Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Gloomy bosses fear slow recovery

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, in Davos

Shoppers walk through Liverpool city centre
The world economy might not recover until 2011.

Business confidence of top bosses around the world has plummeted in recent months, a survey suggests.

Only 21% of chief executives are very confident that their business will grow, down from 50% a year ago.

This pessimism is shared by firms across the world, including emerging economies such as India and China.

Company chiefs believe that any recovery will be slow and take at least three years, according to the poll commissioned by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The speed and intensity of the recession has created a global crisis of confidence
Sam DiPiazza, PricewaterhouseCoopers

The poll finding provides a dire background to the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos, where more than 2,500 business leaders and politicians from around the world meet to discuss the current economic crisis.

Crisis of confidence

At the forum's previous meeting a year ago, a majority of chief executives (CEOs) was still optimistic that they could ride out the global economic storm.

But the survey's authors speak of a "deepening despondency" among chief executives and note that "the speed with which anxiety levels have soared - particularly since mid-September 2008 - is dramatic," triggered by the turmoil following the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Samuel DiPiazza, global chief executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), said in a statement the "speed and intensity of the recession has rocked the psyches of CEOs and created a global crisis of confidence".

While corporate leaders were focusing on the survival of their companies, they also ran the very "real risk of short-termism", said Ian Powell, the man in charge of PwC in the UK.

Downside of globalisation

While business leaders in Brazil, Russia, India and China had been pretty bullish about their economics prospects at the start of 2008, they now are nearly as concerned as their colleagues in Europe and North America.

The report's authors call it the "downside of globalisation," where a crisis that began in the United States "has now infected all the world's major economies".

Two years ago, some people hard argued that economies like India and China were now so strong that they were decoupled from the West.

This "myth has been exploded, and confidence in emerging markets has collapsed faster than in established economies," the PwC team argues.

Unsurprisingly, 85% of chief executives say that "recession" is the biggest challenge for their company. More than 70% are worried about the disruption of capital markets - which makes it difficult for companies to borrow - while 55% are concerned about overregulation.

Job cuts

In another change, this year no industry expects to be spared the downturn, although CEOs believe that the biggest impact will be felt by companies in banking, construction, entertainment and the automotive business.

While a majority of bosses hope to hold on to their staff, a quarter say they will cut jobs this year, and more than half will delay investments originally planned for 2009.

The real corporate problem, said Mr Powell, was not how to survive 2009, most chief executives had "a handle on that". "The real worry is looking forward to 2010 and the uncertainty about what's going to happen then."

Some bosses, however, see the crisis as an opportunity to grow their business and take advantage of the failure of their competitors.

Another casualty of the downturn is the environment, at least indirectly. A year ago, about a fifth of chief executives were worried about diminishing natural resources. Now less than one in ten puts this issue on his to-do list.

However, when asked how important environmental issues are in the medium-to-long term, they move them high up the agenda, and a staggering 80% are in favour of government regulation to deal with climate change.

PricewaterhouseCoopers interviewed for the survey 1,124 leading chief executives in 50 countries during the last three months of 2008.

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