CEO Confidence Retreated in Q3, but CEOs Remain Optimistic
Labor shortages have increased significantly
The Conference Board Measure of CEO Confidence™ in collaboration with The Business Council retreated in the third quarter of 2021, after hitting an all-time high in Q2. The measure now stands at 67, down from 82. (A reading above 50 points reflects more positive than negative responses.)
CEOs’ assessment of current economic conditions declined from last quarter but remained in positive territory. In Q3, 70 percent said conditions are better compared to six months ago, down from 94 percent in Q2. CEOs’ view of conditions in their own industries also retreated, with 64 percent reporting better conditions compared to six months ago, down from 89 percent in Q2. Looking ahead, expectations softened in Q3 compared to Q2: 60 percent of CEOs expect economic conditions to improve over the next six months, down from 88 percent. Similarly, 65 percent of CEOs anticipate short-term prospects in their own industries to improve, down from 81 percent.
“CEO confidence is down from the all-time peak reached in Q2, when COVID-19 appeared on the verge of defeat,” said Dana Peterson, Chief Economist of The Conference Board. “A summer surge of the highly infectious Delta variant—coupled with slumping vaccination rates—has brought pandemic uncertainty back to the fore in Q3. Nevertheless, optimism remains well above pre-pandemic levels, boding well for employment and investment growth in the months ahead.”
The job market continued to tighten in Q3, as labor shortages grew more pronounced. While the pace of hiring is likely to accelerate over the next 12 months—60 percent of CEOs expect to expand their workforce, up from 54 percent in Q2—filling these open positions may be a struggle: 74 percent of CEOs are now reporting difficulty finding qualified workers, up from 57 percent in Q2. As a result, the outlook for wages rose sharply in Q3, with 66 percent of CEOs expecting to increase wages by 3 percent or more over the next year, up from 37 percent.
“Businesses are out of pandemic survival mode and eager to expand, invest, and hire,” said Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., Vice Chairman of The Business Council and Trustee of The Conference Board. “This has accelerated a return to the severe labor shortages seen before the pandemic—now exacerbated by the virus’s stubborn persistence, which has kept many workers unable or reluctant to reenter the workforce. For CEOs, navigating this heightened competition for talent is a core challenge—more than half (55%) now report recruiting difficulties that cut across their entire organization, up from just 27 percent last quarter.”
CEOs’ assessment of general economic conditions declined in Q3:
- 70% of CEOs reported economic conditions were better compared to six months ago, down from 94% in Q2.
- Only 11% said conditions were worse, up from 2%.
CEOs were similarly less optimistic about conditions in their own industries in Q3:
- 64% of CEOs reported that conditions in their industries were better compared to six months ago, down from 89%.
- Only 10% said conditions in their own industries were worse, up from 4%.
Expectations about the short-term economic outlook retreated in Q3:
- 60% percent of CEOs said they expect economic conditions to improve over the next six months, down from 88% in Q2.
- Only 9% expect conditions to worsen, up from 1%.
CEOs’ expectations regarding short-term prospects in their own industries also moderated in Q3:
- 65% of CEOs expect conditions in their own industry to improve over the next six months, down from 81%.
- Only 6% expected conditions to worsen, up from 4%.
Employment, Recruiting, Wages, and Capital Spending
The survey also gauged CEOs’ expectations about four key actions their companies plan on taking over the next 12 months.
- Employment: 60% of CEOs expect to expand their workforce, up from 54% in Q2.
- Hiring Qualified People: 74% of CEOs report some problems attracting qualified workers, up from 57% in Q2. Notably, 55% report difficulties that cut across the organization, rather than concentrated in a few key areas—up from 28% in Q2.
- Wages: 66% of CEOs expect to increase wages by 3% or more over the next year, up from 37% in Q2.
- Capital Spending: 49% of CEOs expect to increase their capital budgets in the year ahead, up from 47% in Q2.