Sep 14, 2022 - Economy

New survey: CEO optimism down, not out

Business Roundtable CEO Economic Outlook Index
Data: Business Roundtable; Chart: Axios Visuals

How CEOs feel about the economy has been downgraded from "exuberant" to just "OK."

What's new: The latest Business Roundtable (BRT) survey of its members — the chief executives of some of the world's largest companies — still shows healthy expectations for sales, hiring plans and investment. But the results, shared first with Axios, do point to a gloomier outlook than just a few months ago — and a marked deterioration from last year.

Why it matters: When big-company leaders lose confidence, it can make a recession inevitable as they cut jobs and capital spending. That doesn't appear to be happening ... yet.

  • Instead, the study findings point to more of a slowdown in activity consistent with a "soft landing." If we were in or near a recession, the numbers would probably be a lot worse.

State of play: Surveyed executives were dialing back near-term revenue expectations, as well as hiring and investment plans at their respective companies.

  • The result is a continued decline in the BRT’s CEO Economic Outlook Index, which dropped 12 points from last quarter. It's down 40 points since its peak at the end of last year.
  • Still, the most recent reading remains on par with its long-run average and, notably, above the level that would signal a recession.

By the numbers: U.S. employment at their respective companies will grow, 47% of surveyed members said, while 50% said so in the prior quarter.

  • 65% expect sales will increase, compared to 72% in Q2.
  • 43% plan to increase capital spending, four percentage points fewer than last quarter.

Details: The survey of 170 CEOs was fielded from Aug. 12 to Sept. 7, a period in which inflation numbers cooled, but the Fed was sounding awfully hawkish.

What they're saying: "Global economic uncertainty continues to temper CEO sentiment for domestic plans and expectations, as reflected in this quarter's survey results," General Motors CEO Mary Barra, who chairs the BRT, said in a statement.

  • Josh Bolten, the lobbying group's CEO, urged Congress to "avoid actions that increase inflationary pressures and run counter to the Fed's actions." The BRT opposed some aspects of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Yes, but: Tuesday's hotter-than-expected inflation report raises the possibility of an even steeper interest rate beyond next week's meeting — making the odds of a soft landing all the more slim.

The bottom line: Corporate America is getting increasingly cautious about the economy, but isn't panicked.

Go deeper