Financial professionals see some remaining threats to long-term economic stability in parts of the world and believe the recovery may be limited to a few islands of financial stability, according to a new survey.
The survey, from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and the Institute of Management Accountants, found a pronounced recovery in business confidence in North America in the second quarter of the year, with the U.S. emerging as one of the few markets in which a genuine recovery is still underway. Overall business confidence in the U.S. increased despite stagnating consumer demand and cash flow conditions, crossing into positive territory with its highest reading in the history of the ACCA and IMA Global Economic Conditions Survey so far.
The survey found that 32 percent of U.S. respondents reported confidence gains over the past three months, up from 25 percent in early 2014. Businesses’ new-found confidence was backed up by a rise in job creation and capital spending.
In contrast to the U.S., some of the global star performers of 2013, including the U.K. and Ireland, were losing business confidence during the second quarter of 2014 once again, pulling confidence at the global level down marginally.
For businesses, the most notable change since early 2014 was a significant further easing of access to growth capital, prompting an increase in capacity building, in terms of both capital spending and new hires. High-tech sectors continued to lead the U.S. recovery, although retailers finally started to recover as well, a sign that consumer spending could rebound later in 2014.
According to the five-year report, the financial crisis and global recession have fragmented into multiple unresolved issues—including damaged bank and government balance sheets, unconventional economic policies, political polarization and geopolitical tensions. These problems are, by and large, still present five years later, despite a growing “recovery consensus.”
The five-year review also highlights how, since mid-2012, business confidence gains have been much stronger in the financial sector than among the world’s small- and medium-sized enterprises and large corporations. While conceding the benefits of stronger banks on business investment, the survey warns of a growing imbalance fuelled primarily by central banks.
“A recovery that is confined to the financial sector is not sustainable,” said ACCA senior economic analyst Manos Schizas in a statement. “Policymakers need to start asking hard questions about what’s really underlying this in terms of consumer spending, business investment and leverage.”
ACCA and IMA have also called on policymakers to take stock of the impact of unconventional monetary policy by developed countries—particularly the unintended spillovers into emerging markets.
“Emerging markets in Asia and Africa have had to contend with damaging flows of hot money’ as a result of policies over which they had no choice. Institutionally, they are also much worse equipped to deal with the fallout than the countries that set the flows in motion,” said IMA vice president of research and policy Raef Lawson in a statement.
The findings for Q2 2014 illustrate just how quickly a recovery based on a buoyant financial sector can be reversed. Survey figures for large financial institutions in the U.S. and Europe indicate that confidence retreated sharply in anticipation of tougher stress tests, rising interest rates and falling property prices, geopolitical risks, and the threat of tougher regulatory enforcement.
A health check of the recovery indicates that businesses around the world have been holding back on long-overdue investment for years, while austerity-hit public sectors have often sacrificed public investment in order to maintain government consumption levels. The result has been a significant loss of productivity that will take years to reverse.
ACCA and IMA believe, however, that a rebound in investment that began in 2013 will be the biggest economic story of 2014, shaping industries for years to come. Access to finance has recovered consistently in most regions and businesses are increasingly seeking growth capital, and where shortages of capital exist these are increasingly due to structural rather than cyclical factors.