Insight & Analysis

Press release: Deloitte CFO Survey: persistent uncertainty knocks business confidence

Published: Oct 2019

14th October 2019 – CFOs are intensifying their focus on cost control, with 58% saying it is a strong priority for the next 12 months, according to Deloitte’s latest CFO Survey. This is the highest level for ten years.

Newspaper press release

Almost two-thirds of CFOs (65%) say their business faces high or very high levels of external financial and economic uncertainty, with just 7% saying now is a good time to take risk onto their balance sheets.

The Deloitte CFO Survey gauges sentiment amongst the UK’s largest businesses. A total of 91 CFOs participated in the latest survey, including CFOs of 59 FTSE 350 companies. The combined market value of the listed companies that participated is £468 billion, approximately 19% of the UK quoted equity market. The Q3 2019 CFO survey ran between 17th and 30th September 2019.

Reining in spending

Increasing cash flow is a strong priority for 48% of CFOs, up from 42% last quarter, and reducing leverage is a priority for 19%, up from 17%. In addition, 70% of CFOs expect hiring to reduce in the next 12 months and just 3% expect it to rise.

Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte, said: “Perceptions of uncertainty are elevated and corporate risk appetite is vanishingly low. The priority appears to be curbing costs, not expansion. With Brexit cited as the biggest risk businesses face, the last quarter has also seen heightened concern over slowing growth in the UK and Eurozone and CFOs are tightening their purse strings in response.”

Economic risks rise

While the effects of Brexit continue to be the largest risk facing businesses – up marginally from 65 to 66 (on a scale of 0 to 100) – domestic economic conditions are weighing heavier on CFOs’ minds.

Weak demand in the UK is the second biggest risk, up from a risk rating of 54 in Q2 to 62 in Q3, the highest in five years. Poor productivity and weak competitiveness in the UK rose from 46 to 53 in the same period.

Concerns over European growth have also risen with the rating for deflation and economic weakness in the euro area, and the possibility of a renewed euro crisis, up from 42 to 51.

Brexit impact

There has been a small shift in where CFOs see Brexit having an effect on their business plans. While 28% say that Brexit will curtail M&A activity, up from 25% in Q2, 45% say capital expenditure will slow (down from 47% in Q2). Six in ten (60%) forecast a decrease in hiring rates, down from 62% in Q2.

Overall though, 76% of CFOs believe that the long term business environment in the UK will be worse as a result of leaving the EU, down from 83% in Q2.

Richard Houston, senior partner and chief executive of Deloitte North and South Europe, said: “Corporate risk appetite is being suppressed both by Brexit and macro-economic uncertainty, but there are some positives: unemployment has fallen and earnings are rising at the fastest rate in more than a decade. While it’s unclear whether these trends will be sustainable, I do take confidence from the fact that businesses in the UK have long shown themselves to be adaptable and resilient to change. We now need clarity on what that change looks like.”

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