International business report (IBR)

Widespread uncertainty fuels drop in optimism globally

Following a period of heightened optimism and strong economic growth, the outlook for businesses in 2019 is markedly more reserved as the global economic cycle cools and political uncertainty begins to bite, according to the latest research from Grant Thornton’s International Business Report (IBR). The research, which gathers responses biannually from 5,000 business leaders in 35 economies including the G20, found that global optimism is now sitting at net 39%, a significant fall of 15pp from 54% in Q2 of 2018. The fall in business optimism is likely driven by economic uncertainty which has spiked at net 50%.

Similar to the global outlook, optimism in Singapore has fallen and now sits at net 18%, down 14pp and the weakest score since Q3 2017. The fall in optimism is also visible in other areas, just 4% of businesses expect to see an increase in employment over the coming year. 58% of those surveyed in Singapore said that labour costs were constraining their ability to expand and grow their business, compared to just 8% in Q2 2018. 47% of those surveyed in Singapore hope to increase the salaries of their employees over the next 12 months. This was 23pp lower than ASEAN, where 70% of business leaders surveyed hope to increase salaries. Across the ASEAN and Asia Pacific optimism also fell slightly, reflecting the current global economic climate. Whilst developed APAC suffered most as optimism fell 17pp to -12%. 

The report also found that despite the ominous global outlook and slowdown in GDP growth for many advanced economies, emerging APAC have broadly bucked the prevailing gloom. Reflective of the increasing regional economic integration and collaboration between south-east Asian countries and a reducing reliance on trade with China whose economic slowdown is beginning to have knock on effects.

David Peneycad, global leader, Grant Thornton International says: “While global financial markets are increasingly volatile, business leaders in the real economy remain optimistic because global GDP is forecast to continue growing and they know their business will grow with it. Despite increasing down side risk, economic fundamentals remain strong and opportunities exist.”

European sentiment has dropped 18pp to 28% since Q2 2018, and in the UK, optimism has plummeted to 9% as the spectre of Brexit looms large. Revenue expectations are in sharp decline at net 41%, down from net 59% and profitability expectations also took a hit, down globally at net 39%, a decrease of 9pp. However, it’s not all bad news and despite the spike in uncertainty, over 60% of respondents were either optimistic or very optimistic about the future. This is reflected in export expectations with only 11% expecting a decrease and 84% of leaders expecting revenues to either stay the same or increase.

Traditionally, in times of economic uncertainty, additional expenditure and investment seems counter-intuitive and many businesses tend to shore up their operations and significantly reduce or cease investment. However, this is a time when investing in capabilities and infrastructure can pay dividends and, when the economy turns, prudent businesses can react with speed to take advantage.

David Peneycad says: “As the economic cycle cools, it’s clear that business globally won’t have it as good as they did in 2018. However, with the IMF predicting global economic growth of 3.5% in 2019, there is not a clear consensus about the probability or timing of a global recession. What we are seeing is a return to normality with more balanced and sustainable growth for economies.”