U.S. Bank CFO Survey: Corporate Finance Leaders Tighten Belts Amid Uncertainty

U.S. corporate finance leaders have increased focus on cutting costs to prepare their firms for potential economic and geopolitical uncertainty, according to the fourth annual U.S. Bank CFO Insights Report.

The survey of more than 2,000 senior finance leaders in the U.S. revealed that the top two priorities of CFOs are cutting costs within the finance function and across the entire business. In contrast, driving revenue growth is just the fifth most prevalent priority. Cutting costs within the finance function has nearly doubled as a priority since the U.S. Bank CFO Insights Report began in 2021. Improving risk identification and mitigation also continues to climb in importance, ranking now as the third most common top priority.

For specific top risks, finance leaders continued to identify areas like talent shortages and pace of technology changes, but geopolitical tension has jumped six spots from the 10th most cited risk last year. Meanwhile, high inflation was cited less often this year as a top risk (25%) compared to last year (38%), although it remains an elevated risk for some industries, like telecom and media (42%).

“The CFO’s job has always been a challenge. But today they face higher inflation and interest rates, political uncertainty in the U.S. and abroad, a difficult-to-forecast short-term economy and incredible pressure to make the right technology investments their firms will need to compete,” Stephen Philipson, head of global markets and specialized finance at U.S. Bank, said. “This year’s survey showcased how finance leaders are working through this set of circumstances by focusing on cost cuts and risk management without neglecting their investment priorities.”

Economic Outlook vs. Business Prospects

  • According to the survey, 33% of finance leaders hold a negative outlook for the economy for the rest of 2024. However, the long-term forecast is more positive, with only 15% maintaining a negative outlook for the U.S. economy over the next three years.
  • Despite a challenging operating environment, 45% of finance leaders remain optimistic about their business’ financial outlook over the next 12 months. This number jumps to 61% when they look to the next three years. For instance, in the automotive industry, only 37% are positive about the next 12 months, but 63% are optimistic over the next three years.

Top Risks

  • Talent shortages continue as the leading risk (41%), marking the third consecutive year at the top in the survey, closely followed by the challenges related to the pace of technology change/digital disruption (38%). Industrial products/manufacturing (47%), hospitality and leisure (46%) and technology (46%) finance leaders were most likely to list talent shortages as a top risk.
  • Geopolitical tension and war have jumped to become the fourth-most cited top risk (26%), climbing from 10th place last year.
  • Inflation came in fifth place (25%) as a top risk. It has decreased in urgency for finance leaders from last year, when it was cited by 38% of leaders. Finance leaders in telecom and media (42%) and consumer and retail (36%) were most likely to list inflation as a top risk.
  • According to the survey, 39% of finance leaders said they’re not confident in their ability to manage and mitigate new risks.

Artificial Intelligence and Areas for Efficiencies

  • Finance leaders are prioritizing investments in technology (47%) over layoffs (21%) as the primary solution for cutting costs in the next 12 months. Comparatively, in 2021, 40% were utilizing layoffs as a primary solution for cutting costs.
  • After data analytics (52%), AI is the second-highest priority for investment in the finance function (51%) and is most prioritized by finance leaders in insurance, oil and gas and life sciences/pharmaceutical sectors.
  • Uses for AI in the finance function are primarily focused on tackling risk (42%), identifying fraud (41%) and automating processes (37%).
  • While cost cuts are top of mind, this year’s survey found finance leaders are more confident about balancing growth initiatives and cost cutting, as 50% said they struggle to balance the need to cut costs with the need to invest in the future, down from 56% last year.

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