CFOs expressed concern about a wide range of issues in the most recent Duke University/CFO magazine Global Business Outlook Survey, but above all they fear that an array of intensifying economic pressures will finally affect U.S. consumers and their demand for goods and services. With the costs of fuel and health care high on CFOs' list of worries, many expect the once-indefatigable U.S. consumer to finally take a break.
"Most employees' paychecks are not going to increase at the same rate that fuel and fuel-related spending are going to increase," says Michael Herbert, CFO of Delta Dental Kansas. "Consumers are going to have to make decisions about where they're going to spend their shrinking dollars."
Holiday spending trends bear out CFOs' concerns about consumer demand. U.S. holiday sales rose just 3 percent, below the 4 percent expected by the National Retail Federation. It was the slowest holiday-season growth since 2002.
The decline in consumer spending also puts pressure on industries far away from the mall. Robert Coleman, finance chief at Ohio Valley Aluminum Co., a provider of aluminum to manufacturers that supply the construction and automotive industries, says he expects a weak 2008. "Our customers' business is down 15 to 20 percent or so, which obviously has an impact on us," he says. Coleman says that raw-materials costs have been "all over the place," adding further uncertainty to the outlook for the year.
The cost of labor ranked second on the list of concerns for U.S. CFOs and was the top problem for their peers in Europe and Asia. Kevan Blair, finance chief at Ralph Wadsworth Construction, a highway construction contractor based in Utah, says finding workers is his number-one worry. "We're trying to steal qualified employees from other companies by luring them away with good benefits and salaries," he says. Of course, that leads to another problem — the high cost of health care, which CFOs placed fifth on their list of concerns.