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CEO Survey: Mitigate Recession Risk By Accelerating Innovation

January 16, 2023

As the new year begins, what will keep the world’s executives up at night? CEOs in both the United States and globally say slow growth and a recession are their #1 external worry of 2023.

The Conference Board survey also found that most executives don’t think stronger economic growth will return anytime soon: 51 percent of CEOs worldwide—and 60 percent of US CEOs—expect a tepid year ahead, with their economies only picking back up by late 2023 or mid-2024.

Despite CEOs bracing for weaker growth and recessions, labor shortages and talent retention rank among the biggest challenges of executives worldwide, underscoring how the current downturn differs from those in the past. 

The survey also reveals that a recession won’t prompt most US CEOs—55 percent—to rein in their companies’ ESG investments in 2023. And despite the heightened and recent pushback against ESG, 71 percent say backlash won’t compel them to dial back their sustainability investments for the year ahead.

Adding to the tumult of 2023 is the war in Ukraine. CEOs expect the war to cause more cyberattacks and economic sanctions, and to deepen the food and energy crises. But are CEOs underestimating the war’s impact on their businesses? US CEOs as well as CEOs globally ranked it low on their list of concerns at 22nd and 15th, respectively.

The survey reflects the views of nearly 700 CEOs and over 450 other C-suite executives. Participants weighed in on the top business threats and opportunities in 2023 and their plans for growth. Respondents were primarily from four regions: North America, Latin America, Asia, and Europe.

Highlights from C-Suite Outlook 2023 include:

RECESSION 

In 2023, the top external worry of CEOs is a recession/downturn.

  • US CEOs and CEOs globally: A recession/economic downturn ranks as their #1 external concern for 2023. 
  • Recession worries intensify: In last year’s survey, recession ranked 6th for both groups.

INFLATION

Inflation will continue keeping CEOs up at night.

  • US CEOs and CEOs globally: Inflation ranks as their 2nd biggest external concern for 2023. 
  • Chinese CEOs are concerned, but to a lesser extent: Inflation ranks 7th

INTEREST RATES 

Concerns surge over higher borrowing costs, especially among US CEOs.

  • US CEOs: In 2023, higher borrowing costs ranked 4th. In 2022, it was low on the worry list, at 25th
  • CEOs worldwide: In 2023, it ranked 10th. In 2022, it barely registered, ranking 22nd.  

ECONOMIC GROWTH  

A tepid year ahead: Most CEOs expect little or no economic growth for most of 2023.  

  • US CEOs: 60 percent expect growth to resume in their region in late 2023 or mid-2024.  
  • CEOs globally: 51 percent expect growth to resume in their region in late 2023 or mid-2024. 
  • Japanese and Chinese CEOs most pessimistic: Just 39 and 46 percent, respectively, expect growth to resume in their regions in late 2023 or mid-2024.

COVID-19 

For most leaders, COVID-19’s in the rear-view mirror—except for Asian CEOs. 

  • Chinese CEOs most concerned: In 2022, it ranked 1st among external challenges; in 2023, it remains 1st.
  • Japanese CEOs also worried: It ranked 1st in 2022; in 2023, it dipped to 3rd.
  • US CEOs: It ranked 4th in 2022; in 2023, it fell to 18th.   

GEOPOLITICAL DISRUPTION

The war in Ukraine: Are some business leaders underestimating its business impact?

  • US CEOs are the least concerned: Among external challenges, the war in Ukraine’s impact on business ranks low on the worry list, at 22nd.
  • CEOs globally also view it as secondary: It ranks a modest 15th.
  • European and Chinese CEOs are very concerned: It ranks 4th among European CEOs, 8th among Chinese CEOs.  

CEOs expect the war to cause more cyberattacks and sanctions and worsen the food and energy crises.

  • More cyberattacks outside the warzone: expected by 81 percent of CEOs globally.  
  • More economic sanctions: expected by 68 percent of CEOs globally.  
  • Worsening energy & food crises: expected by 68 percent (energy) and 65 percent (food) of CEOs globally.

ESG & STAKEHOLDER CAPITALISM

Most US CEOs say neither an economic slowdown, nor backlash, will impact ESG spending in 2023.

  • An economic slowdown/recession won’t have a significant impact on sustainability-related spending in 2023: 
    • US CEOs: 55 percent say it won’t have a significant impact.  
    • CEOs globally: 38 percent share this belief. 
  • ESG backlash won’t have a significant impact on sustainability-related investments in 2023:
    • US CEOs: 71 percent say backlash won't have a significant impact. 
    • CEOs globally: 59 percent share this belief. 

Nearly half of CEOs say climate change is already significantly impacting their businesses—or soon will.

  • CEOs globally: 46 percent say it’s currently significantly impacting business or will in the next one to five years.
  • Chinese CEOs say the impact is farther off: Just 35 percent cite a current or near-term impact.

Stakeholder capitalism appears to be on a firm footing in many companies.

  • US CEOs and CEOs globally: In prioritizing stakeholders, both groups rank customers 1st, employees 2nd, shareholders/owners 3rd.

MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS

As inflation erodes purchasing power, CEOs will increase certain investments over the next 24 months.

  • Customer experience: cited by 65 percent of CEOs globally and 67 percent of US CEOs. 
  • New customer acquisition: cited by 65 percent of CEOs globally and 55 percent of US CEOs.
  • New product development: cited by 58 percent of CEOs globally and 51 percent of US CEOs.

WORKFORCE RECRUITMENT AND RETENTION

Despite recession expectations, attracting and retaining talent tops the list of CEOs’ internal concerns.

  • CEOs globally: Talent ranks 1st among internal worries for CEOs worldwide.
  • US CEOs: Finding and keeping talent ranks 2nd.

Remote work is nearing equilibrium: Few CEOs plan to either expand or reduce it.

  • CEOs globally: 8 percent plan to expand remote work, and 3 percent plan to reduce it.
  • US CEOs: 5 percent plan to expand it, and 3 percent plan to reduce it.

COMMENTARY ON THE SURVEY RESULTS

Dana Peterson, Chief Economist, The Conference Board

While CEOs globally are looking to contain costs and reduce discretionary spending—actions typically taken during a slowdown—employees may be able to breathe a sigh of relief, as few executives are turning to layoffs. Instead, they plan to mitigate risk by accelerating innovation and digital transformation, pursuing new opportunities in higher-growth markets, and revising business models—the three most-cited actions.

Dr. Lori Esposito Murray, President of the Committee for Economic Development of The Conference Board

The risk of an intensifying war in Ukraine disrupting both the global economy and the world order may be much higher than many CEOs are anticipating. With only 17 percent of CEOs globally saying their organizations are either well prepared or very well prepared to deal with a crisis involving an expansion of the war in Ukraine, firms need to prepare for the potential ramifications of conflict escalation—even if such events seem unlikely.

Ivan Pollard, Center Leader, Marketing & Communications Center, The Conference Board

It is heartening to see that CEOs’ third-ranked key driver of growth for the next two to three years is marketing and promotions. Of course, restrictive economics does not mean that investments will be free flowing. In fact, ‘reducing discretionary spending’ is a third-ranked response to the economic downturn for CFOs, CHROs, and even CMOs. That discretionary spending often hits marketing and communications, but the survey indicates this will be in areas such as event marketing, sponsorship, and conventional advertising.

Rebecca Ray, PhD, Executive Vice President, Human Capital, The Conference Board

To attract and retain talent—the biggest internal worry of CEOs worldwide—leaders are focused on building stronger cultures. But some of the key factors that contribute to such an environment—including addressing pay inequality, development opportunities, and a psychologically safe workplace—are relatively low on their list of priorities. This presents an opportunity for C-suites to revisit their companies’ goals for strengthening organizational culture and the specific actions required to do so.

Paul Washington, Executive Director, ESG Center, The Conference Board

The fact that ESG is resilient despite an economic slowdown and backlash reflects a few factors: First, environmental and social responsibility remain priorities for key stakeholders, including investors, employees, consumers, business partners, and many regulators in the US and EU. Second, ESG is increasingly being built into—not bolted onto—business strategy and operations. It is a source of opportunity, not just risk. Third, it reflects a focus on the long term: CEOs recognize how truly sustainable economic growth and acting in a socially and environmentally responsible manner go hand-in-hand. 

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