CFOs Raise Their Outlook for North America's Economy & Test the Waters With GenAI

Thursday, September 28th, 2023

Key takeaways

  • Fifty-seven percent of CFOs rate the current North American economy favorably, up from 34% in 2Q23 and marking the highest reading since 1Q22. Net optimism for CFOs' own companies' financial prospects also climbed to +22 from +6 last quarter.

  • CFOs raised their year-over-year growth (YOY) expectations for revenue, earnings, and domestic hiring, with earnings reflecting the greatest increase.

  • More than half (56%) of CFOs indicated that U.S. equities are overvalued, as opposed to 39% saying the same in 2Q23.

  • Forty-one percent of CFOs say that now is a good time to take greater risks. This represents an increase from last quarter's 33% and hovers above the two-year average of 40%.

  • Talent availability and retention once again topped CFOs' list of internal concerns, followed by execution and prioritization of business strategies.

  • Concerns over geopolitics along with policies and regulations stood out as CFOs' most worrisome external risk.

  • Forty-two percent of CFOs said their organizations are experimenting with generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), though they acknowledge talent resources and capabilities are the greatest barrier to adopting and deploying GenAI.

Why it matters to CFOs
Each quarter, CFO Signals™ tracks the thinking and actions of leading CFOs representing North America's largest and most influential companies. Since 2010, the survey has provided key insights into the business environment, company priorities and expectations, finance priorities, and CFOs' priorities. Participating CFOs represent diversified, large companies, with 85% of respondents reporting revenue exceeding $1 billion. Just over one-quarter (27%) are from companies with greater than $10 billion in annual revenue.

Economic outlook
CFO sentiment toward current conditions rose in three of the five economic regions covered in the survey. The exceptions are China and Asia (excluding China). In China, only 8% of respondents of CFOs rated the current economy as good or very good, a decline from 17% in 2Q23. Similarly, 24% of CFOs view the current economy of Asia (excluding China) as good or very good, down slightly from 28% in the last quarter.

CFOs are split on their expectations for economic conditions to improve over the next year, with respondents indicating optimism for the North American, European, and South American economies. Forty-six percent of CFOs believe that the North American economy will improve in a year, up from 34% in 2Q23. Twenty-nine percent of CFOs expect improvement 12 months out for the European economy, nearly double what was tracked in the last quarter (15%). CFOs also signaled a slight increase in their outlook for economic conditions in South America to improve in a year, inching up to 9% from 7%.

On the other hand, CFOs' outlook for the economy of China dropped, with 20% of respondents expecting conditions to improve in a year, down from 30% in 2Q23. CFOs' expectations for improved economic conditions in Asia (excluding China) stayed flat at 27%, though their assessment of current economic conditions dropped to 24% from 28%.

Own company optimism and risk
The percentage of CFOs expressing optimism for their companies' financial prospects increased to 41% from 30% in the prior quarter, while those expressing pessimism fell to 19% from 24% in 2Q23. As a result, CFOs' net optimism rose to +22 from +6. This is the highest level of net optimism tracked since the fourth quarter of 2021. Despite this increase in optimism, the number of CFOs saying now is a good time to take greater risks (41%) was outweighed by those saying now is not a good time to take greater risks (59%). Still, those who expressed a greater appetite for risk-taking rose from the prior quarter's 33% and hovered above the two-year average of 40%.  

Talent availability and retention reclaimed its spot as CFOs' most worrisome internal risk, followed closely by execution and prioritization of business strategies. Geopolitics stood out as CFOs' top external risk, followed by policies and regulations.

Key operating metrics
CFOs raised year-over-year growth expectations for revenue, earnings, and domestic hiring while lowering their YOY growth expectations for dividends, capital investment, and domestic wages. Growth expectations for revenue rose to 5.5% from 4.9%, while expectations for earnings growth climbed to 8.3% from 4.4% last quarter. Growth expectations for domestic hiring rose slightly to 1.8% from 1.4% in 2Q23. CFOs dropped their growth expectations for dividends to 2.8% from 2.9%, domestic wages/salaries to 3.6% from 3.8%, and capital investment to 6.3% from 6.6%.

Integrating Generative Artificial Intelligence (GenAI)
Just under half (42%) of CFOs reported that their organizations are experimenting with GenAI, while 15% are incorporating it into their business strategy. Nearly one-quarter (24%) say that GenAI is important to achieving their business strategy, compared to 42% who say the technology is not important to their business strategy.

More than half of surveyed CFOs pointed to GenAI's impact on risk and internal controls, data infrastructure and technology needs, and investment requirements as their top three concerns regarding the technology.

Cost reductions, better customer/client experiences, and greater margins, efficiencies and/or productivity are the top three benefits surveyed CFOs say their organizations hope to achieve from adopting GenAI.

CFOs cite talent resources and capabilities as the greatest obstacle preventing their organizations from adopting and deploying GenAI, followed by data and technology resources and risk and governance concerns.

Assessment of capital markets
In this quarter's survey, more than half of surveyed CFOs (56%) regard U.S. equities as overvalued, a substantial increase from 39% in 2Q23. Only 9% of respondents consider U.S. equities undervalued, dropping from last quarter's 21%.

The majority of CFOs continue to find debt and equity financing unattractive this quarter, likely due to the impact of high interest rates. Sixteen percent of CFOs found debt financing attractive, flat from the previous quarter, while 29% indicated equity financing, a slight increase from last quarter's 24%.  

Key quotes

"CFOs' assessment of macroeconomic conditions recovered slightly over the last quarter; however, continued uncertainty around key economic indicators — such as the future of interest rate hikes and moderate inflation — continue to temper enthusiasm. Companies are looking to strengthen their operations, and many are looking at GenAI as a potential value-add to reduce costs, improve experiences for their customers and clients, and increase margins, as well."

—  Steve Gallucci, national managing partner, U.S. CFO Program, Deloitte LLP

"While nearly half of CFOs' organizations are experimenting with Gen AI, many continue to assess how this will impact their business strategy. As they continue to evaluate next-generation technologies like Gen AI, it will be important to identify the right use cases that will drive efficiencies and create new sources of value. In the current complex and unpredictable environment leaders are navigating, Gen AI can be a real differentiator for those organizations that are successful."

—  Jason Girzadas, CEO, Deloitte US

Download the findings from the 3Q 2023 CFO Signals survey here.