AICPA Survey: Business Execs Cut 2020 Profit & Sales Outlook Sharply



Battered by repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic, business executives hold the most pessimistic view of the U.S. economy since the end of 2011, when the nation was still emerging from the lingering impact of the Great Recession, according to the second-quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey. The survey polls chief executive officers, chief financial officers, controllers and other certified public accountants in U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles.

Only 20% of survey takers expressed optimism about the U.S. economy’s overall outlook over the next 12 months, down from 61 percent last quarter, when concerns about the coronavirus outbreak first began to quicken. The optimism metric hadn’t fallen that low since the fourth quarter of 2011, when it stood at 19%. U.S. executives also took a dim view of the global economy this quarter, with only 11% expressing optimism.

Companies have cut their profit and sales outlooks significantly in response to stay-at-home restrictions and other pandemic-related impacts. Business executives now expect revenue to shrink five% over the next 12 months, a swing from an anticipated 4.3% growth rate last quarter. Profit expectations, meanwhile, have been adjusted to reflect a drop of 5.5%, down from an anticipated 3.3% growth rate. As of the first-quarter survey, less than eight percent of business executives said their companies had made downward adjustments to their forecasts due to the pandemic. For this quarter, 81% said their organizations had done so.

“Not surprisingly, this quarter’s survey documents the severe impact the pandemic has had on the outlook for U.S. businesses,” said Ash Noah, CPA, CGMA, managing director of CGMA learning, education and development for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants. “Moving forward, the reopening or ramping up phases in different states will be critical but the rise of liquidity concerns and the uncertain social and economic environment, including potential second-wave infections and prospects of additional layoffs, continue to present an extremely challenging environment for businesses.”

The AICPA survey is a forward-looking indicator that tracks hiring and business-related expectations for the next 12 months. In comparison, the U.S. Department of Labor’s May employment report, scheduled for release tomorrow, looks back on the previous month’s hiring trends.

The CPA Outlook Index—a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the AICPA survey— fell 50% since last quarter and now stands at 38, its lowest level since early 2009. The index is a composite of nine, equally weighted survey measures set on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 considered neutral and lower numbers signifying negative sentiment.

Other key findings of the survey:

  • Some 51% of businesses executives said their companies have the right number of employees, the same as last quarter. But there has been a sharp increase (25%, up from seven percent last quarter) in the number of companies that report they have an excess number of employees. The number of companies who said they were looking to immediately hire employees had the same shift but in reverse: Only 7% are now actively seeking job candidates, compared to 26% last quarter.
  • “Domestic economic conditions” were cited as the top challenge for businesses, followed by “stagnant/declining markets” and “liquidity.” The latter hadn’t been listed in the top ten concerns in the survey since the second quarter of 2016.
  • For top pandemic-specific concerns, business executives listed 1) customer demand/ability to pay, 2) safety of employees and 3) cash, financing and capital challenges.
  • The percentage of U.S. executives who expressed optimism about their own company’s prospects over the next 12 months fell from 66% to 30%, quarter over quarter.
  • Survey respondents who said they expect their organizations to expand in the coming year dropped from 64% last quarter to 24%.
  • IT is the only sector tracked in the survey to not show an anticipated decline in spending over the next 12 months, but it is only expected to post an 0.4% growth rate. IT employment, on the other hand, is expected to decline by 1%.

The second-quarter AICPA Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey was conducted from May 5 to 27 and included 1,198 qualified responses from CPAs who hold leadership positions, such as chief financial officer or controller, in their companies. The overall margin of error is less than 3 percentage points. A copy of the report can be found on aicpa.org.

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