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Deloitte CFO Survey: Transition deal boosts sentiment

Posted by Isabel Riley on 10th April 2018

• Weak growth displaces Brexit as top risk facing UK corporates, with concerns about Brexit effects on spending and hiring falling
• Despite equity market weakness and concerns about trade, perceptions of uncertainty are at a two year low
• Cost control remains highest corporate priority, particularly among UK-focused companies
• One-third of companies report recruitment difficulties or skills shortages 

Corporate uncertainty is at a two-year low and the Brexit transition deal has boosted business optimism according to Deloitte’s latest CFO Survey. Concerns about the effects of leaving the EU on hiring and spending continue to fall and weak UK growth has replaced Brexit as the biggest risk businesses face.

106 CFOs of FTSE 350 and other large private companies participated in the Q1 2018 CFO Survey. The combined market capitalisation of the 78 UK-listed companies who participated is £427bn, approximately 17% of the UK quoted equity market.  The survey ran from 7 to 21 March 2018, with the announcement of the Brexit transition deal coming on 19 March. 84 CFOs responded to the survey before the transition deal was announced and 22 after. Optimism edges upwards but risk appetite weakens.

Overall, 20% of CFOs say they are more optimistic about the prospects for their company than they were three months ago, up from 18% in Q4 2017.  14% of CFOs say that now is a good time to be taking risk onto their balance sheets, down from 21% in Q4. Brexit transition deal boosts business optimism
27% of those who completed the survey after the Brexit transition deal was announced said that they were more optimistic about their financial prospects, compared to 18% responding beforehand. The deal had a similar effect on risk appetite, with 12% of those responding before saying it was a good time to take on risk, compared to 23% afterwards.

Uncertainty at a two-year low

CFOs’ perceptions of uncertainty have fallen, with 31% saying there is a high or very high level of financial and economic uncertainty facing their business, down from 38% in Q4. Uncertainty is at a two year low and the lowest since the build up to the EU referendum (29% in Q1 2016).

Brexit effects softening

CFOs are becoming less pessimistic about the effects of Brexit on their spending and hiring decisions. 25% say they expect their capital expenditure to shrink as a result of Brexit, down from 39% in Q4, while 30% say they expect hiring to slow, down from 41% on the quarter. Weak UK demand displaces

Brexit as biggest risk

For the first time since the EU referendum, Brexit is not the biggest risk CFOs say their businesses face. Rating risks on a scale of 0 to 100, CFOs assign a rating of 57 to weak demand in the UK (down from 59 in Q4) with the effects of Brexit scored at 56 (down from 62 in Q4).  Brexit is followed by the prospect of higher interest rates and tighter monetary conditions in the UK and US (51), poor UK productivity (48) and policy uncertainty in the US and the risk of greater protectionism (47). Weakness and volatility in emerging markets (43) and weakness and deflation in the euro area (37) were the lowest-ranked risks.

Internationally-focused companies more optimistic

Internationally-focused companies, who derive more than 70% of their revenues abroad, show a clear focus on expansion, with moving into new markets their top priority. However, those businesses deriving revenues largely from the UK are operating more defensively, with cost control as their number one priority.

Cost control remains top priority

Cost control remains the main focus for CFOs over the coming 12 months, with 42% citing it as a strong priority, down from 51% in Q4. Introducing new products and services or expanding into new markets, ranks as the second highest priority, with 40% of CFOs citing this as a focus.

CFOs speed up interest rate expectations

47% of CFOs say they expect the Bank of England’s base rate to be at or above 1% within a year’s time, and 49% expect the rate to be at 0.75%. Just 4% expecting it to remain unchanged at 0.5%, down from 15% in Q4.

One-third of businesses face skills challenges

31% of CFOs say their companies have experienced recruitment difficulties or skills shortages over the past three months, with 69% saying there has been no change and none saying that filling roles has become easier.  Stephen Nuttall, partner at Deloitte in the North West, said: “The Brexit transition deal seems to have had a positive effect on the corporate mood with a clear uptick in optimism and risk appetite between those responding to our survey before and after the news from Brussels.  “Brexit remains a major concern for UK CFOs, though one which, in the wake of the announcement of the transition deal, is easing. Concerns about the dampening effect on corporate spending plans remain, but they have softened. Importantly, for the first time in two years, Brexit is not the biggest risk CFOs say they face. Weak UK demand is cited as the top concern, though there is likely to be a relationship between the two.”

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