The Economy

Most CFOs See U.S. Recession by Q3 2020

A Duke University/CFO survey highlights growing pessimism about the economy despite record low unemployment and strong consumer spending.
Matthew HellerSeptember 18, 2019

CFOs’ optimism about the U.S. economy has fallen to its lowest level in three years, with a majority now believing the country will be in a recession by the third quarter of 2020, according to the Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey.

The Business Outlook poll for the third quarter found 55% of CFOs have become more pessimistic since the second quarter despite record low unemployment and strong consumer spending, far outnumbering the 12% who say they have become more optimistic.

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“Business optimism has not been this low since September 2016, a time when the unemployment rate was 5 percent,” John Graham, a finance professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and director of the survey, said in a news release.

Additionally, 53% of finance chiefs believe the U.S. will be in an economic recession by the third quarter of 2020, and 67% predict a recession by the end of 2020.

The poll’s findings parallel a Bank of America/Merrill Lynch survey released earlier this week, which found 38% of fund managers expect a recession next year, the highest net recession risk since August 2009.

Economic pessimism is also high globally, with Duke finding that 81% of African CFOs and 72% of Asian CFOs believe their countries will be in recession by the third quarter of 2020.

“The CFOs’ views are consistent with other important indicators, such as the inversion of the yield curve,” said Campbell Harvey, a founding director of the Duke survey. “Executives don’t want to be caught unprepared for the next recession like they were in the global financial crisis.”

“Who wants to put their firm at risk by increasing borrowing to fund a major new project when a recession could be on the horizon?” he added.

According to Duke, economic uncertainty has displaced difficulty hiring and retaining qualified employees as the top concern among U.S. CFOs.

“The extreme uncertainty, not just in the U.S. but all around the world, is weighing on companies, and when you get extreme uncertainty there is a tendency to hunker down,” Graham told CNBC.

Graham discusses the survey results further in this video.