Dec 14, 2022 - Economy

Corporate execs are increasingly "paralyzed" with anxiety

Data: Data: Deloitte CFO Signals; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Data: Deloitte CFO Signals; Chart: Axios Visuals

As the global economy roils from what feels like a relentless series of economic and geopolitical shocks — the era of the polycrisis — executives at some of the world's biggest companies are increasingly anxious.

Why it matters: Nervous business leaders are proceeding more cautiously. That often means taking fewer chances, pulling back on investment and hiring; the kinds of actions that could trigger the downturn they fear.

What's happening: Companies haven't been this risk-averse since the pandemic started, according to a survey of CFOs, conducted by Deloitte, released Wednesday morning.

  • The aversion to risk means that companies are less willing to do big deals, increase capital investment or take on more leverage, Steve Gallucci, Deloitte's Global and U.S. CFO program leader, tells Axios.
  • Looking inside their companies, CFOs are worried about hiring in a tight labor market; looking externally, they're nervous about geopolitics (war, supply chain shocks, climate), he said.
  • The percentage of CFOs who feel pessimistic about their companies' financial prospects is also at the highest level since Q2 2020.

Meanwhile: 98% of executives who responded to a different survey, by AlixPartners and also out Wednesday, say they will need to fully revamp their business in the next three years to adjust to the new business environment.

  • Yes, but: 85% say they don't know where to start to make changes.
  • Disruptions like COVID and then the war in Ukraine are "paralyzing leaders," said Simon Freakley, CEO of AlixPartners, in a call with reporters.
  • "The pace of change, and the need to really make sure that you're trying to see ahead of it, is even more profound than it has been historically," added Lisa Donahue, AlixPartners' co-head of the Americas & Asia.

The bottom line: In his latest memo to investors, famed investor Howard Marks argues that we're living through a sea change in the investment world  a complete transformation.

  • It's no surprise that companies are struggling to adapt.

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