As the pandemic continues to cause global economic disparity, experts grapple with the difficult task of forecasting economic recovery. While no one can predict with complete accuracy what lies ahead for the economy, CFOs’ expectations and actions can be a very helpful barometer, such as how they are handling hiring and retention, and how they are positioning their companies for growth.
CFOs’ economic expectations have plummeted in the past few months. The recent Q2 CFO Signals Survey marked the lowest readings on business expectation metrics since the first survey 41 quarters ago. Just 1 percent of CFOs rated conditions in North America as good, compared with 80 percent in the first quarter. A separate poll of 118 Fortune 500 CFOs conducted at the end of June echoed the sentiments of the Q2 Signals Survey and found that most respondents expect slow to moderate recovery. Over half expect they will not reach pre-crisis operating levels until 2021 and with 17 percent expecting 2022 or later.
Right now, a top priority for resilient CFOs is to ensure enough cash and liquidity for their company to operate. The focus on cost reduction outweighed revenue growth for the first time in the history of the CFO Signals survey. CFOs are doubling down on investing cash rather than returning it to shareholders, staying in existing geographies rather than moving to new ones, and focusing on organic growth as opposed to inorganic growth like mergers and acquisitions.
The Q2 Signals Survey did find that 585 of CFOs see the North American economy rebounding a year from now. Notably, when asked whether they felt their company was in response or recovery mode, or already in a position to thrive, only about a quarter of CFOs said they were still responding to the pandemic. In fact, 37 percent of CFOs believe their companies are already in “thrive” mode. In the meantime, CFOs are reimagining company configurations, diversifying supply chains, and accelerating automation.
One example of how CFOs are taking a resilient approach to navigate uncertainties is the widespread adoption of virtual work.
According to the Q2 Signals Survey, while just under half say they will resume on-site work as soon as governments allow it, about 70 percent of CFOs say those who can continue to work remotely will have the option of doing so. This will likely become a critical component to retaining top talent—a longtime concern for CFOs—particularly in a challenging economy. Resilient CFOs will continue to shift underlying business processes to accommodate routine remote work, including investing in new technologies for an efficient and effective virtual workforce, moving platforms to the cloud, and even adjusting internal control mechanisms to allow for off-site collaboration, budgeting, and financial planning.
Over the past decade or so, CFOs have evolved to become business strategists, but never has their role as stewards been more important as they are tasked with navigating a business landscape that changes by the hour. In the coming months, CFOs should consider focusing on:
Revisiting their financing and liquidity strategies, centralizing cash release decisions, and leveraging tax planning to reduce cash outlays and preserve budget. Deliver a balance sheet with flexibility and liquidity to take advantage of once-in-a-lifetime market opportunities that could present themselves.
Exploring different recovery scenarios, keeping an eye on important risk metrics that may signal a time to innovate. Evolve business models, processes, and technologies to maximize current performance and position companies to be able to seize new opportunities.
Keeping top talent by embracing a company’s best people, whether it is offering work-from-home capabilities, or nurturing loyalty through trust. Organizations that can retain their top people may be best positioned in recovery.
During recovery, a critical benchmark to track will be CFOs’ risk appetite. In the Q2 Signals Survey, the proportion of CFOs saying it is a good time to be taking greater risk plummeted to 27 percent. An upward tick of this finding may signal a greater focus on revenue growth, a willingness to expand into new markets, and an appetite for deal-making. Until then, by taking a resilient approach in the coming months, CFOs can position their companies for strong performance, future growth, and market-moving success as the economy starts to recover.
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