Intensified Economic Challenges Push Business Leaders’ Optimism to Record Lows

As the U.S. economy faces decades-high inflation, soaring interest rates and continued supply chain and labor shortages, midsize business leaders across the country are increasingly cautious in their economic outlooks, according to JPMorgan Chase’s 2022 Business Leaders Outlook Pulse survey. More than 1,500 midsize business leaders participated in the survey, which was fielded between May 25 and June 10.

Just about one in five business leaders (19%) said they’re optimistic about the national economy for the year ahead, the lowest percentage recorded in 12 years of survey data, and down from 75% one year ago. In line with this dampened outlook, pessimism around the national economy jumped to 51% from 10% a year ago. When it comes to the global economy, business leaders have an even more muted outlook, with only 9% expressing optimism.

Despite dim views on the economy, many business leaders remain confident in their own companies. More than seven in 10 (71%) are optimistic about their company’s performance and 55% feel upbeat about their industry’s performance, although those numbers are down from 88% and 82%, respectively, compared with one year ago. Nearly three-quarters of survey respondents (73%) anticipate increased revenue/sales for the year ahead. However, the outlook for profit growth has been hurt by higher costs, with only 57% expecting increased profits compared to 71% at this time last year.

“The first half of 2022 has really tested business leaders with pricing pressures and increased interest rates on top of the supply chain- and labor-related issues they were already facing,” Ginger Chambless, head of research at JPMorgan Chase Commercial Banking, said. “While it’s surprising to see how drastically sentiment has shifted, it is important to note that business leaders are still mostly upbeat when it comes to their companies and areas that they can more directly control.”

Challenges Have Intensified in 2022

In the latest survey, 100% of respondents said they’re currently facing business challenges. Business leaders cited the higher cost of doing business, including inflation, as their top challenge (71%), followed closely by labor issues (70%), including recruiting, hiring and retaining employees and labor shortages. Notably, business leaders described several factors that have contributed to these challenges as more significantly impacting their companies compared with six months ago. For example, inflation is worse than six months ago according to 86% of respondents, along with rising interest rates (65%).

Passing Increased Costs to Consumers

Rising costs are nearly impossible for business leaders to escape. In fact, 99% reported that their costs of doing business have increased. More than seven in 10 business leaders pointed to increased costs from retaining employees (77%), supply chain issues (74%) and hiring employees (71%) as the main drivers behind these increases.

With their bottom lines impacted, more businesses are passing along at least some of the rising costs to consumers. More than three-quarters of businesses (76%) are raising prices and 42% have passed along at least half of their increased costs to consumers and buyers in the form of higher prices. This trend is not expected to subside in the near term, as 81% of respondents said they are likely to continue to increase prices to help mitigate higher costs.

Growth Plans Remain in Motion

Despite continued challenges, business leaders nonetheless have their sights set on growth, with 83% expecting to grow their businesses over the next year. While down from the 90% expecting growth at the end of 2021, more businesses are planning on expanding into new global or domestic markets (63%) and bolstering product innovation (53%), including expanded or new product and service lines, compared with six months ago.

“As has so often been the case in the past two years, business leaders are reacting to today’s challenges by shifting their strategies and taking calculated risks to continue expanding and innovating their businesses,” John Simmons, head of middle-market banking and specialized industries at JPMorgan Chase Commercial Banking, said. “They’re setting their expectations high and embracing new opportunities to grow even as they navigate this new set of challenges.”

Mid-Year Adjustments

As companies calibrate their strategies for the second half of 2022 and beyond, the following factors may help facilitate growth:

  • Look to Long-Term Trends: While pricing pressures and supply chain bottlenecks are unlikely to subside in the short term, the remainder of 2022 may provide a good window into the potential severity of these challenges for the coming years. Businesses will want to most closely follow the impact of recent Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, which typically take several months to affect economic behaviors, and the impact of ongoing geopolitical events on supply chains.
  • Set Up to Scale: As businesses remain focused on growth, they may want to take inventory of their infrastructure for scaling, including which forms of debt financing they’re using, who their strategic partners are and how intentional they are in equipping employees with the tools and knowledge to carry out their strategic plans.

Survey Methodology

JPMorgan Chase’s Business Leaders Outlook Pulse survey was conducted online from May 25 to June 10 with middle-market companies with annual revenues between $20 million and $500 million. In total, 1,536 business leaders in various industries across the United States participated in the survey. For year-over-year trends, current data was compared with data collected in Q2/21 and for six-month trends, current data was compared with data collected in Q4/21. The results of this online survey are within statistical parameters for validity, and the error rate is plus or minus 2.5% at a 95% confidence level.

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