CEO Words of Gloom Cast Shadow Over Earnings Season

An earnings season described even by the most optimistic as muted has been made even more worrying by the pessimism shown by chief executives at globally dominant companies.

CEO Words of Gloom Cast Shadow Over Earnings Season
Jeff Hunter

Three key themes have emerged from the Europe-based business leaders CNBC has spoken to this week. First, the atmosphere of worry and doubt is not going anywhere. Second, no part of the world or sector of the economy seems to be immune from concerns. And third, mass liquidity injections by central banks are being met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm in the real economy.

Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world's largest advertising group WPP, told CNBC Thursday: "The monetary action taken by Mario Draghi, the Fed, Japan, makes the market feel better, but in the real world people are still concerned."

He added: "As you look towards 2013, this is the atmosphere that will persist."

While markets around the world have welcomed unprecedented levels of liquidity injections by central banks during the credit crisis, this does not seem to have filtered down to businesses at the coal-face. (Read More: Euro Zone Slowdown Worse Despite ECB Action.)

This gloom is permeating companies' hiring decisions, which could in itself affect the broader economy.

Brady Dougan, chief executive of Credit Suisse, the second-biggest Swiss bank, said that the "volatile" environment would continue as he announced more cuts. The bank unveiled a plan to save an extra 1 billion Swiss francs ($1.07 billion) by 2015, after announcing its third-quarter net profit shrank by more than half on Thursday.

Dougan sounded a warning bell for the entire banking sector as he spoke of a "volatile revenue environment," which would be "the case for the industry for some time."

Even the most stable regions seem to be causing headaches.

(Read More: Euro Zone Core Starting to Look Like Periphery.)

Christian Clausen, chief executive of Nordea Bank, the biggest bank in the Nordic region, warned that even in this comparatively steady area "demand is not picking up," confidence is low, and businesses are holding back on spending and investment.

Michael Wolf, chief executive of Swedbank, one of few companies which stated that it is hiring more people and investing for the future, warned: "The real economy is starting to hurt from the debt crisis globally."

Olof Persson, chief executive at Swedish Volvo Group, spoke of "lower demand" than usual in September on CNBC Wednesday, after the world's number two truck maker missed earnings expectations for the third quarter.

Jim Hagemann Snabe, co-chief executive of German software maker SAP, also spoke of "challenging market conditions" for its clients amid "unpredictable events."

Germany's relative resilience was called into question yesterday by weaker-than-expected business confidence and manufacturing figures. And car manufacturer Daimler warned late Wednesday that it would miss 2012 earnings target by around 1 billion euros.

Keith McLoughlin, chief executive of Electrolux, told CNBC Europe is "weak" and that that weakness is spreading from Southern to Northern Europe — although he was more optimistic about emerging markets.

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Robert-Jan van de Kraats, CEO of staffing services company Randstad, warned that France was having a particularly difficult time.

Concerns about a slowdown are global, according to WPP's Sorrell, although South America and Asia-Pacific are relatively strong. (Read More: West in 'Colossal Mess' in Five to 10 Years.)

"The big issue is America. If we saw a resolution of the 'fiscal cliff,' things would be better, but the problem with the election is we may well see a deadlocked Congress no matter who wins," he said.

Sorrell added that clients were "more cautious" and business had been relatively slow in September.

There were some pinpricks of light amid the gloom. Joep van Beurden, chief executive of wireless network company, CSR, sounded a rare positive note as the company reported better-than-expected results for the third-quarter. The company is hoping for a sales boost from wireless technology in cars and new ways of connecting different devices through Bluetooth. Mike Mack, chief executive of Syngenta, struck a more optimistic note for the agricultural company, pointing to a strong performance in Latin America.

—By CNBC's Catherine Boyle; Follow Her on Twitter @cboylecnbc