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What's worrying CEOs as they gather in Davos?

PwC Survey: CEO confidence rises
PwC Survey: CEO confidence rises 02:21

The uncertain outlook for economic growth is weighing heavily on the minds of captains of industry as they, along with other global elites, descend on Davos, Switzerland, this week for the yearly World Economic Forum.

Of the nearly 1,400 business leaders who participated in consulting firm PwC’s 20th annual worldwide survey of chief executive officers, some 82 percent are worried that “uncertain economic growth” is a threat to their companies’ futures. Chief executive officers who participated in the survey -- conducted late last year and released at the start of Davos -- said “over-regulation,” skill shortages among workers, geopolitical uncertainty and the rapid speed of technological change are also among the top 10 threats to their firms’ growth. 

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Despite such worries, a fair number of CEOs are bullish on their own companies’ near-term outlooks. Some 38 percent of business leaders who participated in the PwC survey said they are “very confident” in their companies’ revenue growth for 2017. Slightly more than half (51 percent) are “very confident” in their firms’ revenue expansion for the next three years – a level of CEO optimism hasn’t been seen since the post-financial crisis period.

“Despite a tumultuous 2016, CEO confidence is moving back up – albeit slowly and still a long way from the levels we saw back in 2007,” said Robert Moritz, PwC’s global chairman, in a prepared statement.

“There are signs,” he added, “of optimism right across the globe, including in the United Kingdom and the United States, where, despite predictions of a Trump slump and Brexit, CEOs’ confidence in their companies’ growth is up from 2016.”

For workers across the globe, rising CEO confidence may translate into job gains. More than half (52 percent) of CEOs who participated in the PwC survey said they expect to boost company staffing levels during the next 12 months. CEOs from the United Kingdom, China, India and Canada are among those with the most-ambitious hiring plans for 2017. By industry, business leaders in the money management, health care and technology sectors have the most-ambitious hiring plans. The public sector, meanwhile, has the worst outlook for hiring.

While fewer than 20 percent of CEOs surveyed by PwC expect to reduce the overall head count at their companies, technology and automation will continue to play a role in job losses in certain industries. Business leaders said a whopping 80 percent of the jobs on the chopping block will be affected in some way by technology or automation.

Given the rise of populism in the United States and other parts of the world, it’s not surprising that many CEOs are fretting about the prospect of protectionist trade policies. Nearly 60 percent of CEOs surveyed by PwC are worried about protectionism. The figure is even higher for CEOs of companies based in the U.S. and Mexico.

Interestingly, CEOs, like the legions of workers they oversee, have mixed feelings about the effects of globalization. PwC’s yearly survey has long found that CEOs believe that globalization has helped to improve the worldwide flow of capital, people, goods and information -- in other words, it has been good for business.

But this year’s survey also found that CEOs are less sanguine about globalization’s role in helping to alleviate major social and environmental problems. Some 44 percent of respondents said that globalization has done little to help close the gap between the world’s rich and poor. In addition, nearly 30 percent said it hasn’t done much to avert climate change and resource scarcity.

Reporting for CBS News from Davos, Switzerland: Lulu Chiang, Lauren Hoenemeyer and Gilad Thaler  

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