After PwC’s annual survey of chief executives worldwide noted record-breaking optimism about the global economic growth only last year, the firm’s latest opinion poll reveals a dramatic drop in confidence.

Almost a third of business leaders now believes that global economic growth will decline in the next 12 months. Last year, that figure stood at only 5 percent. The share of executives who think global growth will increase fell from 57 percent to 42 percent.

“CEOs’ views of the global economy mirror the major economic outlooks, which are adjusting their forecasts downward in 2019,” said Bob Moritz, global chairman of PwC. “With the rise of trade tension and protectionism, it stands to reason that confidence is waning.”

The most pessimistic views on the economy are expressed in Western Europe and the Middle East, although the more negative trend applies to all regions. The most pronounced shift is visible among CEOs in North America, where optimism dropped from 63 percent in 2018 to 37 percent. The Middle East also saw a big decline from 52 percent to 28 percent due to increased regional economic uncertainty.

Graeme Sunley, PwC Cayman leader, said PwC’s annual global CEO survey of 1,378 chief executives in more than 90 territories found that the threats they consider most pressing are related to the ease of doing business in the markets where they operate, for example, overregulation, barriers to entry or cost.

“In Cayman, our hallmarks of risk-based and pragmatic regulation and speed to market clearly count in our favor in a highly competitive, global marketplace. That said, we have to continue to work hard to attract and retain both people and companies.”

Sunley noted that CEOs have turned their focus to navigating the surge in populism in the markets where they operate. “Trade conflicts, policy uncertainty, and protectionism have replaced terrorism, climate change, and increasing tax burden in the top ten list of threats to growth,” he said.

Locally, this means that impediments for international companies to do business in Cayman must be minimized. Recently passed legislation requiring Cayman-based companies to demonstrate economic substance to benefit from Cayman’s zero-tax regime makes this an even more pressing issue.

“With economic substance tests, we must move fast to take advantage of the undoubted opportunity that has been created,” Sunley said.

Lower CEO optimism has impacted growth plans beyond their own country’s borders. The U.S. is still the top market for growth at 27 percent, but down significantly from 46 percent in 2018. The second most attractive market, China, also saw its popularity fall to 24 percent, from 33 percent last year.

The shift in investments from U.S. and Chinese markets to other countries are largely a reaction to the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing trade dispute between the U.S. and China, as trade conflicts, policy uncertainty, and protectionism are mentioned in the top 10 list of threats to growth.

Of CEOs “extremely concerned” about trade conflicts, 88 percent are specifically uneasy about the trade issues between China and the U.S. Of China’s CEOs who are “extremely concerned” about trade conflicts, a majority are taking a strong reactive approach, with 62 percent adjusting their supply chain and sourcing strategy. Fifty-eight percent are adjusting their growth strategy to different countries.

Only 35 percent of global executives said they were “very confident” in their own organization’s growth prospects over the next 12 months, down from 42 percent a year ago. To drive revenue this year, CEOs plan to rely primarily on operational efficiencies at 77 percent and organic growth at 71 percent.

Technology

Technological disruption has been on business leaders’ radars for quite some time. But a repeat of survey questions on data adequacy from 2009 found that a significant information gap remains 10 years on.

Although companies invested heavily in IT infrastructure during that time, CEOs still say they are lacking comprehensive data to make key decisions about the long-term success and durability of their business.

Leaders’ expectations have certainly risen as technology advances, but CEOs are keenly aware that their analysis capabilities have not kept pace with the volume of data which has expanded exponentially over the past decade, the PwC reported found.

Executives are blaming mainly the “lack of analytical talent” (54 percent), followed by “data siloing” (51 percent), and “poor data reliability” (50 percent) for the situation.

“We must also consider the workforce that is required for the future. Technological changes continue to disrupt the business world, and people with strong data and digital skills are in even higher demand and increasingly harder to find,” Sunley said. “That said, the need for people with soft skills is also critical, which is why business, government and educational institutions need to work together to address the demands of the evolving workforce.”

CEOs agree that there is no quick solution, with 46 percent seeing significant retraining and upskilling as the answer, and 17 percent citing establishing a strong pipeline directly from education as an option.

Artificial Intelligence

While business leaders are bullish on the prospects of artificial intelligence, fewer than one in 10 have implemented it in a significant way and 23 percent of CEOs currently have “no current plans” to pursue it. As far as the impact of AI on jobs is concerned, CEO attitudes are dramatically different depending on where they are based. In China, 88 percent of chief executives believe AI will displace more jobs than it creates, whereas that figures is much lower in Western Europe (38 percent) and North America (41 percent).

“Although organisations in Asia-Pacific, North America, and Western Europe have reported comparable levels of AI adoption, we see a growing divide over their belief about the potential impacts of AI on society and the role government should play in its development,” said PwC chairman Moritz.

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