Business Executives Take Sharply Dimmer View of U.S. Economy, AICPA Survey Finds

 – September 5, 2019
Business Executives Take Sharply Dimmer View of U.S. Economy, AICPA Survey Finds
  • Trade conflict and recession worries rise
  • Profit and revenue expectations fall to their lowest level since the third quarter of 2016
  • Hiring plans soften due to uncertainty

Business executives hold their least optimistic view of the U.S. economy in three years, in part due to trade concerns and fears of a sustained global slowdown, according to the third-quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey. The survey polls chief executive officers, chief financial officers, controllers and other certified public accountants in U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles.

Some 42 percent of survey takers expressed optimism about the U.S. economy’s outlook over the next 12 months, down from 57 percent, the level it held for the past three quarters. Positive sentiment on the U.S. economy had been as high as 79 percent in early 2018 and had not fallen below 50 percent since the third quarter of 2016, when it stood at 38 percent.

The global economy was viewed in an even worse light, with less than a quarter (24 percent) of executives expressing optimism, down from 35 percent last quarter. The survey was conducted during a period of intense uncertainty over U.S.-China trade and tariff conflicts and the resolution of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s planned withdrawal from the European Union.

Some 45 percent of business executives said trade conflicts were to blame for some negative impact on their business over the past 12 months, with 16 percent saying it had a significant or moderate impact. And they expect things to get worse: 54 percent said they had an unfavorable view of global trade impacts on their business over the next 12 months, as compared to the past year.

Business executives are more positive about their own companies’ outlooks and expansion plans than the U.S. and global economies in general, but these categories have also fallen to levels not seen since late 2016.

“Global trade tensions have been an issue for some time now, but it’s clear business executives are more concerned about growing volatility and risk in this area,” said Bob Sannerud, CPA, CGMA, chair of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants’ Americas Regional Advisory Panel and chief financial officer of Life Link, an air medical transportation company.  “We’re seeing that uncertainty weighing on spending and hiring plans over the past few quarters.”

Availability of skilled personnel remains the top challenge for businesses, a position it has occupied since the third quarter of 2017. The number of survey takers who said their companies had too few employees dropped from 44 percent to 38 percent this quarter, while those who said they had too many employees ticked up slightly. Some 51 percent of respondents said their businesses had the right number of employees.

The AICPA survey is a forward-looking indicator that tracks hiring and business-related expectations for the next 12 months. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Labor’s August employment report, scheduled for release tomorrow, looks back on the previous month’s hiring trends.

The CPA Outlook Index—a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the AICPA survey— now stands at 72, down three points from last quarter. The index is a composite of nine, equally weighted survey measures set on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 considered neutral and greater numbers signifying positive sentiment. All components of the index fell or were flat this quarter, with the biggest drop due to U.S. economic sentiment.

Other key findings of the survey:

  • Profit and revenue growth expectations for the next 12 months were 2.8 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively. Both numbers were down 1.5 percentage points from a year ago and represented their lowest level since the third quarter of 2016.
  • The percentage of U.S. executives who expressed optimism about their own company’s prospects over the next 12 months fell from 62 percent to 58 percent, quarter over quarter.
  • Survey respondents who said they expect their organizations to expand in the coming year also fell three percentage points to 63 percent.
  • Domestic economic conditions and domestic political leadership joined availability of skilled personnel as the top three business challenges this quarter