CFOs worried about economic impact of coronavirus

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CFOs in the U.S. and Mexico are increasingly concerned about the ramifications of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers, with 87 percent of the CFOs polled expressing great concern for their businesses and 80 percent anticipating COVID-19 will decrease their revenue or profits this year.

This is the second poll released this month by PwC, and shows a 33 and 22 point increase respectively from responses it received during the week of March 9 (see our story). The latest "PwC COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey," released Monday, found that only 16 percent of the CFOs polled are considering layoffs in the next month. Nevertheless, the Department of Labor reported that 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment in the week ended March 21, a record number of jobless claims.

The PwC survey found companies quickly adjusting their business strategies in response to the pandemic, as 85 percent of the CFOs polled said they’ve already taken financial action as a result of COVID-19, with most focusing on cost containment measures (67 percent), and deferring or cancelling planned investments (58 percent). Other strategies include evaluating facilities costs, general capital expenditures, information technology and workforce.

PwC has been seeing its own clients cutting expenses in recent weeks to help with cash flow. “What we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, and this comes through in the survey, is liquidity, is so key right now,” said Tim Ryan, PwC US chair and senior partner, during a conference call with reporters Monday. “Companies are not necessarily cutting expenses for profit. They’re cutting expenses, first and foremost, to save cash, and secondly to make sure they can hold onto as many people as possible. Discretionary spending has gone down. The hardest hit areas have been travel, entertainment, and investment in learning and development. In many cases, we’re seeing companies that have longer-term strategic initiatives in digital put on pause. Without a doubt, real estate investment is down. We’re seeing that come to a significant slowdown as companies are doing everything they can to protect cash. The one that hasn’t jumped to the forefront is people. We’re seeing an amazing rally around retaining people, and that’s an expense that we’ve largely seen hasn’t been cut.”

Over half the CFOs surveyed (56 percent) are anticipating greater desire for actions and benefits that help ease the burden for employees. While 84 percent of the CFOs polled increasingly fear an impending global recession, the majority of the survey respondents (76 percent) believe their company can return to business-as-usual within three months if COVID-19 were resolved today, but that’s down 14 points from responses fielded the week of March 9. In any case, no cure has been found for the coronavirus, although a number of clinical trials and experimental treatments are now underway.

Ryan noted that in companies that have critical needs for items in high demand during the pandemic like surgical gowns and gloves and respirators, businesses are dramatically changing their production lines as well as their supply chain.

“When you think about a crisis that impacts just about your whole value chain, including your financial sustainability, who better than the CFO to be the calm, stabilizing influence in this environment and other environments,” Jeff Thomson, president and CEO of the Institute of Management Accountants, told Accounting Today during a separate interview Monday. “The CFO is not only the one who helps ensure the organization has a strong balance sheet and cash position to ride through tragedies or pandemics like this, but the CFO has really their pulse on the entire enterprise operation.”

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