistic about short-term growth prospects in the U.S., and to a lesser degree, about prospects in other mature and emerging markets,” said Lynn Franco, the Conference Board’s director of economic indicators.

The survey was conducted between mid-February and mid-March, by which time it was already becoming apparent that Trump’s healthcare plans could face resistance from some Republicans in Congress. It didn’t, however, capture the ultimate failure of the bill on March 24.


The healthcare debacle has raised concerns among some market watchers that the president also could fail to execute his tax-cut pledges. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink said the uncertainty is slowing the economy because consumers and businesses are waiting to see if Trump can deliver.

“There’s a greater worry that these proposed changes are going to be harder and harder to execute,” the head of the world’s biggest fund manager told CNBC. “You’re seeing a slowing down of our economy.”

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon claimed this week that “something is wrong with America” while lamenting a growing income gap between rich and poor. Dimon, however, also said the bank still has “confidence in the underlying growth in the U.S. and global economies.”

Chief Executive’s March CEO Confidence Index indicated the mood had become more optimistic, rebounding to 7.41 out of 10 after edging back slightly in February to 6.99 from a high of 7.07 in January. And on March 15, CEO group Business Roundtable, which Dimon chairs, said its first-quarter economic outlook index jumped to 93.3 points from 74.2 points in the previous quarter, exceeding the poll’s long-term average of 79.8 for the first time in almost two years.

A key takeaway from the latest Conference Board survey is that CEOs are ready to start hiring again, with only 10% expecting a headcount reduction in the coming year. When the same question was asked at this time last year, less than 30% of CEOs expected to hire more people compared to around two-thirds of respondents currently.

Perhaps not surprisingly, CEOs also cited finding qualified workers as the largest obstacle to hiring.


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