Nine in 10 mid-market CEOs are concerned about the likelihood of a recession, and over a quarter say they have begun laying off employees or plan to do so in the next 12 months. Yet, CEOs say they remain upbeat about their overall business outlook. These are among the findings of the latest CEO survey from Marcum LLP and Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business.
Fifty-four percent of respondents said they are “very concerned” and 39% are “somewhat concerned” that the economy will experience a recession in the coming year. While approximately half of CEOs are taking a wait-and-see approach to staffing, others are employing a mix of strategies to address their needs, with 25.3% saying they have already initiated layoffs or plan to do so in the coming year The survey was conducted in September.
Despite concerns about the short-term direction of the economy, CEOs are generally upbeat in their outlook for business. The weighted average of CEO optimism on a scale of 1-10 increased to 6.7 from 6.3 in June 2022. More than four out of five (84%) rated their outlook as positive (5 or higher), and more than one in three (34.7%) put themselves in the “very positive” range (8-10). The percentage of CEOs selecting the most optimistic rating of 10, however, decreased to 10.8% from 13.4%.
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“Mid-market CEOs have been continually challenged to think on their feet in the unprecedented environment of the past almost-three years,” said Jeffrey M. Weiner, Marcum’s chairman & chief executive officer. “It speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of these business leaders that they maintain a generally positive outlook on the near-term future despite indications that we are likely headed for a downturn—and despite a global supply chain that is still recovering and the chronic labor shortage that continues to plague nearly every industry. Look to the middle-market every time for innovation in the face of real challenge and an indicator of where business is headed.”
Interestingly, sharp falloffs in optimism were seen in both the largest and smallest industry sectors responding to the survey. The percentage of financial services CEOs (21.6%) and real estate CEOs (3.3%) rating their outlook “8” or higher decreased to 33% from 42% and 44% from 86%, respectively.
Sectors registering notable increases in the 8-10 range included construction (39% vs. 20%), healthcare (33% vs. 17%), and professional services (31% vs. 17%).
“That mid-market CEOs remain largely optimistic in their business outlook is encouraging, but the intense volatility of the current global economic conditions is incredibly challenging – and you’re seeing that in how CEOs are hedging, both in their outlook and their plans for the next 12 months,” said Janet Lenaghan, dean of the Zarb School of Business. “I expect that we will continue to see these ‘mixed-bag’ type of findings going forward, as CEOs try navigate increasingly unpredictable conditions.”
The number of CEOs who indicated their business has been impacted by price inflation increased to 73.2% from 68.5% since this question was last posed in the January survey. However, more companies indicated they are able to absorb rising costs (19.3% vs. 14.0%). There was less willingness or ability to pass increased costs on to customers (32.4% vs. 35.0%), and more companies reported a negative impact on their bottom line (21.6% vs. 19.5%).
Business Planning Influences
Reflecting the continued tight labor market, “availability of talent” accelerated as an influence on business planning, cited by 46.1% of respondents, up from 40.9%.
CEOs were also asked about their current policies regarding remote workers. Over three-quarters of respondents (76.2%) continue to provide employees the option of working remotely for at least part of the week. Only 2.0 % of CEOs indicated they plan to discontinue offering a remote work option.
The remote workforce is fueling CEOs’ concerns about cybersecurity and online vulnerability. Slightly more than a fifth of respondents (21.2%) named cybersecurity as their biggest technology challenge. An almost-equivalent percentage (20.8%) said their biggest technology challenge is keeping up with the latest advances, and 17.5% pointed to the costs of keeping up with technology upgrades.
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