Business confidence sees largest quarterly fall on record

Business confidence in the UK has reached a record low due to the impact of COVID-19, according to the latest CFO Survey by Deloitte.

Business confidence sees largest quarterly fall on record

The survey has found that the chief financial officers of the UK’s largest business expect their revenues to be 22% lower on average than their pre-COVID plans this year.

This decline is four times as great as the 5.4% contraction in UK GDP forecast, on average, by economists and testifies to the intense pressure on the revenues of even major, international businesses. Confidence among CFOs has declined to its lowest ever level, well below the trough at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.

The crisis has triggered radical changes in the corporate sector. 59% of CFOs have already furloughed or intend to furlough staff, 33% are diversifying suppliers and 30% have accessed or intend to access the Bank of England’s COVID-19 Corporate Financing Facility.

CFOs are overwhelmingly positive about the measures introduced by the government and the Bank to support business, with a particularly positive view of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to protect jobs.

CFOs have reacted to the COVID-19 shock with a decisive shift from growth to strengthening balance sheets. Businesses have never adopted a more defensive stance, with an unprecedented focus on cost control, cash conservation, selling assets and debt reduction or deleveraging.

While policymakers have sought to boost the flow of debt finance to business as a ‘bridge’ through the crisis, CFOs report a marked deterioration in the availability and cost of debt in the last three months. Corporates seem to have frozen activity, with CFO plans for capital spending and expansion in the next year at all-time lows.

CFOs expect growth to begin to return in the coming months. 41% of CFOs expect the lockdown to start to ease in May and a further 41% expect it to begin in June. Most CFOs, 76%, expect demand for their own products and services to revive later this year, with the third quarter. being seen as the key period of recovery.

Yet there is no expectation of a quick snapback in activity in the second half of the year. Most CFOs do not expect demand for their products and services to return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2021, and a majority, some 53%, believe that peak levels of activity will be only regained sometime after mid-2021. CFOs see COVID-19 causing lasting change in the business sector and a strong focus on business resilience.

Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has seen business confidence drop from an all-time high to an all-time low in just one quarter. While there is no expectation from CFOs of a quick snap back in activity in the second half of the year, there is reassurance that the economic shock has emanated from outside the financial world, which will impact the rate of recovery.”

  • Read all of our articles relating to COVID-19 here.
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