Rising inflation and flat investment have kept the world’s economic recovery stuck in reverse, the latest Global Economic Conditions survey from ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) has shown.
Of the 2,186 ACCA members surveyed around the world between 16 May and 6 June 2011, only 26% reported increased confidence, down from 28% three months ago, with 57% saying that economic conditions are either deteriorating or stagnating, up from 51% only three months ago.
While the rocketing inflation of the first quarter of 2011 was not repeated in the second three months, a greater proportion of those surveyed, 54% - up from 51% in the last quarter - reported an increase in operating costs. This is double the number of respondents who mentioned inflation two years ago.
The survey shows that rising costs are not just confined to the fastest-growing economies.
While best performing markets Malaysia and Pakistan are leading the inflation league table, rising costs were also cited by 45% of respondents in Western Europe, which has been affected by the continent’s debt crisis, still sits at the bottom of the ranking in terms of business confidence and economic optimism.
The survey shows that businesses are becoming increasingly unable to respond to the inflationary challenge through cost-cutting.
Around 30% of respondents expect their governments to get spending decisions right in the medium-term, but 16.5% expect dangerous levels of over- or under-spending and this group has been growing every quarter since late 2009.
Access to finance has been tightening globally for the past six months, and this appears to be the case for both growth capital and short-term liquidity. This, combined with rising costs, now appears to be leading to an increase in the number of respondents who fear that customers (31%) or suppliers (15%) might go out of business, as well as those reporting problems with late payment (31%).
Despite these worrying trends, confidence figures among finance professionals have not yet dipped to a situation where they believe there will be a renewed downturn.
For the past two years, professionals in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region have been consistently more optimistic than their colleagues elsewhere about the state of the economic recovery, and this resulted in high levels of confidence in their own organisations.
In this survey, however, confidence is surprisingly low in both regions, with Asia-Pacific recording a net loss of confidence for the first time in two years. Hong Kong and Malaysia seem to be particularly affected, while Singapore has bucked the trend by recording further confidence gains.
While the gloom in the Far East reflects the fallout from the disaster in Japan, flagging confidence in Africa is mostly a lagged effect of the slowdown elsewhere. The GECS results show that the impact of a drop in activity in OECD countries has for the last few months been trickling down the supply chain, first to the Asia-Pacific region and then to Africa.
However, unlike the previous quarter, most of the pressure on access to finance appears to be concentrated on Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.
Under these challenging conditions, profitable value-added opportunities of most types have become scarcer and the investment environment has deteriorated slightly, especially in terms of financing and business support. Still, investment itself has remained flat and the outlook for employment and investment in staff has even improved slightly. This is almost certainly related to the slow recovery in new orders.
'There are a number of concerns in the latest report, including that the loss of momentum in Asia and Africa has become particularly pronounced in the last few months," says report author Manos Schizas, senior policy adviser with ACCA. "The limits of austerity are also being explored in Western Europe and a renewed tightening of credit and cashflow conditions could be on the cards, even as new orders and employment are beginning to recover.
'If these new trends - coupled with high inflation and low investment - persist we would expect to see further instability in the near future, which will present more challenges for all sectors professional accountants whether they work in practice or industry in the second half of 2011.'
The latest survey recorded the first ever net loss of confidence in the region since ACCA’s surveys began more than two years ago. Of the major ACCA markets, Hong Kong and Malaysia seem to be particularly affected, while the Chinese mainland has managed only a small loss of confidence. Only Singapore has bucked the trend by recording further confidence gains.
ACCA believes that this quarter’s findings have been heavily influenced by the catastrophic events in Japan; overall, more respondents in the region still believe that global economic conditions are improving or about to do so (49%) than the opposite (41%). But the report also notes that there is a wider trend at play; the region’s accountants have seen ever smaller confidence gains in the last two years and the recovery in Asia is being delayed by the Western world’s continued economic malaise.
Inflation continued to rise throughout the region, with 71% of respondents reporting rising operating costs for their organisations and clients, up from 62% in the last quarter. Of course it is not just ACCA that is worried by this trend; authorities in many parts of the region are reigning in the supply of credit, which is the survey suggests is currently growing at its slowest pace in 18 months.
Respondents in the region have revised their expectations on medium-term (5yr) government spending downwards as they prepare for further government efforts to control inflation.
As a consequence of the continued monetary tightening, the share of respondents in the region who reported problems accessing finance (32%) rose significantly compared to the last quarter.
The share of respondents reporting falling income and problems due to volatile exchange rates also rose. Fortunately these problems are not (yet) putting undue strain on cashflow and businesses don’t appear to be failing at a faster rate, while last quarter’s marginally negative trend in investment also remained unchanged.
Opportunities, however, have continued to present themselves to accountants and their employers. In the latest quarter, respondents saw increased opportunities to profit from changes in customer behaviour, and despite subdued demand in the last quarter they see more opportunities to increase orders in the immediate future.
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