CFO survey: firms being hacked, taking action to protect data

CFO survey: firms being hacked, taking action to protect data

US companies lead the world in preventive cybersecurity policies, followed in order of preventive activity by companies in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The proportion of firms indicating they are having difficulty hiring and retaining qualified employees remains near a two-decade high in several regions of the world.

Optimism remains at record levels

The optimism index in the United States remained at an all-time high of 71 on a 100-point scale. This increased US optimism appears to have increased expectations for M&A activity. More than 70% of CFOs expect more mergers and acquisitions to occur over the next year.

Optimism in Europe inched up to 68 this quarter, from 67 last quarter. Optimism in the UK fell to 57, while optimism remains strong in France and Germany, and has picked up in Spain and the Netherlands. Capital spending is expected to grow 6%, and employment growth should be nearly 3%. For the second month in a row, the top concern among European CFOs is attracting and retaining qualified employees, followed by economic uncertainty, regulatory and government policies, and data security. One-in-five European firms say their systems have been penetrated by hackers. Two-thirds have installed new software and 62% have taken steps like two-factor authentication to make it more difficult for hackers. Generally speaking, European companies are somewhat less active in taking anti-hacking steps than are firms in the United States.

Optimism index

Author provided

Optimism in Asia inched down from 61 last quarter to 60 this quarter. Difficulty attracting qualified employees, economic uncertainty, government policies, weak demand, and currency risk are top concerns in the region. Capital spending is expected to grow about 7%, and employment 3.6%, over the next 12 months. One-in-five Asian firms say their systems have been penetrated by hackers. Fifty-six% have taken steps like two-factor authentication to make it more difficult for hackers, and 48% have installed new software. Overall preventive cybersecurity is lower in Asia relative to the U.S. and Europe.

Latin American optimism slipped this quarter, down to 64 in Mexico, 69 in Chile, 54 in Brazil, and only 36 in Ecuador. Optimism increased to 61 in Peru. Nearly half of firms in Peru say that economic prospects have improved since President Kuczynski resigned, compared to only 16% who say prospects worsened. Sixty-one% say that the political and economic environment has stabilized.

Economic uncertainty is the top concern among Latin American CFOs, with 69% of firms listing it as a top-four concern. Other concerns include government policies, worker productivity, and currency risk. Capital spending is expected to grow 2.5% and employment 2.2% over the next year. Eighteen percent of Latin American firms say their systems have been penetrated by hackers. Nearly 55% have taken steps like two-factor authentication to make it more difficult for hackers, 38% have installed new software or changed procedures, and 32% have increased employee training on best practices. Generally speaking, Latin American firms have taken fewer anti-hacking steps than companies in other parts of the globe.

Business optimism in South Africa fell to 51 this quarter, down from 59 last quarter. Nigerian optimism fell to 54 from 62. Median employment should increase by 3.6% over the next 12 months, while capital spending will fall. Interest rates are expected to fall over the next year, leading to increased business spending next year. The biggest concerns for African CFOs are governmental policies, economic uncertainty, corruption, access to capital, and employee morale. Twenty-seven% of African firms say their systems have been penetrated by hackers. Sixty-one% have taken steps like two-factor authentication to make it more difficult for hackers and 52% have installed new software or changed procedures. The amount of preventive corporate cybersecurity policies is less in Africa than in the U.S. and Europe but is greater than in Asia and Latin America.

Average global business outlook

GDP weighted average global business outlook, World Bank GDP constant prices in US dollars. Author provided

Tight labour market is top concern

The proportion of firms indicating they are having difficulty hiring and retaining qualified employees remains near a two-decade high, with 41% of CFOs calling it a top concern. The typical US firm says it plans to increase employment by a median 3% in 2018 and expects wages to increase 4% on average. The tight labour market continues to put upward pressure on wages and wage inflation is now a top five concern of American CFOs.

Wage growth should be strongest in the tech, transportation, and service/consulting industries. US companies expect the prices of their products to increase by more than 3% over the next year.

Data security threats

Concern about data security is at an all-time high among American CFOs. Nearly one out of every five companies say that their computer systems have been breached by hackers. Twenty% of CFOs know they have been hacked. There is probably another 20% that don’t even know their company’s systems have been breached. Ten years ago, cybersecurity was not a C-suite responsibility. Now it is. Companies are defending themselves from near-continuous denial of service attacks and critical data breaches. To fight this battle costs money, which falls right off the bottom line. The cost is not just equipment, software and consultants, it is also reputation if you are breached.

Most US companies are actively taking steps to reduce data security risks. Seventy-one% have installed new software or introduced new procedures, 71% have introduced anti-penetration features like two-factor authentication or more stringent password protection, 54% have upgraded employee training, and nearly half have hired outside cybersecurity experts, among other measures.

US firms lead the world in preventive cybersecurity policies, followed in order of preventive activity by companies in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Rising interest rates

Companies in the United States expect their cost of borrowing to increase over the next year. The typical firm expects their long-term borrowing rate to increase from 5.2% currently to 5.8% in one year. Increased interest rates would lead the typical firm to reduce capital spending growth from about 8.3% this year to about 7.1% next year. Rising interest rates dampen the incentive of companies to borrow and spend, slowing economic growth. We also asked CFOs about their spending plans in a high interest rate environment. In their high interest rate planning scenario, long-term borrowing costs would average 7.5% and capital spending growth would increase by only about 5%.

Table 1: During the past quarter, which items have been the most pressing concerns for your company’s top management team?

Author provided

Table 2: Relative to the previous 12 months, what will be your company’s percentage change during the next 12 months? (mean by region)

Author provided

This is the 89th consecutive quarter that the Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook survey has been conducted. The survey concluded June 7, and generated responses from nearly 600 CFOs, including nearly 250 from North America, 62 from Asia, 99 from Europe, 151 from Latin America and 32 from Africa.