Pessimism among chief executives has risen sharply in the past 12 months as the leaders of the world’s biggest companies have taken fright at rising protectionism and the deteriorating relationship between the US and China.
The survey of chief executives conducted by the consultancy firm PwC to mark the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos showed a sixfold increase to 30% in the number of CEOs expecting global growth to slow during 2019.
PwC said the rise in pessimism was unsurpassed in the 22 years it had been conducting the survey, with the downbeat mood a contrast to the bullishness of early 2018, when global growth was strong and stock markets were soaring.
The survey showed that the most pronounced shift was among CEOs in North America, where optimism about global growth dropped from 63% in 2018 to 37%. PwC said this was probably due to the fading impact of Donald Trump’s tax cuts and emerging trade tensions.
“CEOs’ views of the global economy mirror the major economic outlooks, which are adjusting their forecasts downward in 2019,” PwC’s global chairman, Bob Moritz, said. “With the rise of trade tension and protectionism it stands to reason that confidence is waning.”
The unease about global economic growth had influenced CEOs’ confidence about their companies’ short-term prospects. Thirty-five percent of CEOs said they were very confident in their own organisation’s growth prospects over the next 12 months, down from 42% last year.
While the US retained its position as the top international market for growth over the next year, many CEOs have been turning to other markets, PwC said.
As a result of the continuing trade conflict with the US, China’s CEOs had diversified their markets for growth, with only 17% selecting the US, down from 59% in 2018.
“The turn away from the US market and shift in Chinese investment to other countries are reactions to the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China,” Moritz said.
Britain’s CEOs showed little impact of being affected by Brexit uncertainty, with 61% of UK business leaders saying they expected to increase headcount in 2019, fuelled by a desire to access key skills. That was up from 54% last year and compared with 53% of CEOs globally.
UK business executives were also optimistic about their organisation’s growth over the next 12 months, with 82% confident about their revenue prospects, in line with global responses. This was slightly down on a year earlier, when 88% expected to see revenue growth within the year. There was a similar modest dip in confidence about revenue prospects for the next three years (from 96% in 2018 to 90% in 2019 in the UK).
Kevin Ellis, the chairman and senior partner of PwC UK, said: “Uncertainty is at the forefront of UK CEOs’ minds but they know, regardless of market conditions, there are always opportunities for growth. By investing in talent, technology and developing new business models, companies can adapt and innovate to thrive. CEO confidence on hiring is a very positive sign.”