Director Confidence Index – April 2023
This month's findings
April reading of director confidence shows a reversal from March’s sharp SVB-led decline, though directors say they still don’t expect conditions to improve much over the next 12 months.
Last month’s bank crisis hit director optimism hard. Corporate Board Member’s Director Confidence Index, a monthly survey conducted in partnership with the Diligent Institute, dropped more than 7 percent in March. But if there was a lasting impact to the SVB crisis, it isn’t registering in our survey data, at least not in April.
In our latest polling, directors rated current business conditions at 6.1 out of 10, measured on a scale where 10 is Excellent and 1 is Poor—and forecasted business conditions 12 months from now to be 6.1. Both readings reflect a 5 percent increase from March, when they both registered at 5.8.
That doesn’t mean things are looking up for the remainder of the year. Sixty-three percent of the 177 public company board members we surveyed April 17-19 said they either expect business conditions to deteriorate further over the next 12 months (36 percent) or at best remain unchanged (27 percent). Only 37 percent expect them to improve.
The Fed’s ability to combat persistent inflation and the risk of recession that the response may trigger is the main reason for the discomfort. Adding to this, directors say, is slowing demand and continued uncertainty that makes planning very difficult.
All of this aligns with findings from Diligent Institute’s Corporate Sentiment Tracker, an AI-powered tool monitoring the issues corporate leaders are speaking about most frequently in the news and whether they are feeling positively or negatively about those issues. At the time this story is being written, the news being analyzed in the Sentiment Tracker is about 54% positive.
The Fed's Influence
Overall, 62 percent of the directors polled mentioned inflation, interest rates or the Fed as part of the reason behind their rating.
While 69 percent expect the May outcome of the Fed’s meeting to be a quarter-point increase, most don’t anticipate it to be the end of the tightening policy. Fifty-six percent said they don’t see the end of rate hikes until at least Q3.
“The Fed needs to be predictable in the fight against inflation and modest (0.25 or less), but steady increases may be in order,” said a director on the board of an industrial manufacturer.
“I think they will pause in May (particularly after the current banking issues) to see how the inflation, wages and unemployment react. They are likely not done, but I believe a pause may be in the cards,” said a REIT director.
“Economic policy is based in part on historic experience, but we have never had so many remote workers and empty offices, a new approach may be necessary,” said another director participating in the survey.
Some, still, are hopeful this will be short-lived. “We have a tough external environment for another 18 months and then clear sailing for at least 5 years,” said a director at a healthcare company.
The Year Ahead
In April, directors’ forecasts for their organizations’ top and bottom line remained relatively unchanged from prior month, with 62 percent expecting increasing profitability by April 2024 (vs. 61 percent in March), 69 percent expecting increased revenues (from 68 percent in March) and 35 percent planning to increase capex (from 33 percent).
With earnings season on the way and the recently finalized SEC rules around pay-for-performance, we asked directors if they had observed renewed pressure from shareholders around the issue. The response was mixed, with 45 percent saying yes, they had noticed an increase in the frequency or depth of those conversations—and the remainder saying they hadn’t observed any change.
For now though, 67 percent said that hasn’t sparked any conversation or change to their company’s executive compensation, as many believe they already have strong comp plans they don’t fear would get challenged. An overwhelming 80 percent said, in fact, the SEC’s rules
aren’t likely to bring about significant change in the exec comp space in general.
“Both my public boards have long utilized pay-for performance, so I can’t see any changes other than new reporting,” said Alan Krusi, who serves on the board of Granite Construction Incorporated. “CEO pay in both cases has greater than 50% tied to company financial performance.”
Finally, when asked if they support the DOJ’s new pilot program that seeks to improve compliance by reducing the size of non-compliance penalties and fines for companies that claw back compensation and incentives from corporate wrongdoers, the response was mixed. A third said they hadn’t made up their mind, and another third said they were supportive but would like to see some tweaks made. At both ends of the spectrum, 18 percent said they were against it, and 16 percent said they were fully in favor of it.
“I understand the reason for trying to measure how contingent awards actually paid out over time. I’m just not sure it will bring about any meaningful changes,” said Peter Bain, who serves on the board of Virtus Investment Partners.
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