Fear of an economic decline topped the list of U.S. chief executives’ concerns going into 2020, according to a survey from the Conference Board. The year prior, recession fears ranked third for U.S. chiefs, though first overall for CEOs around the world—as is again the case for 2020. Going into 2018, the topic was barely a blip in the survey data.
Last year, growth in gross domestic product globally slipped to 2.3% from 3% in 2018, and executives felt the pressure, said Bart van Ark, chief economist at the Conference Board. Uncertainty around a host of issues, from trade to climate change, has exacerbated their anxiety.
The Conference Board projects that global growth will accelerate slightly this year to 2.5%. The organization’s report accompanying the CEO survey warned that executive fears, justified or not, can have consequences for the economy.
Concerns about global trade linger, even after the announcement last month that China and the U.S. had reached a first-stage trade deal. While the Conference Board conducted its survey in September and October, Mr. van Ark believes December’s trade developments didn’t change mindsets much. “As long as we don’t have any guidance about where it’s going to go next, it’s very hard to make big investments,” Mr. van Ark said.
The manufacturing sector feels the uncertainty acutely, he said, but the trade issue has ripple effects for all kinds of companies. Marc Benioff , Salesforce.com Inc. ’s co-CEO, said trade was top of mind for the more than 100 CEOs he had spoken to recently. “Everybody has a question mark around in some part of their business,” he said. James Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Miles White of Abbott Laboratories are among CEOs who have underscored the challenges of trade in recent months.
Other top concerns for U.S. CEOs include more intense competition, the tight labor market and global political instability. Tension and unrest have been bubbling up in such places as Latin America, Hong Kong and the Middle East. The uncertainty over Brexit has eased a bit, but it will likely ramp up when trade negotiations really get under way, Mr. van Ark said.
When it comes to internal pressures, global CEOs ranked attracting and retaining top talent as their chief concern, followed by creating new business models because of disruptive technologies, fostering a more innovative culture and developing leaders.