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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 January 2008, 18:02 GMT
Top bosses fear global recession
By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, Davos

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The economy will be the focus of this year's World Economic Forum
A global recession has now become the biggest threat to companies, according to a global survey of top chief executives.

Business confidence is also falling for the first time in five years, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers' survey.

The corporate gloom, however, is limited to bosses in the United States and Western Europe.

In Asia business confidence is soaring, with 90% of Indian bosses saying they are "very confident".

While confidence numbers are down overall, half of all chief executives still claim to be "very confident" about their company's future. That is twice the level of 2003, the last time confidence levels were falling.

However, the survey of 1,150 top bosses in 50 countries does not yet take account of the most recent stock market turmoil, as it was conducted during the last three month of 2007.

Rampant Asia, bedraggled USA

The survey, presented on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, suggests sharp differences in corporate fortunes.

The possibility that a downturn could worsen into recession looms large in established economies like the US and Western Europe
Samuel DiPiazza, PricewaterhouseCoopers

Speaking of a "tale of two worlds", Samuel DiPiazza, the global chief executive of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said "the credit crunch and the slowdown in the Western economies have created a clear split in confidence levels of CEOs around the world".

Bosses in emerging economies believe that they are still for rapid expansion.

While Indian bosses may be the most confident, their Russian and Chinese peers are catching up.

In China, 73% of chief executives are very confident their firms will grow over the next 12 months, up from last year's 60%; Russia registers a real leap of confidence, up from 35% to 73%.

This is in stark contrast to bosses in Western Europe, with 44% expecting their companies to grow (a drop of 8 percentage points), and especially the United States, where only 36% are very confident - a drop of 18 points from 54%.

Faring worst are Italian executives. Just 19% believe in their firm's growth prospects, down from 52% one year ago.

"The possibility that a downturn could worsen into recession looms large for [chief executives] in established economies like the US and Western Europe," said Mr DiPiazza.

The one exception is Germany, where 57% of top managers feel very confident. Mr Di Piazza speculated that Germany's strong export industry had helped to sustain corporate fortunes.

Corporate threats

While recession fears have jumped to the top of the list of potential corporate problems, the old perennial "fear of over-regulation" still makes it into the top three.

Bosses are also concerned whether they will be able to recruit and keep the best people to run their business. Human resource experts speak of a "war for talent", and two-thirds of all business leaders say that dealing with people issues is the best use of their time.

Climate change - last year's hot topic in Davos - has dropped sharply in the list of corporate threats. Having said that, 80% of executives surveyed said governments should act to reduce emissions, which sits uneasily with their complaints about over-regulation.

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