Pessimism is dramatically rising among global CEOs, survey shows

Key Points
  • The survey of 1,300 plus CEOS around the world revealed that nearly 30 percent of business leaders believe global growth will decline in the next 12 months, approximately six times the level of last year.
  • The biggest downturn in sentiment came from CEOs in North America, where optimism dropped from 63 percent in 2018 to 37 percent this year.
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PwC: There is opportunity even in the world of pessimism

Chief executives from the world's leading companies have expressed a record jump in pessimism about global growth prospects, according to a PwC survey released alongside the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

The survey of 1,300 plus CEOs around the world revealed that nearly 30 percent of business leaders believe global growth will decline in the next 12 months, approximately six times the level of last year. The dramatic shift is coming off an extremely high base, however, with 2018 marking a record jump in confidence among corporate bosses.

The new risks this year are "the trade conflicts which are outside of their (CEOs) control per say, the policy issues when you think about the EU and Brexit and a combination of climate change and other aspects like that," Bob Moritz, the global chairman of PwC, told CNBC Tuesday.

Despite the storm clouds gathering over the Swiss Alps, Moritz notes that some corporates are looking to take advantage of the changing environment.

"It's got to be looked at from a company to company perspective, there's those companies that see great opportunity," according to Moritz.

Pedestrians carrying umbrellas walk past the New York Stock Exchange.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The biggest downturn in sentiment came from CEOs in North America, where optimism dropped from 63 percent in 2018 to 37 percent this year. Part of the downturn might be explained by a waning enthusiasm for the economic policies coming out of Washington.

President Donald Trump's headline appearance at the 2018 gathering of business and policy elites coincided with enormous enthusiasm for the commander-in-chief's economic success, with C-Suite WEF attendees touting the benefits of U.S. tax cuts. The president's decision to sit out this year's event due to the U.S. government shutdown, meanwhile, comes amid expectations that the "Trump bump" is starting to fade and that trade tensions with China are beginning to bite.

"What you have now is not much more upside being seen, you see a lot more downside with the political agenda and trade conflicts, and no promise or hope for anything else like infrastructure," Moritz explained.

The degree of worry over the U.S.-China trade fight is shared rather evenly among executives in both countries party to the conflict. "Ninety-eight percent of U.S. CEOs and 90 percent of China's CEOs have voiced these concerns," according to global audit firm PwC.

Despite the saber rattling over tariffs, however, the U.S. and China still remain the top markets for attracting investment outside a CEO's home market. The U.S. narrowly retained its top position with 27 percent popularity, slipping from 46 percent in 2018, while China also slipped to 24 percent, down from 33 percent. The survey signals that the trade pain playing out between the world's superpowers could be India's gain, which earned a distinction as the rising star on a list of most attractive investment destinations on PwC's list.

"When you look at what Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi has done to that country and the trajectory he's on, again there's still challenges, but there are plenty of opportunities if you look at the workforce they have, the consumer base and the need for infrastructure," Moritz said while admitting that the upcoming elections in India could present a key test for Modi.

"How you take India from that domestic-focused country into a bigger global player, I think is his challenge assuming he makes it through the next election and takes advantage of the opportunities."