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CEO confidence rises for the first time in over 2 years, but still remains at decade low

Data: Business Roundtable; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A closely-watched CEO economic confidence index rose for the first time after declining for nine straight quarters, according to a survey of 150 chief executives of the biggest U.S. companies by trade group Business Roundtable.

Why it matters: The index, which still remains at a decade low, reflects corporate America's expectations for sales, hiring and spending — which plummeted amid uncertainty when the pandemic hit.

  • CEOs believe economic conditions won't get worse than earlier this year, though the Business Roundtable warns 0f looming economic damage without another stimulus package.
  • A new stimulus round looks increasingly unlikely in the short-term, given the looming Senate fight over Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's replacement.

The state of play: The index jumped nearly 30 points to 64.

  • For context, the series rose to its highest level ever of 118 in Q1 2018 — reflecting optimism about the Trump tax cuts.
  • It's fallen every single quarter since as the U.S.-China trade war rocked CEO confidence and economic optimism plummeted.

By the numbers: CEO expectations for hiring, sales growth and spending on things like new buildings and equipment improved in Q3 — but remain below the survey's historical average.

  • Only 21% of CEOs say sales will decrease within the next six months, while nearly double said the same last quarter. 57% expect sales to increase, versus 45% last quarter.
  • A slightly larger share of CEOsexpect employment to fall at their companies within the next six months (34%) than those that expect to increase hiring (31%). In Q2, 22% said hiring would increase, while 46% expected hiring to decrease.

The Business Roundtable index adds to evidence that CEO confidence in the economy is bouncing back after a crushing decline when the pandemic hit, even as the economy continues to struggle and the virus is still raging. The fate of smaller businesses across the country is much more dire.

  • Most CEOs (40%) said business conditions will return to pre-COVID levels next year, while 36% believe their companies will recover in 2022 or later.
  • Nearly a quarter said business never declined, recovered already or will do so by the year's end.

The big picture: CEOs said the economy would shrink by 2.4% this year — a more optimistic estimate than the 3.8% contraction they projected in Q2.

What they're saying: "Further major support from the federal government is necessary to prevent economic recovery from being derailed," Business Roundtable CEO Joshua Bolten said in a statement.

  • Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who chairs the group, said the Trump administration and Congress should "come back to the negotiation table and pass more legislation to further ease economic challenges" for workers and small businesses.

Go deeper: Consumer confidence drops as CEO confidence picks up amid the pandemic

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