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Recession, Inflation Top CEOs’ Concerns in 2024

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MCN Editor Dan Markham The turning of another calendar naturally forces us to look at the landscape for the year ahead. Some do so with optimism, others worry. The Conference Board surveyed more than 1,000 CEOs with a focus on the latter. 

As the new year begins, what will keep the world’s executives up at night? For CEOs in both the United States and around the globe, the dual threats of bracing for a recession and the continued existence of elevated inflation remain the primary concerns. 

Perhaps more troubling than the expectation of a recession is their companies’ potential defense against a downturn. Just 37 percent of U.S. CEOs say they are prepared for a recession. Only 34 percent are prepared for high inflation, according to the survey from The Conference Board, 2024: A Year in Preview (C-Suite Outlook) 

The survey reflects the views of more than 1,200 executives, including 630 CEOs. Participants weighed in on the top business threats and opportunities in 2024. Respondents were primarily from four regions: the United States, Latin America, Japan and Europe.

Amid elevated inflation and a potential downturn, CEOs’ plans to grow profits in 2024 include introducing new products/services, investing in technology, increasing sales via marketing and entering new markets.

The Conference Board’s C-Suite Outlook 2024 also reveals that CEOs have thrown up their hands when it comes to getting workers back into the office full time. Just 4 percent  of U.S. CEOs say they will prioritize a full-time return to the office. Consistent with past surveys, attracting and retaining talent remains the No. 1 internal focus for CEOs globally. 

While the survey reveals that CEOs and boards are fairly well aligned on Environmental, Social and Governance priorities, with education and economic opportunity topping the list, boards are less confident than executives that their companies are addressing ESG issues effectively, including defending against rising ESG backlash.

Additionally, wars in the Middle East and Ukraine are top of mind, but for America’s CEOs the biggest geopolitical threat is at home: the ballooning national debt, which they put as their top geopolitical risk in 2024.

Among other findings from the study: 
  • CEOs are expressing increased anxiety over borrowing costs, with that concern ranking No. 4 among worldwide CEOs. It was sixth highest among U.S. CEOs.
  • For longer-term growth drivers, both U.S. and global CEOs rank, in order: investment in innovation; new lines of business; digital transformation, including AI; marketing and promotions; upskill and retain existing talent. 
  • One area where U.S. and Global CEOs differ sharply is on the question of geopolitical risks. While U.S. bosses cite deft and deficits, global CEOs worry about high energy prices.
  • While attracting and retaining talent is the No. 1 internal priority for both sets of executives, the labor shortages facing all industries ranked lower on their list of external concerns (No. 7 for the U.S., No. 5 for global CEOs).
  • On the subject of AI, 92 percent of U.S. CEOs believe it will increase productivity, 86 percent expect it to improve marketing capabilities and 63 percent anticipate a boost to sales, revenues and profits. Global CEOs show similar breakdowns. Additionally, less than half of both believe AI will increase their regulatory burdens. 
  • Another area where U.S. and global CEOs differ is on the question of renewable energy. Only 32 percent of U.S. CEOs say the transition to renewables will be significantly positive for their organizations, while 51 percent of global CEOs support that idea. Neither believes the transition is a major priority, ranking it 20th among 23 choices in their plans for growth. 
  • Finally, on the question of their ESG priorities, CEOs say education, economic opportunity and GHG emissions are the top three issues for boards and CEOs. Of those groups, the CEOs are more optimistic about how well ESG has been integrated into the business compared with the boards.
For more information on The Conference Board’s 2024 survey, visit www.conference-board.org.

The Conference Board is the global, nonprofit think tank and business membership. For more than 100 years, it has offered research, data, events and executive networking to help the world’s leading companies understand the present and shape the future.