CEO Optimism Ticks Up In December

Chief Executive’s December CEO Confidence Index finds a slight increase in optimism, although most of America’s business chiefs say they don’t anticipate conditions to improve much in 2022.

CEO optimism in the business environment 12 months from now clawed back 2 percent of its November losses, as America’s business chiefs say current challenges such as supply chain delays and Covid volatility will sooner or later have to subside.

Yet, at 6.5 on our 10-point scale, where 10 is excellent, our forward-looking indicator remains nearly 7 percent off its January 2021 level—and 11 percent below its earlier peak, as CEOs say they nevertheless remain cautious in their forecast considering the laundry list of challenges affecting the current environment.

Those are the key findings from Chief Executive’s latest poll of 150 U.S. CEOs, fielded December 7-9, which asks America’s business chiefs to rate the environment today and 12 months out based on their assessment of business conditions—and forecast the impact on their company’s growth.

This month, CEOs’ rating of both current and future business conditions moved up since November. Their assessment of current conditions rose by a small margin, from 6.7 to 6.8 out of 10.

“Hoping for easing in supply chain pressures and cost inflation as capacity catches up with demand,” says Will Symonds, president of Anaheim, CA-based housewares company Oggi.

“Pent up consumer demand, low interest rates, access to capital and M&A all will contribute to growth,” says Mark Rubenstein, CEO of A Head for Profits LLC. “The landscape is volatile for sure, but it won’t dampen growth and investment.”

“Good demand, but we can’t find people that want to work,” says Roberto Contreras, CEO of Sunrise, FL-based Moderno Porcelain Works, echoing many that some challenges remain.

Among those challenges:

“The Covid omicron variant combined with 60 million U.S. citizens opting out of vaccination almost assures us that we will be dealing with the pandemic for at least another year,” says Tim Zimmerman, CEO of Merrill, WI-based Mitchell Metal Products. He adds: “Supply chain issues are becoming more acute for us as we head into the first quarter of 2022. Our typical lead time to customers of 48 hours to a few weeks (depending on the product) has now extended out to as long as 16 weeks. It is impossible to manage our facility efficiently as a result.”

“I thought we’d be done with the pandemic and back to a post-Covid normal by the end of 2021,” says Bob Green, president of Pittsford, NY-based marketing agency The Verdi Group. “Now I’m not even sure if we’ll have a ‘new normal’ by this time in 2022.”

“Things can’t continue at this level,” says Mark Buller, executive chairman of Canadian kitchen cabinet manufacturer Superior Cabinets, which in 2021 acquired Wichita, Kansas-based R.D. Henry & Co. “Inflation probably will slow things down,” he says to explain his downgrade of the business environment from a 10 today to a 6 by this time next year.

“Increased regulation and tax increases, along with higher interest rates will act as a brake on the economy,” agrees Bill Osborne, owner of Sutherland Springs, TX-based real estate company Osborne Properties. “Inflation and wages will run above 2 percent.”

Steven Leafgreen, CEO of Casper, Wyoming-based Western Vista Federal Credit Union echoes the sentiment: “Inflation, increased wage expenses, supply chain issues [are] slowing the loan demand.”

Overall, 39 percent of CEOs say they expect conditions to deteriorate over the next 12 months; 30 percent forecast no change at all, and 32 percent say they’re optimistic things will improve—a divided tally that reflects current uncertainties. When we asked CEOs the same question at the beginning of the year, the forecast was much more lopsided: 63 percent then forecasted improving conditions by now vs. 20 percent who expected them to deteriorate, and 18 percent who expected no change.

The Year Ahead

The proportion of CEOs predicting increases in profits rose to 71 percent in December, up 14 percent month over month and the highest it’s been since August. It is now back in line with where it started the year, at 72 percent.

The proportion of CEOs forecasting increases in revenues also moved up this month, to 78 percent—a 1.4 percent uptick from November but still 11 percent below its high of 88 percent in May, when most expected the vaccine roll-out to result in a return “to normalcy” in the fall.

The proportion of CEOs expecting to increase capital expenditures and headcount, however, dipped in December, to 57 and 65 percent, down 7.5 and 2.2 percent respectively since November.

Sector & Size View

December data shows significant fluctuations in forecasts across industries. Of note, transportation CEOs reported a 22 percent increase in their rating of business conditions 12 months from now, compared to their November assessment. Some of the reasons to explain their forecast include strong demand and an expectation that “restrictive trade barriers” will loosen in the months ahead, they say.

CEOs of professional services firms also reported an increase in their forecast for business, up 17 percent month over month, based on optimism that the backup in the supply chain will be cleared out by this time next year, infrastructure will be improved and that we will have a better handle on the pandemic.

At the other end of the spectrum, CEOs in pharma and construction/engineering reported decreases in their forecast for 2022, down 18 and 17 percent respectively since November, due, they say, to increased regulatory burden and uncertainty, staffing challenges, and labor and material costs and availability.

Year over year, however, ratings are down or flat across the board, as many say they had expected the pandemic to be somewhat resolved by now—and few had anticipated the depth and duration of the challenges that ensued (supply chain, labor, inflation, etc.).

When looking at the forecasts by company size, the data shows an increase in optimism for CEOs of larger companies, who cite strong demand and the belief that the labor market will continue to expand as the primary reasons—and no change in projections of small to mid-sized company CEOs, who say the negatives (inflation, interest rates, etc.) will most likely offset any progresss made with Covid, supply chains and staffing.

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.