Significant percentage of CFOs predict nationwide recession by end of 2016 in Fuqua survey

Almost one-third of those polled have major doubts about the country's economy



Almost one-third of the nation’s chief financial officers believe the United States will experience a recession by the end of 2016, according to a survey conducted by the Fuqua School Business.

The survey—which received 1,600 responses from CFOs worldwide—showed that 31 percent of U.S. officers believe the economy will be in a recession by the year’s end, up from the 16 percent when the question was asked almost 10 months ago.

CFOs in several other countries—Brazil, South Africa, Greece, Russia and Portugal—gave even more dire forecasts, responding that they think their respective economies will either enter or remain in recession by the end of the year.

“It’s kind of like saying there’s a 31 percent chance of rain,” said John Graham, D. Richard Mead Jr. Family Professor of Finance at the Fuqua School of Business and director of the survey. “We hope it doesn’t rain, but it is certainly probably going to be cloudy.”

U.S. financial executives cited four main concerns in their responses—the slowing of the Chinese economy, political turmoil in the United States, the possibility of a stock market decline and the low cost of oil. Almost 60 percent of the country's CFOs polled cited the Chinese economy's lower growth rates as a significant risk.

“The reduction of that growth has had a huge impact around the world in trade partners like the United States,” Graham explained. “It’s had a huge ripple effect throughout the economy.”

He also noted that the current U.S. presidential elections have many CFOs on edge—53 percent of them cited political turmoil as a risk factor that could cause recession.

Although the economy generally slows in the months leading up to an election, Graham said it is especially significant this year.

“We’ re probably all tired of [the campaign] by now, but from the business perspective, it is kind of a stalemate," Graham said. "This is a concern about the whole mood of the country and level of cooperation.”

Last quarter, the survey also asked CFOs about the effects of a higher minimum wage. The results showed that firms whose wage structures would be affected believe increasing the minimum wage to $10 or $15 per hour would lead to employment disruptions.

Companies noted they could reasonably accommodate a rate set to $8.75 by accelerating the shift from labor to machinery. If the minimum wage were to get up to $15, 41 percent of CFOs said they would lay off current employees, and 66 percent said they would slow hiring.

The responses, however, also indicated that some CFOs see benefits to higher wages, including reduced turnover and increased productivity.

“The CFO respondents show the math is not as simple as ‘increased minimum wages [equal] immediate layoffs,’” Campbell R. Harvey, J. Paul Sticht Professor of International Business and a founding director of the survey, said in a Fuqua press release.

Higher minimum wages make using robots more attractive than hiring new employees, he explained in the release.

“CFOs are telling policymakers there is a significant unintended consequence—some jobs will be replaced by robots and this replacement is permanent,” he said.

The anonymous survey ended March 4 and allows researchers to peak into the internal business plans of companies, Graham noted. This information can then be used to forecast broader economic trends for hiring and investments.

The Duke CFO Global Business Outlook survey has been conducted each quarter for the past 20 years.

Adam Beyer | Digital Content Director

Adam Beyer is a senior public policy major and is The Chronicle's Digital Strategy Team director.


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