June 10 - For the first time since 2010, senior finance executives across global regions are more aligned in their predictions of economic expansion, according to recent research from American Express and CFO Research. Overall, 72 percent of respondents predict economic expansion this year, while 17 percent say they plan to pursue aggressive spending and investment plans, compared to just 10 percent last year. As a further indication of their confidence, only 3 percent say they plan to decrease spending, down from 8 percent last year.
The findings in the seventh annual American Express/CFO Research Global Business and Spending Monitor are based on a sampling of senior finance executives based in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia.
European CFOs – whose economic expectations had been trending downward since 2010 – are now indicating a more positive outlook for growth. European confidence in the economy this year surged, with 68 percent of senior finance executives predicting economic expansion in their respective countries, up from 48 percent in 2013. The European region’s economic expectations are now closer to the expectations reported in Asia (down from 80 percent in 2013 to 70 percent in 2014) and Latin America (down from 80 percent in 2013 to 79 percent in 2014).
The U.K. accounts for part of the significant boost in optimism seen in Europe. Ninety-three percent of U.K. respondents are predicting economic expansion in 2014, compared to just 50 percent the prior year. This increase is likely the result of improvements in the U.K. economy over the past year, including several consecutive periods of GDP growth. Still, it may be some time before this improving outlook translates into increased spending and hiring. While 70 percent of European respondents say they plan to spend the same or more this year on headcount, just 60% of U.K. CFOs say the same – down from 64 percent last year. While other countries also saw slight drops in plans for headcount spending, the overall trend remains positive. Three-quarters of the finance executives surveyed (75 percent) say they plan to spend the same or more on headcount this year.
“After years of economic uncertainty and debt concerns, European companies are finally feeling like they’ve turned an economic corner, and are joining other regions in predicting economic expansion,” said Susan Sobbott, President, Global Corporate Payments, American Express. “Differences in regions have leveled off however, optimism is not always translating into spending.”
Growth Expectations High, with Some Exceptions
Europeans were not alone in their growing confidence. Based on responses to questions on growth and spending, India is among the most economically optimistic countries. This year, 86 percent of Indian respondents predicted economic expansion, up from 78 percent in 2013. India also had the largest growth in planned labor spending among the countries surveyed, with 57 percent of respondents reporting they plan to spend more on headcount in the coming year, up from 47 percent in 2013. Senior finance executives in India are also significantly more likely to substantially increase overall spending over the next year. Almost three-quarters (73 percent) of finance executives in India are planning to increase spending and investment by more than 10 percent over the next year.
In comparison, China dropped from 94 percent to 75 percent of respondents predicting economic expansion, which reflects China’s declining rate of GDP growth, the slowest the country has seen since 2012. Respondents from other Asian economies also noted drops in growth expectations this year, including Hong Kong (from 94 percent in 2013 to 48 percent in 2014) and Japan (from 67 percent in 2013 to 55 percent in 2014).
U.S. CFOs Optimistic, But Still Responding to Regulatory Pressures
The majority of U.S. respondents (75 percent) predict economic expansion – however, they remain among the most cautious on spending and investment. In particular, regulatory and political concerns seem to weigh more heavily on the U.S. than they do on the rest of the world, according to respondents. More than a third of finance executives in the U.S. (40 percent) expect regulatory changes will have a negative impact on growth over the next year. This is in line with responses from last year’s survey, in which 45 percent of U.S. executives said complying with government regulation has become substantially more expensive over the past five years.
U.S. spending and investment plans also reflect these concerns. Just 13 percent of U.S. respondents plan to increase spending and investment by 10 percent or more this year and only 9 percent are taking an aggressive stance toward spending. This may explain the declines in spending on headcount and other assets while spending in other areas remained relatively flat this year. Still, there are signs that the U.S. is slowly becoming less conservative on spending and investment – for example, 36 percent of U.S. finance executives are taking a tightly controlled approach this year, a drop from 41 percent in 2013.
Spending Plans Don’t Always Echo Growth Expectations
While it may seem contradictory at times, spending and investment plans in some countries remain more conservative than reported growth expectations, particularly in mature economies. European economies tended to report lower-than-average increases in planned spending, despite the robust rise in economic confidence in the region. Senior finance executives from Germany and the U.K. say they plan average increases of only 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively, indicating they may still retain some of the caution that has characterized spending and investment in recent years. Respondents from the U.S. are even less likely to increase spending and investment, noting only a 5 percent average increase for the coming year – the lowest in the survey.
In comparison, emerging markets in Latin America and Asia are taking a less conservative stance, supporting the rise in tolerance for aggressive spending and investment seen in this year’s survey. Many are planning to substantially increase spending and investment over the coming year.
“While there will always be local concerns that impact spending and investment, companies around the world are clearly seeing greater opportunities for growth following years of recessions and economic crises,” said Sobbott. “The key for these companies, especially those spending more conservatively, will be finding those investments that can offer the most value and impact.”