It’s no surprise that CEOs have grown increasingly fatigued by the stagnant present business environment, downgrading their rating of current conditions another 3 percent this month, after two consecutive months of declines. Mounting geopolitical instability coupled with tight consumer demand and a labor market that has shown little improvement over the past year are some of the leading causes of the fall—all while in a high interest environment.
The 182 CEOs we polled November 7-9, as part of our monthly CEO confidence index, doled out their lowest rating of current business conditions since 2020, at 5.7 out of 10, where 10 is Excellent and 1 is Poor. The rating falls squarely into the label “good” and hasn’t hit “very good” territory (a 7 or 8 out of 10) since 2021.
Their predictions for the future aren’t far off either. Despite an uptick under 2 percent, their 5.9 out of 10 forecast for business conditions 12 months from now leaves little room for improvement. There is a sizeable proportion of CEOs who remain optimistic about inflation and the economy; however, a majority still expect flat or worsening conditions.
“We are seeing many customers pull back spending with market volatility, but others are increasing investment to grab a bigger share of the market. I see that more of the latter is beginning to happen,” says Gavan Thorpe, CEO of Boostability, an advertising company, who expects business conditions to pick up to a 7 out of 10 over the next year, an increase from the 6 rating he gives current conditions.
Scott O’Brien, Principal and Board Chair, Lord Aeck Sargent Planning & Design, Inc., agrees with Thorpe that conditions will improve. He explains his optimism, sharing, “Despite a weak private sector, our institutional work has been solid, and is providing a strong backlog.”
O’Brien and Thorpe are a part of the 41 percent of CEOs who forecast improving conditions this month, up from only 32 percent in October. The measure is now only 7 percent off its July high of 44 percent who forecast improving conditions 12 months from now but still, a majority of CEOs have been predicting steady or worsening conditions since March of 2021.
“Interest rates and cash flow are concerns for many businesses. The national debt load and consumer debt are starting to build,” lists Michael Santelli, CEO at Converged Security Solutions, a technology company. He says, “Plus, election year will mean anxiety in the early stages of a recession,” adding to the list of elements driving his forecast for business 12 months from now as a 3 out of 10 or “weak”.
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO at Consumer Technology Association, agrees that the business environment 12 months down the line will look “weak”. He lists the elements driving his unfavorable outlook, “There is a presidential election between two weak candidates, a Mideast war and rise of anti-semitism risk and uninformed youth. High interest rates. Globally weak economy. Rocky China-US relationship.”
When there is a plethora of reasons to have a less-than-favorable outlook of the future of business conditions, some CEOs still attempt to find the silver-lining amid the chaos. Such as Steven Vitale, CEO of Midwest Industrial Supply, Inc, an environmental services company. Even though he expects conditions to deteriorate 12 months from now, he explains, “While there continues to be global challenges that could have a negative effect on the U.S. economy in 2024 (ex. Russia/Ukraine, China, Israel/Hamas, U.S. election, etc.), our business environment appears to be resilient thus far and I am hopeful that this resilience will carry our business through 2024.”
THE YEAR AHEAD
The proportion of CEOs forecasting increasing profits also hit its lowest value in over one year. At 47 percent, the proportion is 16 percent down from last month and is the first time in 2023 that a majority of CEOs are now forecasting no growth in profits over the next 12 months.
Revenue forecasts have fallen even further. With only 56 percent of CEOs forecasting increases in revenues over the next twelve months, the proportion reached its lowest value since August of 2020.
The proportion of CEOs planning increases in capex over the next 12 months dropped another 3 percent in November, to 34 percent, after a double-digit drop in October—and also the lowest proportion of CEOs forecasting increased capex since 2020.
Interestingly, however, and a testament to the tightness of the labor market, the proportion of CEOs planning to increase their headcount over the next 12 months clawed back last month’s losses and now stands at 42 percent in November.
We’re seeing significant variations in CEO confidence and forecasts by sector in this month’s poll. Among those finding the current environment most challenging are financial services, real estate and industrial manufacturing CEOs, who all gave ratings double digits below the average, while peers in the government/nonprofit, professional services and construction/engineering sectors all outperformed the average by similar margins.
Most pessimistic about the 2024 landscape are wholesale/distribution, financial services and industrial manufacturing CEOs.
At the other end of the spectrum—and well ahead of any other group—are retail trade CEOs, who project the highest rating of future business conditions at 6.7 out of 10, or 13 percent above the overall average.
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/