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It's almost impossible to find a CEO who isn't bracing for a recession

Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Jamie Dimon testifies during a hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Sept. 21, 2022.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
Chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. Jamie Dimon testifies during a hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services at Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Sept. 21, 2022.

Top business leaders are preparing for the worst.

Federal Reserve officials maintain they'll be able to get surging inflation under control without triggering a recession, but almost every chief executive in the United States is getting ready to face an economic downturn in the next 12 to 18 months, according to a recent survey from The Conference Board.

"Our CEOs are overwhelmingly bracing for a recession — both in the United States, and in Europe," says Steve Odland, the head of the business trade group.

It seems almost impossible to find one who doesn't foresee a global downturn, with 98% of chief executives in the survey gearing up for a recession in the United States, and 99% prepping for one in Europe.

CEO confidence has now eroded to lows last seen during the Great Recession, the survey found.

The Fed's fight against high inflation has been getting tougher, stoking worries that the rapid fire of aggressive interest rate hikes will lead to a downturn. Executives and professional investors have begun issuing more somber warnings.

One of the world's most powerful CEOs, Jamie Dimon, delivered a gloomy assessment that startled Wall Street this week during an interview with CNBC.

The head of JPMorgan Chase & Co. said he expects the United States will be in a recession "six, nine months from now," and Europe is already in one.

Back in June, Dimon forecasted an economic "hurricane" on the horizon. That storm seems to have strengthened, and now he seems sure it's about to hit.

CEOs are battening down the hatches even though most are expecting a mild recession

Before he became The Conference Board's CEO, Steve Odland ran Office Depot, and he said companies want to do everything they can to cut back on overhead before a recession hits.

"You want to batten down the hatches," he says. "You really want to constrain the cost side while maximizing the revenue side."

Meta's Mark Zuckerberg has reportedly told his staff to expect layoffs in the near future. And FedEx, which is seen as an economic bellwether, is closing stores and cutting back on deliveries as its CEO warns of a global recession.

On Wall Street, the conversation has shifted from "Will there be a recession?" to "What would a recession look like?"

"I don't see a Great Recession," says David Rubenstein, the co-founder of The Carlyle Group, and the author of "How to Invest: Masters on the Craft," referring to the downturn that stretched from December 2007 to June 2009.

"I see, if we have a recession, a modest recession — a two-quarter type of recession, not a one-year type of recession."

That prediction is in line with what CEOs told The Conference Board, with 85% of those surveyed expecting a "brief and shallow" recession.

There's still a lot of strength in the U.S. economy that could keep it from falling apart as it did during the Great Recession, when a housing downturn led to the collapse of banks as well as household savings.

Right now, people are still spending, and many of them are not overextended. On top of that, companies have sound balance sheets, and the jobs market is incredibly strong. In September, the unemployment rate fell to 3.5%.

And there is no indication CEOs expect that strength to diminish dramatically anytime soon.

Almost half of those surveyed said they plan to hire more workers over the next 12 months, and 85% of them said they expect to boost pay by 3% or more.

"That's unheard of from this group, going into a recession," says Odland. "Typically, you would hear that they're cutting back. That that they are not going to increase wages."

What if you threw a recession and nobody came?

No one can accurately predict what a recession will be like, how long it will last or even if it will happen.

"There is a lot of people who think that we will likely head into a recession in the United States at some point next year," said Rubenstein. "But nobody knows for certain."

There have been two consecutive quarters of negative growth in the United States, and that is seen as a rule of thumb for a determining when the economy is in a recession. But it is actually up to a non-profit group not tied to the government, the National Bureau of Economic Research, to officially determine that the economy is, in fact, in a recession. And that determination could take months.

Fed officials, including Chair Jerome Powell, still say they can nail a so-called "soft-landing," where high inflation is vanquished without pushing the country into a recession. But policymakers, economists, and investors agree that path has gotten narrower, and most business leaders expect the landing will be a little rocky, at least.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.