After enduring a year of increasing pessimism over the direction of the economy, America’s CEOs and business leaders are kicking off the new year with their most optimistic outlook since April of 2022. Despite continued rate hikes by the Fed, a growing number of CEOs now say the fundamentals of the economy are strong, inflation is easing and they are increasingly hopeful and confident about the future, even if there is a mild recession this year.
Overall, 43 percent of CEOs now expect business conditions to improve over the course of the next 12 months, a complete U-turn from their sentiment throughout 2022—when they were more likely to forecast worsening conditions almost every month of the year.
Those are the key findings from Chief Executive’s latest poll of 333 U.S. CEOs, fielded January 10-12, 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 and demand.
In January, CEO’s forecast of business conditions 12 months out jumped 7 percent from their rating in December of 2022, now at 6.3 on our 10-point scale, where 10 is excellent and one is poor. This month’s confidence reading is the highest it has been since March 2022, before the Fed began its series of inflation-fighting rate hikes.
CEO confidence in current business conditions, however, stalled this month at 6.1 out of 10, signaling CEOs are feeling an increasing sluggishness in the economy. This is the first time since January, 2022 that CEOs rate their outlook for future business conditions as higher than their rating of current business conditions.
“First quarter to first half of 2023 will be extremely fluid with continued economic uncertainty,” says Rob Bochicchio, President at Marketsmith, a small marketing company. He believes business conditions will only improve from here. “The shift in the market is affecting consumer purchasing power, which could level out,” he says, expects conditions in January 2024 to be 9 out of 10.
“We serve multiple market segments and have already cycled through inventory adjustments in several segments and are heading into that adjustment cycle for other segments,” says Rich Pattinson, President of Beverly Knits Inc, a mid-size industrial manufacturing company. He rates current conditions as a 5 on our scale but projects future conditions will reach 8/10, explaining, “We expect to be through most of that by Q3 and expect that Fed interest hikes will be minimal by that time with inflation tamped back down to their stated goal of 2%.”
Still, although the proportion of CEOs forecasting worsening business conditions is the lowest since January 2022—at 28 percent—not everyone is convinced the worst will soon be behind us.
“Continued rise of interest rates against a rising tide of leading indicators that would dictate that interest rates are already at a level that is materially slowing the economy,” says Douglas Clark, Chairman, CEO and Founder at Corcentric, a software tech and consulting firm, who expects business conditions to deteriorate to a 4 out of 10.
“There are fears of a small recession as a result of the Fed’s actions. The brakes are being applied to the economy “harder” than any time in my professional life,” says Davies Hood, President of Induron Coatings, LLC, a small manufacturing company. He expects conditions to deteriorate over the next 12 months, dropping to a 6/10 in January 2024 from an 8/10 now, he goes on, “I know that eventually there will be a slowdown. Hopefully, not a complete stop.”
The Year Ahead
The proportion of CEOs forecasting profits to increase over the course of the next 12 months climbed 5 percent to 61 percent in January, up from 59 percent in December—now the highest proportion forecasting increasing profits since March of 2022.
“Disruption and gloom creates opportunity, every break out happened during crisis,” says Roy Taylor, CEO of Ryff, a tech-first advertising company, who projects profit increases over 20 percent over the course of the year.
However, the proportion of CEOs expecting revenues to grow over the same period dropped by 3 percent this month and is now at 70 percent. Similarly, the proportion of CEOs planning increases in capex and hiring both fell in January, to 44 and 51 percent, respectively.
Most CEOs point to inflation and interest rates driving up the price of debt and investments as an explanation for why many businesses are pulling back, a trend that is spreading to hiring as well.
“Continuing inflation, drawdown of working capital, and continuing challenge with hiring and maintaining labor,” says the CEO of a mid-size financial services firm who intends to make no changes to his hiring or capex plans over the next 12 months.
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/