CEOs fear a recession more than anything else in 2019

Fever dreams of the rich and powerful.
Fever dreams of the rich and powerful.
Image: AP Photo/Yam G-Jun
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s not Brexit, terrorism, or even climate change that keeps CEOs awake at night. Instead, recession is the primary concern for 1,400 global business leaders surveyed about their biggest fears for 2019.

It’s not clear they have grounds to worry. The Conference Board, the think tank behind the survey, noted that, outside of the UK, “our economic indicators do not point to imminent recession risks.” Instead, the fear seems to be that “traditional levers of power—public policy and political institutions” simply wouldn’t have the mettle or stability to handle an economic crisis if it hurtled toward them.

A year earlier, a possible recession was far from CEOs’ minds, ranking 19th on the list on fears for the year ahead in the think tank’s 2018 survey. Now, it’s the number one fear of executives in Latin America, China and Japan, and ranked third and sixth for European and American CEOs, respectively. The fear of “threats to global trade systems” is close behind it, driven in part by the same concerns about international governance.

In the US, at least, it’s not clear that CEOs should be worrying about a recession. The economy is still in good shape: Last quarter, the country’s economy expanded 3.4%, after the third quarter’s whopping 4.2%. Unemployment is the lowest it’s been in almost a half-century; inflation is low, while consumer confidence is high. Political turmoil aside, things may seem good—but that doesn’t mean a slowdown is entirely off the table. Ongoing trade tensions with China have put growth under pressure, while companies such as Apple are slashing revenue forecasts for the first time in more than a decade. Add to that a hike in interest rates, and there may be some cause for nervousness.

Unusually, American CEOs ranked cyber security as their main concern, high above any other region’s executives. In China, for instance, it came in 10th. But investors are taking note—last year, venture capital investments in cybersecurity firms hit a record high, following a spate of “mega-breaches.” In data sent to Reuters, US cybersecurity firm ThreatMetrix reported detecting more than 360 million attacks in the first half of last year, more than double 2015’s rate. CEOs in the US may be right to be concerned.

The list of CEO fears highlights the discrepancy between the concerns of executives and their employees. Polls into the fears of average workers in the US, for instance, revealed anxieties about corrupt government officials, pollution of water sources, and personal economic worries at the top of their list. By contrast, American CEOs ranked income inequality and “impact of climate change on our business” eighth and ninth, out of 14 options. (A lack of clean drinking water caused by climate change would presumably make business quite hard to conduct.) “Declining trust in political and policy institutions” came in fifth.