Grant Thornton survey: CFO optimism rises even as labor concerns remain high

 

— CFO optimism increased from 39% last quarter to 45% in Q3

— 58% of CFOs expect continued challenges in attracting and retaining the right talent

— 43% cite human capital expenses as the top area for potential cost cuts

— 64% predict net profit growth over the next 12 months; 42% predict growth of 6% or higher

 

CHICAGO — A new survey from Grant Thornton LLP, one of America’s largest audit, tax and advisory firms, reveals interesting contradictions in how chief financial officers (CFOs) are approaching a time of high interest rates, stubborn inflation and fierce competition for talent.

 

On one hand, 58% of the 246 CFOs surveyed expect continued challenges in attracting and retaining the right talent. On the other hand, the top area cited for potential cost cuts was human capital expenses related to employee headcount and compensation. In fact, 43% of CFOs said their organization is looking at this area for cost cuts. Meanwhile, nearly one-third (32%) of CFOs said they could potentially introduce layoffs or workforce reductions in the next six months.

 

“The companies that I’m talking to are all focused on cost reductions,” said Sean Denham, Grant Thornton’s national Audit growth leader. “Usually when people are focused on cost reductions, it’s because they don’t have a positive outlook on the future.”

 

That said, the firm’s 2022 Q3 CFO survey included some cause for cautious optimism — at least compared to the previous quarter. Forty-five percent of CFOs said they are optimistic about the outlook for the U.S. economy over the next six months, while 31% are pessimistic. The 45% optimism was up from 39% in Q2, but still far below the 69% optimism recorded in the third quarter of 2021. At the same time, nearly two-thirds (64%) of CFOs interviewed for the new survey predicted net profit growth at their organizations over the next 12 months, while 42% predicted growth of 6% or higher.

 

Further, 71% of CFOs said the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is waning, and they believe household wealth will continue to drive demand. But that demand may be greater for goods and services with budget-friendly prices that consumers see as necessities, whereas luxury items may see a decrease in demand.

 

“Bigger-ticket items in the luxury category will likely take a hit as we turn into 2023,” said Enzo Santilli, Grant Thornton’s chief transformation officer. “While demand for middle- and lower-income jobs is still very strong, higher-income workers are at greatest risk of recessionary layoffs. We are already seeing this with the technology and financial sectors trimming their workforce. Some are calling this effect the ‘richcession.’”

 

 

 

Cost control is the main focus

 

In Grant Thornton’s latest CFO survey, cost optimization overtook cybersecurity as the prevailing area of concern. Specifically, 58% of respondents listed cost optimization among their top three areas of concern for the next six months, and 40% chose workforce rationalization as one of their top three concerns. Liquidity and capital expenditure management were each chosen as a top-three concern by 37% of CFOs, while cybersecurity was selected by a little over one-third (34%).

 

For many companies, cost optimization may be accomplished without layoffs. For instance, external consulting (42%) and technology investments (41%) were cited as areas for potential cuts. Additionally, 38% of CFOs said they expect travel expenses to decrease over the next year. That’s the highest percentage since the first quarter of 2021.

 

 

 

M&A volume could be on the rebound

 

Meanwhile, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity could trend upward: The recent economic downturn has the potential to put the brakes on climbing valuations. Pair that with the 72% of M&A professionals expecting deal volume to increase over the next six months in Grant Thornton’s latest M&A survey, and M&A deal volume could increase — at least in certain industries.

 

Christopher Schenkenberg, the national managing partner of Grant Thornton’s regional Tax business lines, recently asked several private equity professionals their views on rising interest rates and the impact on deal values, the cost of capital, and the M&A market in general.

 

“The sentiment is that M&A volumes are down year-over-year,” Schenkenberg said, “and while rising interest rates certainly affect the cost of capital and investment models, recent decreases in valuations and multiples have a positive effect in some industries.”

 

 

 

Supply chain concerns linger

 

Although ports are no longer jam-packed with backed-up goods, the percentage of CFOs who rated supply chain as a top challenge was higher in Q3 than in any of the previous six quarters. Specifically, 41% of respondents rated supply chain as a top three challenge.

 

Denham believes old supply chain challenges have been supplanted by new troubles related to rising interest rates. During the pandemic, stockpiling inventory became an answer to the previous supply chain difficulties. But now, as the cost of capital continuously rises, stockpiling becomes ever more expensive. 

 

“When the cost of capital was close to zero, companies could put all the inventory they want in their warehouses,” Denham said. “Now that interest rates are going up, they have to decide whether to increase inventory because of potential supply chain issues. The cost of that is going to be a factor.”

 

Supply chain challenges were followed by cash and liquidity (31%), the remote workforce (30%), cybersecurity risks (30%) and tech upgrades (29%) on the list of major challenges facing finance leaders. These challenges reveal a notable trend: CFOs are trying to maintain healthy balance sheets by deciding just how much to invest in key areas.

 

“As always, CFOs are walking a tightrope, but they’re cautiously optimistic,” Denham concluded. “They must treat this moment as a reflection point to best serve their business.”

 

To see additional findings from Grant Thornton’s 2022 Q3 CFO Survey, visit grantthornton.com/insights/cfo-hub/cfo-survey-q3-2022.  

 

 

About Grant Thornton LLP

Grant Thornton LLP (Grant Thornton) is one of America’s largest audit, tax and advisory firms — and the U.S. member firm of the Grant Thornton International Ltd global network. We go beyond the expected to make business more personal and build trust into every result. With revenues of $2.3 billion for the fiscal year that ended July 31, 2022, and almost 50 offices nationwide, Grant Thornton is a community of more than 8,000 problem solvers who value relationships and are ready to help organizations of all sizes and industries create more confident futures. Because, for us, how we serve matters as much as what we do.

 

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