Corporate leaders are far less bullish about the economic recovery than they were back in the spring — and they fear that vaccination holdouts could stall or even reverse the progress that has been made.
A new survey by the National Association for Business Economics, or NABE, found a marked pullback in expectations for economic growth and output, especially in the near term. Survey respondents expect real growth in gross domestic product for this year to come in at 5.6 percent at the median — a significant drop from the median 6.7 percent growth expected in May, when the survey was last conducted.
"The erosion of forecasts and confidence has really mirrored what our economists have been saying, because we brought down our Q3 GDP forecast from 7.0 to 5.6 percent," said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA Research. "We just feel that things don't look as rosy as they did before."
Nearly 2 in 5 NABE survey respondents said downside economic risk outweighs upside risk for the year, and just 16 percent said conditions are weighted toward the upside. The figures were reversed in May, when 56 percent ranked upside risk as a higher probability and just 15 percent said saw greater downside risk to the outlook.
The key difference, and the factor that is weighing on hopes for the recovery, is the resurgence of Covid-19 fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. Everybody who was banking on the pandemic's receding over the summer has had to modify their expectations in the face of a public health crisis that shows no sign of abating.
"We all believed we were through the pandemic five months ago, and I believe that the variant has caught many people by surprise," said Joseph Heider, president of Cirrus Wealth Management. "As this lingers on, executives are becoming more concerned and asking, 'Are we going to have this under control?'"
NABE survey chair Holly Wade, executive director of the NFIB Research Center, said in the survey outlook report, "Panelists point to a variant of the coronavirus, against which the vaccines may be ineffective as the main downside risk." Nearly two-thirds of respondents identified that as the greatest downside risk to the economy, and 9 percent more cited slowing vaccine uptake as the most worrisome hurdle. A plurality of 44 percent said a faster vaccine rollout is the best chance for higher-than-expected economic gain.
Heider said: "Vaccine resistance is, I think, larger than many people anticipated. I think it's creating real concerns as to our ability to reach herd immunity. And when we don't have herd immunity, the unvaccinated are human petri dishes for the virus to mutate."
Although the virus represents the biggest threat to near-term business recovery, analysts said it is far from the only headwind corporations face. "There's just many more variables and unknowns than there were six months ago," said Dick Pfister, CEO of AlphaCore Wealth Advisory.
In addition to the threat of Covid and potential variants, Pfister said, companies and investors are monitoring other unfolding circumstances. The Federal Reserve is edging closer to ending its bond buying, and more policymakers have expressed openness to raising interest rates sooner. The financial peril faced by the heavily indebted Chinese real estate giant Evergrande is making investors nervous, he said, as they try to gauge whether the company's teetering on the brink of collapse was an isolated incident.
"There's probably more than just one, and there are some fears from economists that this could be more systematic inside of China," he said.
A globally connected economy poses other sorts of risks, as well: A cascading series of bottlenecks in the global supply chain affecting semiconductors to energy has triggered much of the growing worry about rapidly increasing prices. The NABE survey found that 17 percent of respondents said supply chain disruptions were having a "significant impact" on business, while 27 percent more cited mild or moderate impacts.
"Inflation expectations have moved up significantly from those in the May 2021 survey," Wade said. On average, NABE respondents expect inflation to rise by 5.1 percent in the fourth quarter year over year, a jump from an expected 2.8 percent increase in the May survey.
David Wagner, portfolio manager at Aptus Capital Advisors, said the duration and the breadth of global supply disruption have triggered a re-evaluation in corner offices in the U.S. and around the world. In the spring, "it seemed like the supply chain problem was transitory," but the assumptions were dashed as the summer went on, he said, adding: "Supply chain problems are persisting for much longer than originally expected.
"Now that you're starting to see some kind of tangible supply chain backlog, I think that's got more people pessimistic. It caught people by surprise," Wagner said.
Rob Haworth, senior investment strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management, said, "Supply concerns are weighing on the mind of the market and economists because it has limited the amount of output we can get from certain industries."
Along with the supply shortages that are hindering production and driving up costs, the unbalanced labor market continues to constrain growth, as well — but there also are glimpses within those distortions of potential normalization. Although about one-third of survey respondents said they were facing a surfeit of workers, a larger proportion, 44 percent, said they were not experiencing a labor shortage. Respondents predict wage growth of 4 percent for the year, followed by a 3.5 percent increase next year — rates broadly in line with what many economists consider to be indicative of a well-functioning labor market.
"The labor market is not fully recovered — we're seeing that across other surveys, as well, and even the Fed's own Beige Book indicates that hiring has been challenging," Haworth said. "There's a lot of room for improvement, but it's really slow going."