CEOs Have Mixed Views For Global Economic Outlook
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CEO confidence in the US economy is improved although uncertainty remains for the rest of the world.

So what is in the minds of CEOs? How do they view the performance and near-term outlook of the global and US economies and how are these views affecting capital investment and other investment activity? Recent surveys from the Conference Board, PwC, and Deloitte Consulting show a fairly positive view of the US economy but less certainty for the rest of the world, including for energy pricing.

Results of the CEO Confidence Survey for the third quarter of 2014, administered by The Conference Board, a business and research organization, and from the PwC Measure of CEO Confidence, a barometer of executive views of economic and business conditions, showed more positive than negative feedback, but the measure was slightly down from the previous quarter. The measure was 59 points for the third quarter of 2014, down from 62 points in the second quarter. A reading of more than 50 points reflects more positive than negative responses. The survey was conducted from mid-August to mid-September 2014. “While CEOs say economic conditions have improved from the start of the year, their expectations for growth in the short-term have softened,” said Lynn Franco, director of economic indicators at The Conference Board, in an October 8, 2014 press release: “Overall, CEOs remain optimistic about growth prospects in the US and India, but sentiment for Europe has declined considerably. Expectations for China and Japan have moderated, and CEOs remained negative about Brazil’s near-term prospects. Less than a quarter of chief executives report increasing their companies’ capital spending plans since January while less than 20% have scaled back spending.”

CEOs’ assessment of current economic conditions, however, was more positive. Approximately 52% said that conditions are better compared to six months ago, up from 46% in the second quarter of 2014. Conversely, business leaders’ appraisal of conditions in their own industries declined, with just 41% saying conditions in their own industries have improved, compared with 48% last quarter.

CEOs’ expectations regarding the short-term outlook were less optimistic, according to information from the Conference Board. Slightly more than 44% of business leaders anticipate economic conditions will improve over the next six months, down from 53% in the last quarter. However, nearly 51% expect conditions to remain the same. Expectations for their own industries are also more subdued, with 34% anticipating an improvement, down from 46% in the second quarter. About 51% expect no change in conditions.

In assessing growth prospects on a geographic basis, CEOs are more positive in their assessment of current economic conditions in the United States and India, but remain negative regarding conditions in Brazil, China, Europe, and Japan. More notably, business leaders’ assessment of conditions in Europe and Japan went from positive (a reading of 50 and over) to negative while India increased into positive rankings. Looking ahead, short-term expectations for Europe, China, and Japan declined but remain slightly positive while expectations for Brazil edged up but remain negative. Overall, CEOs are most positive about the outlook for both the United States and India.

Overall, there is more interest in increasing capital investment. Nearly 21% of chief executives report increasing their companies’ capital spending plans since January of this year while 17% have scaled back spending, according to the Conference Board information. In 2012, only 9% of respondents had increased their capital spending plans, and 32% had made cuts. An increase in sales volume was one of the most common reasons given for increasing capital investment plans. A decline in sales volume also played a key role in scaling back spending plans.

A recent survey by Deloitte Consulting, conducted in late August 2014 of more than 2400 professionals from various industries, including banking and securities, technology, investment management, and process and industrial products, also showed positive sentiment. Most executives (87.8%) expect the US economy to grow in 2015, according to the recent Deloitte poll. Increased corporate capital investments are expected to have the biggest positive impact on the US economy in 2015 (24% of respondents identified as such) and merger and acquisition activity is expected to increase (47.3% of respondents identified as such).

“I typically work with companies during times of change—during crises and growth,” said Deloitte Financial Advisory Services LLP CEO David Williams, in an October 1, 2014 Deloitte press release “Whether they’re looking to emerge from a regulatory or litigation challenge or they’re poising themselves for transactions, the executives I know are optimistic and moving ahead with confidence right now. We’re seeing big growth in sales and earnings while improvements are made in hiring, in most sectors. Things aren’t perfect, but I’m bullish on the state of the US economy in 2015.”

Middle East turmoil (34.7% of respondents identified as such) is the biggest global challenge respondents say the US economy will face in 2015. “Shocks from outside the US and internal fiscal policy mistakes are likely the biggest challenges to continued US economic improvements in 2015,” said Ira Kalish, chief global economist, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, in the Deloitte release. “Unless the situation in the Middle East worsens considerably, I don’t expect it to be as big a challenge as stagnation in China or Europe would be in the new year. The Federal Reserve will have an interesting year ahead balancing concerns about inflation with concerns about employment.”  When asked what the Federal Reserve will do in terms of tightening monetary policy in 2015, 18% of respondents said it would tighten appropriately, 20.7% said it would tighten too soon, and 36.7% said the federal reserve would tighten too late.

In another barometer of CEO sentiment, The Business Roundtable’s Third Quarter 2014 CEO Economic Outlook Index, which provides a picture of the future direction of the US economy based upon CEOs’ plans for sales, capital spending, and hiring, declined moderately from the second quarter. The Business Roundtable CEO Economic Outlook Survey, conducted quarterly since the fourth quarter of 2002, provides a forward-looking view of the economy by Business Roundtable member CEOs. The survey is designed to provide a picture about the future direction of the US economy by asking CEOs to report their plans for their company’s sales, capital expenditures, and employment in the next six months.The data are used to create the Business Roundtable CEO Economic Outlook Index and sub-indices for sales, capital expenditures, and hiring expectations, which are diffusion indices that range between -50 and 150. Readings at 50 or above indicate an economic expansion, and readings below 50 indicate an economic contraction. A diffusion index is defined as the percentage of respondents who report that a measure will increase minus the percentage who report that the measure will decrease. The third quarter 2014 survey was completed between August 11 and August 29, 2014. Responses were received from 135 member CEOs, 65% of the total Business Roundtable membership. The Business Roundtable is an association of chief executive officers of leading US companies with aggregate annual revenues of $ 7.4 trillion and more than 16 million employees.

Results from the Business Roundtable CEO Economic Outlook Index showed that plans for capital expenditures, hiring and sales all decreased relative to the previous quarter, with hiring plans declining the most. The index, a composite index of CEO expectations for the next six months of sales, capital spending, and employment, decreased in the third quarter of 2014 to 86.4 from 95.4 in the second quarter of 2014. The long-term average of the index is 80.2.

“While some US economic indicators are improving moderately, the results from our survey of CEOs seem to reflect an underperforming US economy held back by policy uncertainty and growing conflicts around the world,” said Randall Stephenson, chairman of the Business Roundtable and CEO of AT&T Inc., in a Business Roundtable statement. CEOs expect 2014 gross domestic product growth of 2.4%, roughly the same as last quarter’s estimate of 2.3%.

In looking at the survey, 73% of survey respondents said that they expect their companies’ US sales to increase. Twenty percent expect no change, and 7% expect sales decreases. Although the percentage of CEOs expecting US sales increases remained the same at 73% in the third quarter and second quarter, a greater percentage (7%) of executives felt that their sales would decrease compared to only 2% in the second quarter of 2014. Overall, the US sales index for the third quarter was 116.4, down 4.6% from the second quarter of 2014, when it was 121.

With regard to capital spending, 39% of executives surveyed for the third-quarter survey said that they planned to increase US capital expenditures, down from 44% in the second quarter. The capital expenditure index was 79.1 in the third quarter, down 6.8% from the second quarter, when it registered 85.9. For the hiring index, 34% of executives said in the third quarter survey that they planned to increase US hiring, down from 43% in the second quarter of 2014. Overall the US hiring index was 63.5, down 15.7% from the second quarter of 2014, when it was 79.2%.

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