CEOs say trade war killing business confidence

Rising populism, policy uncertainty and trade conflicts have led to a sharp drop in confidence among global CEOs.

The share of chief executives who think the global economy will slow over the next year has jumped to nearly 30% from 5% in 2018, according to a survey of 1,300 top business leaders by audit giant PwC.

The wave of pessimism extends to company earnings. Just 35% of CEOs said they are “very confident” about their growth prospects over the next 12 months, a sharp decline from 42% last year.

“CEOs’ views of the global economy mirror the major economic outlooks, which are adjusting their forecasts downward in 2019,” Bob Moritz, global chairman at PwC, said in a statement. “With the rise of trade tension and protectionism it stands to reason that confidence is waning.”

The report was published to coincide with the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where chief executives rub shoulders with central bankers, politicians and regulators. One major topic of discussion this year is the global economic slowdown and its implications for companies and governments.

CEO stress

PwC said there was “broad consistency” in what keeps corporate leaders awake at night. CEOs around the world cited policy uncertainty, potential shortages of skilled workers and over-regulation as major risks.

While trade conflicts worry company bosses around the world, CEOs in the United States and China are particularly concerned by the confrontation between their two countries.

In North America, 44% of CEOs are “extremely concerned” about trade conflicts, compared to 38% in Asia-Pacific, the PwC survey showed.

Many companies are adjusting their strategies as a result.

Over 60% of Chinese CEOs who said they were “extremely concerned” about the trade war are already adjusting their supply chain and sourcing strategy. Roughly four in 10 are shifting production and delaying capital expenditures.

“China’s CEOs stand out as the most proactive and vigorous in pulling every lever,” said PwC.

Investment shift

Business leaders in China are also rethinking their focus on the United States. While 59% of Chinese CEOs said last year that the United States was the most important foreign market for their company’s growth, that number dropped to 17% this year.

“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 United States and China,” said Moritz.