U.S. CEOs are showing resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which they have approached with a proactive, technology-driven response. Our research reveals that confidence levels about growth are higher among CEOs who have invested in digital acceleration to prime their organizations to weather the pandemic and emerge stronger on the other side.
“CEOs are being forced to not only make tough decisions that they may have put on the sidelines for a while but to also accelerate efforts around technology to transform operating models and reshape their business. This in turn is unleashing additional potential for their organizations,” says Tandra Jackson, Vice Chair, Growth and Strategy, KPMG U.S. “Additionally, the pent up demand in some industries and a lot of private capital waiting to be leveraged means that we may see a growth surge across industries once we are through the uncertainty.”
U.S. CEOs’ confidence in three-year growth prospects has increased since the beginning of the year. Sixty percent say they are more confident in the growth prospects for their company than they were earlier in 2020, and 65% are now more confident about the growth prospects for their sector. Fewer feel more confident about the growth prospects for the country (43%) and the global economy (37%) (Figure 1).
Yet when it comes to earnings over the next three years, U.S. CEOs have become somewhat less confident. At the beginning of the year, 50% anticipated that their earnings would grow by at least 2%, but post-COVID-19, only 42% think that their earnings will grow by at least 2.5% over the next three years.
U.S. CEO Confidence In Growth Prospects
(% of U.S. CEOs who say they are more confident now than at the beginning of the year)
In terms of growth prospects, please indicate your level of confidence in the following over the next three years, compared to the beginning of the year:
Constance Hunter, Chief Economist at KPMG U.S., notes that economic recovery depends on the progression of the virus this fall as well as future fiscal relief. She predicts a swoosh-shaped recovery—a sharp drop with a growth line slowly bending upward. Hunter adds that fourth-quarter downward scenarios are still possible and most likely would be associated with challenges from schools reopening.
“It gets down to the time frame,” says Michael Wirth, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp. “In the near term[K1] [DT2] , we still have some uncertainty since we have to see how the virus plays out. There are also some structural changes in the economies that have happened that we’re going to have to adjust to. But the fundamental drivers of economic growth are there, and the long-term trends are still very positive as we get out to the back half of next year, into 2022 and beyond.”
“It’s going to be a bifurcated recovery,” says Hunter. The pandemic has had the biggest negative impact on the sectors that require high physical contact between workers and customers. This explains why the leisure and hospitality sector is still experiencing a 25% decline in workers. Industries where workers could smoothly transition to full-time remote work, such as finance and insurance, or could modify their work environments to limit interaction with the public, such as construction, have fared much better. Many industries, such as manufacturing and retail, have been forced to transform legacy business practices in order to keep their organizations running through the pandemic.
“In the sectors where demand has plummeted dramatically due to COVID-19, there are also opportunities to create new revenue streams by pivoting to different channels, serving different customer groups or utilizing assets differently,” says Jackson.
This bifurcated impact of the pandemic was reflected in our interviews with CEOs from two sectors very differently affected by the pandemic: energy and construction.
“In the energy sector, there are challenges near term,” says Wirth. “People are not traveling and so demand for our products is clearly down. Earlier this year, there was a market share war started by Saudi Arabia and Russia, bringing supplies into the market at a time when demand was contracting at a rate never seen before. And we’ve seen a lot of bankruptcies in our sector. Our company came into [the pandemic] probably the strongest in our sector. We were well prepared for a difficult period of time and we continue to be in a strong position.”
“The construction industry is on fire right now,” says Maggie Hardy Knox, President of 84 Lumber, the largest family-owned-and-operated building materials supply company in the U.S. “We are very fortunate that our company was deemed an essential business. We build the American dream for people. Because of that, we are set to have a fantastic year as a company even during the pandemic. I’m extremely confident about the constant growth of 84 Lumber.”
Other industries needed government support to continue operating. “COVID-19 highlighted the importance of tax for many CEOs,” says Greg Engel, Vice Chair for Tax at KPMG U.S. “From the CARES Act, HEROES Act, employee retention credit, payroll tax deferral decisions, and beyond—tax relief for businesses and individuals alike took center stage like never before. And with that, tax modeling and data-driven tax scenario planning for the short- and long-term not only became major business imperatives for many companies, helping them to better assess risk and navigate the financial impacts of the virus, but it also drove the speed of technology to better position their organizations for future growth.”
“The driving factor in the macro environment after the virus itself is the balance of the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) versus FOGO (Fear Of Going Out) mindsets of consumers,” says Hunter. “Those sectors that serve FOGO may be surprised at the pace of growth they see; the key is having the technological backbone to meet the moment.”
Charles Meyers, President and CEO of Equinix Inc., which specializes in global data centers and colocation services, describes his company as the engine room of the digital economy. He sees the pandemic as strengthening the focus on digital transformation, with customers embracing cloud technology. He adds that in many cases, even the companies that have been hit hard by the pandemic came to view this time as an opportunity for them to improve their digital architectures so that they can come out stronger on the other side. “As digital was thrusting to the forefront of everybody’s mind, the people that are in the engine room needed to be prepared to respond to that—and we were,” he says.