Economy Slowly Improving but Risks Posed by Weak Employment and Tight Credit Remain

We recently surveyed CFOs of 567 companies in the U.S. and nearly 900 in Europe and Asia. The economic outlook of these finance chiefs has improved somewhat, but the fledgling recovery in the West is threatened by a bleak employment outlook and credit markets that are still tight, especially for small firms. The outlook in Asia is stonger, with few major threats. Around the world, optimism has improved from recession lows but still remains below its long-run average.

In the U.S., public company earnings are expected to grow by 8 percent over the next year, and even more in Europe and Asia, all up from last quarter. Capital spending plans are also better, with U.S. firms planning a 1.5 percent increase. While this rate of growth is not sufficient for a strong recovery, it represents an improvement from the last several surveys and is the first move into positive territory in more than a year for this critical metric. R&D and advertising should also grow slowly. In contrast, in Europe, R&D and capex are expected to decline in 2010. In Asia, all signs of economic growth are strong and positive.

There are two major threats to the recovery in the Western economies: weak employment and tight credit. In the U.S., on average, companies expect to lay off 1.4 percent of their workforce in 2010. In addition, few firms expect to reinstate labor and benefits programs that were cut during the recession. Fewer than one in three companies say that in 2010 they will restore to pre-recession levels their number of employees, hours worked per week, overtime hours, 401(k) matches, or company contributions to health care or other benefits programs.

Not surprisingly, all of this is taking a toll on employee morale. Thirty-six percent of U.S. companies report that the morale of their employees is fair or poor, significantly worse than the 6 percent who reported poor morale before the recession began. The numbers are nearly the same in Europe and Asia (not counting China), where morale has also worsened significantly. Perhaps the biggest surprise is China, where 55 percent of companies report fair or poor morale today, versus 39 percent who reported low morale before the recession.

Nearly half of Western companies say that the deep cuts in workforce and the reduced training and professional development of retained employees have reduced their firms’ long-term growth prospects.

One piece of potentially good employment news: more than two-thirds of U.S. firms, and 55 percent of European firms, say that they would increase employment if demand for their product were to increase sufficiently. CFOs also say that their number one concern going forward is weak consumer demand.

So we have a chicken and egg problem. Companies are holding off on expanding workforce, and many even reducing it, because of weak demand. But as more people are unemployed or underemployed, weaker product demand will linger and potentially worsen. This negative reinforcement promises to make 2010 a year of sluggish recovery.

Tight credit markets are the other major threat to the nascent recovery. Forty-three percent of U.S. companies say that their banks are less likely to lend to them now than they were in Summer 2008, before the Lehman collapse. The same percentage says that lack of funding has caused their firm to pass up attractive projects, which could hinder their companies’ long-term growth prospects.

Credit constraints are disproportionately affecting small firms. About one-half of firms with sales revenue less than $500 million report that their bankers are reluctant to lend, in contrast to only 30 percent of companies with revenues exceeding $1 billion. Given that small firms are widely credited with more job creation than large firms, the limited credit availability for small companies is another factor hurting the employment picture. Indeed, the CFOs of small companies tell us that, even with tight credit, they expect to increase employment by 1 percent in 2010, while large companies will cut more than 2 percent of workforce. Think of how much more small firms could do if they could obtain adequate funding.

We’ve reported for several consecutive quarters that credit markets remain constrained for small and less profitable firms. Recent events in Washington suggest that this issue has finally made it onto the radar screen of policy-makers.

We believe that improved credit conditions for small companies could be the egg that hatches into stronger employment growth, which in turn increases consumer demand, eventually leading to stronger corporate and consumer spending and a full recovery. Until then, however, we expect lackluster growth as we begin 2010.

John Graham is the D. Richard Mead Jr. Family Professor of Finance at DukeUniversity’s FuquaSchool of Business

Kate O’Sullivan is a Senior Editor at CFO Magazine

Each quarter the DukeUniversity / CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey polls thousands of chief financial officers around the world. The most recent survey reflects the views of more than 1,400 CFOs in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. The survey has been conducted 55 consecutive quarters. The most recent survey contains much information not reported above. See for more details.

5 Responses to "Economy Slowly Improving but Risks Posed by Weak Employment and Tight Credit Remain"

  1. economicminor   December 18, 2009 at 11:15 am

    The Chicken and the egg problem?Not hardly..Have you seen charts like the one provided by Credit Suisse and published by sites like Leap 2010?There is no way for consumption to return to *normal* in the US, the main consumers in the world, until the pyramid of debts have been either paid down (a long way down), inflated away (and the fed and government are against this option as it hurts their benefactors) or repudiated (which also hurts their benefactors and is not happening yet because it is just being transferred from TBTF institutions to the public).No longer can refinance or reposition of debt work because it grew to big. We have surpassed Zero Hour (where income from real productive endeavors is insufficient to both service existing debts and maintain a standard of living we have become accustomed to). The government could have stopped this from happening years ago by restricting risky behavior but they did just the opposite by repealing Glass Steagal and pushing thru acts like the commodities modernization benefit package for the extremely well connected.Now the only thing to do is be prepared for the worse financial disaster this country has ever seen. Chaos is in charge and there is no where to hide when he takes over.Transferring the debt from the TBTF institutions to the public is just a small patch in a huge hole in the ship of state. It is more like moving the deck chairs around on a tilting deck and expecting everyone to continue to dance.The debt pyramid is like using a rope for a pole. Painting it with lacquer to make it stiff. No matter how much lacquer you paint on it, it can only go so high until gravity and wind and other atmospheric conditions cause it to collapse. We have our debt pushed to the max and gravity is stopping us from pushing it any higher. All we need is some little breeze and the whole thing collapses.

    • Guest   December 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks for posting here. I’m greatly saddened that I can’t afford the steep fee to read the analysis posts. I’ve learned so much the last couple of years from all you commenters; much more than the articles. I hope others will post here also. Thanks.

  2. Guest   December 20, 2009 at 6:59 am

    Also thanks I agree and I am in the same position!

    • 11b40   December 20, 2009 at 3:26 pm

      I have not had time to check in with the powers that be to see what is happening with my ‘free’ account. The new site layout is confusing for now, and familiar reference points are gone.Does anyone know what registered users are allowed to see and participate in?Independent Contractor

    • Guest   December 20, 2009 at 4:22 pm

      I did check it out (via emails and phone calls), and we can read the Economonitors section, but not the RGE Analysis section. The cheapest quote for being able to access the entire site was $2000/yr. Way, WAY beyond my meager means!We can only hope that more of the regulars might see fit to post on the Economonitor section.