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World CEOs Reveal Their Top Concerns

Jan. 21, 2020
Survey by PwC shows uncertainty, cybersecurity, and upskilling topping list of executive worries.

CEOs around the world are ‘very confident’ that the world economy will grow at a slower rate. That’s according to PwC’s 2020 annual CEO survey, which showed a record 53% of CEOs predicting the rate of economic growth will slow this year. 1,581 chief executives were surveyed across 83 territories during September and October 2019 to produce the report.

Breaking down the results by industry reveals that energy and gas CEOs and Technology CEOs are both more optimistic than the cross-industry average, with 46% of CEOs from both categories predicting a slowdown.

53% of industrial manufacturing CEOs predicted slower growth, on par with the global average, while CEOs of transportation and logistics, automotive, and mining and metals companies were more pessimistic, with 61%, 62%, and 67% respectively predicting slower economic growth in 2020.

CEOs from the United States and North America were also more pessimistic than the global cross-industry average, with 62% and 63% predicting slowing growth, respectively.

PwC notes that this year’s pessimism marks a big change from 2018, when predictions that the rate of economic growth would improve hit a record high of 57%.

Low Confidence in Revenue Growth

The share of CEOs confident in their firm’s prospects for revenue growth also fell sharply. Only 25% of industrial manufacturing CEOs were “very confident” in their company’s revenue growth, down 12 percentage points from last year. 24% of energy company CEOs were “very confident,” while 23% of automotive CEOs and a mere 17% of transport and logistics CEOs were. Metal and mining CEOs rate of high confidence fell 20 points between 2019 and 2020, to a rate of 24%.

Based on survey responses, PwC attributed much of the global unease to, “in a word, uncertainty.” 36% of CEOs indicated they were “extremely concerned” by the impact of over-regulation on their business, while 35% and 34% indicated the same level of concern with regards to trade conflicts and “uncertain economic growth.” Compared to last year’s top concerns, over-regulation held the top spot, while trade conflict jumped 4 points and economic growth jumped 10. In North America, the top concern was cybersecurity, with 50% of CEOs reporting extreme concern.

An upskill battle

According to PwC, there are four key forces driving firms to upskill: increasing job automation, decreasing talent availability, decreasing mobility of skilled labor, and aging talent. Despite that, only 18% of surveyed CEOs globally cited “significant progress” in upskilling at their firm. Companies who were only beginning to upskill most often cited difficulties incentivizing employees to participate and a lack of resources.

In companies where upskilling was more established, the top ranked challenge was retaining upskilled employees, but another question showed that CEOs from companies with more advanced upskilling programs were much more likely to say their upskilling program achieved “stronger corporate culture and employee engagement.”

Changing supply chains

Results of the survey also indicate how Chinese companies are reacting to trade conflicts with the United States. Compared to two years ago, when 59% of Chinese CEOs cited the United States as a top three growth destination, now only 11% do: at the same time, Australia has moved from being a top three pick for a mere 9% of Chinese companies to 45% of them. Globally, Australia has jumped France and Brazil in companies expected growth territories.

Climate opportunities

24% of global CEOs shared that they were “extremely concerned” about climate change, which PwC noted marked a 25% increase from 2019’s survey.

CEO respondents were also twice as likely to believe that responding to climate change can offer reputational benefits, and twice as likely to agree with the statement, “Climate change initiatives will lead to significant new product and service opportunities for my organization.” About 25% of global CEOs and 47% of Chinese executives agreed strongly with that statement.

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