Brexit is creating a set of concerns among UK CFOs at levels not previously seen.
Confidence and risk appetite among CFOs remain muted and finance leaders predict a decline in revenues, focus on cost pressures and tighter credit conditions.
On top of that, CFOs are placing greater emphasis on cash accumulation than at any time since 2010.
Eight in ten CFOs (81%) say they expect the long-term business environment to be worse as a result of the UK leaving the EU, according to Deloitte’s latest CFO Survey. This is the highest level since the EU referendum in 2016.
The survey shows that pessimism about the short-term effects of Brexit remains elevated, with 49% of CFOs expecting to reduce their own capital expenditure and 22% cutting M&A as a consequence of Brexit. Around half (53%) of CFOs also expect to reduce hiring due to Brexit – the highest level in more than two years.
However there has been little change in confidence and risk appetite among CFOs. Of those surveyed, 13% say they are more optimistic about the prospects for their company than they were three months ago, compared to 10% in Q4 2018. In addition, 9% of CFOs now agree it is a good time to be taking greater risk onto their balance sheets, up from 7% last quarter.
Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte, said: “Put mildly, it’s been a turbulent few weeks and there’s been little change in confidence and risk appetite among CFOs, as many priced in a tougher environment at the start of the year. They went into March braced for tough times and the latest round of Brexit uncertainties have not materially changed that picture. When expectations are already low, it’s harder to be disappointed.”
The Q1 2019 CFO survey gauges sentiment amongst the UK’s largest businesses in the wake of Parliament’s rejections of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Eighty nine CFOs participated, including CFOs of 48 FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies. The total market value of the listed companies that participated is £377 billion, approximately 15% of the UK quoted equity market.
The survey ran between 26th March and 7th April, opening just after the announcement of the first delay in Brexit and covering a period that saw the failure of the House of Commons to agree a new plan and the start of Brexit talks between the Government and the Labour Party.
Rising cost pressures
Corporates continue to face three significant pressures. First, growing economic headwinds mean that CFOs have become markedly more negative on revenue growth over the last year. Half of them (50%) now expect a decline in revenues in the next 12 months, up from 18% in Q1 2018.
Second, cost pressures also appear to have increased, with a record 79% of CFOs expecting operating costs to rise in the next year. Wages are likely to have impacted this, with official data showing average earnings are growing at close to their fastest pace in 11 years.
Third, credit conditions have become less accommodative. CFOs report that credit pricing and availability have deteriorated in the last two years. Almost a fifth of CFOs (18%) now report that credit is hard to get, up from 4% two years ago. Furthermore, 9% report credit as costly, up from 3% over the same period.
Battening down hatches
CFOs are placing greater emphasis on cash accumulation than at any time since 2010, with 52% stating that increasing cash flow will be a strong priority over the next 12 months. This is in line with official data at the end of 2018 revealing that UK corporates held a record £747 billion of cash, equivalent to 35% of GDP and almost one third higher than in early 2016.
David Sproul, senior partner and chief executive of Deloitte North West Europe, concludes: “Large businesses are clearly looking to protect themselves against risk by raising cash levels and bullet-proofing balance sheets. They appear to be battening down hatches for tougher times ahead.
“While last week’s announcement on a further deferral of the UK’s departure from the EU removes an immediate unknown, the continuation of uncertainty is causing much frustration for UK businesses. As well as stashing cash, many continue to delay investment. Businesses remain in a period of further limbo.”