Are things getting better or worse? It’s hard to say, at least according to our March reading of CEO confidence for the year ahead.

In a poll fielded amid the chaos and carnage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week, some 38 percent of chief executives we surveyed say business conditions will deteriorate in the months to come, while an equal number—38 percent—say conditions will improve. The remainder didn’t see much changing.

One area of clear agreement: Inflation. Some 72 percent of surveyed CEOs say inflation pressure is among their top 3 challenges for the remainder of the year, along with supply chain disruptions and retaining and engaging employees, selected by 53 and 50 percent of CEOs, respectively.

“Under the current global business environment, it is very difficult to determine what the catalysts are for the fluctuations in the marketplace, especially for our business on a micro level,” says Jim Vandergrift, President at R&M Materials Handling, Inc. “Inflation, continued supply chain disruptions, and the war between Russia and Ukraine are all reasons we are not more optimistic when looking a year ahead.”

Chief Executive’s latest poll of 164 U.S. CEOs, fielded March 1 through 3, asked 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.

CEOs’ rating of future business conditions increased by one percent this month versus February, to 6.7 out of 10, from last month’s rating of 6.6/10. Their rating of current business conditions increased by the same rate, up a modest one percent to 6.8/10.

Joseph O’Connell, President at Creative Machines Inc., a advertising/PR business agrees with Poehler about the headwinds, but shares why he is optimistic that conditions will improve to an 8, up from the 7 he rates them currently: “Strong demand and Covid-19 recovery are leading to optimism among our clients and customers. However, inflation and supply chain issues are a real worry.”

The belief that recovery from Covid-19 will boost the business environment runs deep among CEOs this month. Their worries over inflation and the supply chain are outshined by hope that a year down the line, the pandemic will be largely controlled and therefore so will inflation and supply woes, all while consumers continue to spend.

“My forecast is driven by the fact that more economies are opening up and spending continues, as does modest inflation,” says Gary Rychley, President at FasTest Inc, an industrial manufacturing company. He rates current conditions an 8 and expects them to improve to a 9 over the course of the next year.

“The headwinds of supply, inflation, resource constraints, etc. should improve,” said Rance Poehler, CEO at Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions. “However, the current White House policies and resources are major issues impacting our business.”

The invasion of Ukraine is certainly a wildcard. Some CEOs, like Danny Cox, CEO at Rio Grande, Inc., a wholesale/distribution company, believes that business conditions will still improve, despite the conflict. “I believe world conflicts will be less dangerous.”

Many point to the resounding unity of the west in its response to condemn Russia and Putin’s actions, saying it signals hope for global recovery. Others, however, add the Russia/Ukraine conflict to a myriad of reasons why they believe the business environment will only deteriorate over the course of the next 12 months.

Tim Zimmerman, CEO/President at Mitchell Metal Products, believes conditions will drop from an 8 now to a 6 in the future, he shares, “The economic business cycle was set to naturally cool in the manufacturing world prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The impact and uncertainty of this development will work to hasten the slowdown of economic activity.”

Christine Crandell, President at NBS Consulting Group, explains why she believes conditions will plummet to a 5, down from 8, “The risk of prolonged and/or extended war with Russia; continued geopolitical and regional nationalism which will disrupt demand and access to raw materials, continued disruption of the supply chain and consumer/employee angst and fear from global instability coupled with Covid fatigue.”

Many CEOs also cite concerns with the current White House policies and leadership as why they don’t expect conditions to improve, even if the effects of Covid-19 are lessening and all CEOs point to challenges recruiting and retaining talent.

The Year Ahead

With the onset of a war in Ukraine, CEOs were asked if their priorities and challenges have changed for the year ahead as a result. 62 percent of CEOs say that recent events did change their challenges for the year. As for their priorities, the majority (55 percent) of CEOs say that recent events did not cause a shift. Still, 45 percent said they did, further signaling the split amongst America’s business leaders.

When choosing their priorities, 57 percent of CEOs selected retaining and engaging employees as a top 3 for the remainder of the year. Recruiting and training employees and improving cost structure where the next choices, selected by 39 and 37 percent of CEOs, respectively. In a close fourth spot is gaining market share, a top 3 priority for 36 percent of CEOs.

The proportion of CEOs forecasting increasing profits dropped by 7 percent this month to 64 percent—unsurprising considering the 72 percent of CEOs who say inflation is their main challenge for the year ahead. The proportion predicting an increase in revenue over the next 12 months dropped by only one percent, now standing at 80 percent.

In March, 60 percent of CEOs are now planning to increase their capital expenditures over the coming year, down almost 4 percent from 62 percent who said the same in February.

The proportion of CEOs planning to add to their headcount also dropped this month, down 11 percent from last month, when 72 percent of CEOs planned to add to their headcount over the next year. Now, 64 percent are planning to increase their hiring.

Sector & Size View

Across sectors, CEO ratings fluctuate. In advertising, industrial manufacturing, and professional services, CEOs’ rating dropped since last month. In construction, consumer manufacturing, tech and wholesale/distribution their ratings saw a boost.

Construction, consumer manufacturing, tech and wholesale CEOs all point to steadfast demand and recovery from Covid-19 as their industries boom. Their counterparts in other industries cite supply and labor issues, coupled with inflation and a war as why their rating for the future drops.

By size, the smallest businesses are experiencing the brunt of the labor and inflation issues. CEOs say that recruiting skilled labor is an increasingly difficult task and they have less flexibility to use pricing as a strategy to pivot through inflation, compared to larger businesses who often have more flexibility to offer competitive compensation packages, more resources to recruit and more wiggle-room on the bottom line.

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/