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Businesses Remain Resilient Even as COVID-19 Cases Begin to Spike, Survey

December 10, 2020, 07:00 AM
Filed Under: Industry News

In early September, the seven-day average in new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. had reached its lowest point since late June, but then steadily increased and nearly doubled by late October. Instead of increasing along with the virus, executives' pessimism spiked around the end of September and lessened mid-October according to data from the new report, "Crowe Business Challenges Survey: Part III."

Crowe, LLP, a public accounting, consulting and technology firm in the U.S. with offices around the world, conducted a pulse survey of 256 C-suite executives in three phases in September and October 2020 for the third report in the firm's ongoing research series. The spring report examined sentiment between late April and early June and the summer report covered late June to mid-August. The research series compiles responses from leadership spanning industries such as the public sector, financial services, construction, healthcare and manufacturing and distribution. Each report analyzes respondents' adaptation to the pandemic and resulting economic forecast, as well as how they believe those issues are being handled by their organization and the government.

The percentage of respondents who said they were at least somewhat optimistic about the economy rose to 42% in the recent analysis, compared with 30% in the summer survey. This time around, 71% said they were at least somewhat optimistic about their organizations, compared with the previous 65%. And while 54% expected at least a moderate decrease in year-over-year revenue, that number is down from 70%.

"Executives were battle-tested in the spring and summer when they put strategic plans and key initiatives into play while reforecasting their financials," said Ann Lathrop, chief marketing officer at Crowe. "Our data illustrates the resiliency that executives have built up over the past few months when reporting their own sentiment. Spikes in case numbers, potential lockdowns and even the uncertainty leading up to the election didn't cause extreme reactions like we saw a few months ago."

Demonstrating that uptick in positivity, 31% of respondents expected 2020 to conclude with at least a moderate revenue increase, compared with just 17% in the previous survey. Signs of organizational confidence, which has been clear throughout the survey series, grew as well. While headlines point to layoffs, facility closures and other operational changes from the pandemic, the fact that more than three in 10 businesses believe revenue ultimately will increase in 2020 is an important forecasting point as the new year approaches.

Other key survey findings included:

  • Respondents were asked to predict when COVID-19's impact on their organizations will meaningfully lessen: 16% reported that it already has, 12% selected the first quarter of 2021, 21% chose the second quarter of 2021, 19% said the third quarter of 2021, 8% chose the fourth quarter of 2021 and 8% selected 2022 or after.
  • Optimism about the overall economy also increased, with 42% of respondents at least somewhat bullish compared with 30% in the summer survey.
  • When asked about the estimated change in profits/revenue in 2020 compared with 2019, 31% reported an expected increase, 15% expected they would stay the same and 54% expected a decrease.
  • For businesses that reported they underwent a financial reforecasting in March or April, 51% said they were beating those forecasts, 29% said the revised projections had been about right and 20% reported actual revenue was lower than forecasted.
  • Respondents were asked to rank on a scale of 1 (very low) to 7 (very high) how concerned they are about additional waves or outbreaks of COVID-19: about 13% were in the low range of concern, 17% were neutral and 69% were in the high range.
  • When asked to rate the government's response to the pandemic, 30% rated it as good or excellent in the fall survey compared with 22% in the summer.
  • When asked if their organization will likely be investing in new technology in the next three to six months 75% reported they will definitely be or likely be doing so. "The expected increase in technology spending is encouraging, as many companies have adapted to a digital and flexible work environment," added Lathrop.

The fall report also specifically looks at the financial services industry, comprised of banks, credit unions, broker-dealers and fintech organizations. Sixty percent of financial services respondents expected a decrease in their year-over-year revenue, compared to 50% in other sectors. "Financial services executives are well-versed at forecasting and, given the feedback from the Federal Reserve that interest rates will stay low for the foreseeable future, they have a pretty clear picture of how the year should turn out," said Mike Percy, managing partner of the Crowe financial services group. Illustrating that point, 39% of financial services respondents that reforecasted financials in March or April reported their predictions turned out to be accurate, the highest percentage of accurate forecasts of any industry.

Additional findings from the financial services industry include:

  • When asked about their optimism toward the overall economy, 44% were optimistic, 17% were neutral and 40% were pessimistic.
  • When asked how concerned they are about additional waves or outbreaks of COVID-19, 9% of financial services respondents were in the low range of concern, 23% were neutral and 68% were in the high range.
  • Eighty-four percent of financial services respondents said their organizations were likely to or definitely will invest in technology in the coming months.
  • When asked about which issues challenge them, 54% of financial services respondents indicated decreased top-line revenue, 48% said cyber or data privacy risks, 47% reported keeping up with regulators and compliance and 47% noted concerns about acceleration or transformation of digital technology.

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