U.S. CEOs Don’t Expect A Recession Anytime Soon

Chief Executive’s September polling of CEO confidence finds CEOs’ perception of the current business environment unchanged since August—at 6.8 out of 10 on our 1-10 scale. There was a slight 1% uptick in their outlook for the year ahead, but at 6.2/10, our leading indicator remains far from its earlier peaks and 12 percent behind September 2018 levels.

CEOs say they are still concerned with the volatility and uncertainty of global and domestic politics but find confidence in stable macroeconomic fundamentals and remain hopeful for progress on China-U.S. trade talks.

Several of the 314 CEOs surveyed said that after months of volatility brought on by the latest rounds of tariffs on Chinese imports, they believe the trade war will be resolved sooner rather than later. Peter Felsenthal, CEO of wholesale distributor Whitmor, says that while tariffs have negatively impacted business conditions, he anticipates a resolution to the issue and a strengthening of overall business conditions within the coming months.

Many other business leaders polled this month echoed this sentiment, noting that consumer confidence and overall commerce activities are still going strong—despite the headlines. Michael Marchese, founder and CEO of Tempesta Media, says most companies have begun to shake off the shock of the latest tariffs announcements and either resumed their plans for the remainder of the year or taken steps to adapt by locking in new suppliers.

Note: Chief Executive’s CEO Confidence Index is measured on a scale of 1-10. September poll had 314 responses.

No Recession in 2020

Perhaps most important: Sixty percent of surveyed CEOs told Chief Executive in September that they don’t believe a recession is likely in the year ahead, pointing to the state of economic fundamentals and their current and future business backlog as evidence.

“Six months ago, we had the strongest economy in history,” commented the divisional president of a large professional services firm. “A slowdown from that is not a recession. We see the fundamentals across the board as strong to very strong.”

“Talking about [a] recession is a natural reaction to an 11-year bull market,” says Dr. Barry Naft, president and CEO of Environment International and former Dow president. “Recession means two quarters of consecutive negative growth. Let’s talk about that after one quarter; right now, that seems absurd.”

CEOs are more worried that talk of a recession will put otherwise strong consumer spending and confidence at risk. Yet, 71 percent of the CEOs in our survey say the talk about a recession has not at all affected their strategic planning for the year ahead, although most of them (72 percent) say they remain prepared to adjust accordingly should something unfold.

While only 18 percent believe a recession in 2020 is very likely, with 4 percent saying it’s in fact inevitable, some CEOs say they are not discounting the potential for a recession in 2021.

CEOs Slow Expenditures as Profit and Revenue Expectations Fall

The number of CEOs anticipating profits and revenue to increase over the next 12 months continues to slide, now down to 64 and 56 percent, respectively. Both represent a 9 percent decline against August levels and the lowest levels since the summer of 2016.

Because of those projections, the majority of CEOs say they are not planning on increasing their headcount or capital expenditures in the year ahead, despite recognizing that there is plenty of capital available to support growth strategies. Rather, they say uncertainty and a lack of direction in the market are causing them to put off investments until greater certainty can be validated on overall conditions.

Consensus Across Company Sizes and Industry

CEO confidence in business conditions 12 months from now remains far below September 2018 levels across all company sizes and most industries. Worth noting: Transportation CEOs, who are often the first to deal with changes in the economy, are the least confident in the future right now, the only group with a rating in “weak” territory.

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.

Melanie C. Nolen: Melanie is research editor for Corporate Board Member and Chief Executive. 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.