Confidence high as middle-market executives expect double-digit growth

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Despite forecasts of economic headwinds ahead and increasing geopolitical uncertainties, many middle-market companies are still bullish about their growth prospects, according to the 20th edition of the EY Global Capital Confidence Barometer (CCB), a biannual survey of more than 2,900 executives across 47 countries.

Fifty-eight percent of middle-market executives surveyed said that their companies expect double-digit growth in 2019 – more than double the percentage in 2018 (27%), with 91% expecting global and domestic economic growth to increase over the next 12 months and 83% confident about corporate earnings, short-term market stability and credit availability.

Smaller middle-market companies (between US$100m and US$250m in revenues) display even higher levels of confidence, with 71% anticipating double-digit growth and 42% of those expecting growth rates of 16% or more over the coming year. In contrast, for the biggest middle-market segment (US$1bUS$3b in revenues), the numbers are 52% and 12%, respectively.

However, for all their confidence in growth opportunities in 2019, middle-market executives acknowledge that there are also risks. While the percentage of middle-market executives concerned about a slowdown in economic activity impacting their growth plans has dropped (from 42% in 2018 to 33% in 2019), executives still see it as a top priority risk, followed by geopolitical risk (19%) and supply chain disruption (19%).

Geographically, confidence has shifted westwards in the past year, with 80% of US-based and 57% of European-based middle-market companies expecting double-digit growth over the next 12 months. Where Asia-Pacific led the way for growth opportunities in 2018, only 39% of middle-market executives in the region have double-digit growth expectations for 2019.

Ryan Burke, EY Global Growth Markets Leader, says:

“Against a backdrop of ongoing geopolitical tensions, trade issues among the US, China and Europe, as well as uncertainty as to how the UK will leave the European Union, middle-market executives remain hugely optimistic in their growth outlook and are taking advantage of ongoing global and local economic growth as well as strong macroeconomic fundamentals. Middle market companies see strong opportunities in leveraging M&A, and the use of technology to gain a competitive edge.”

M&A appetite is strong among middle-market executives

The appetite for global mergers and acquisitions (M&A) is strong, with 47% of middle-market executives expecting their companies to pursue M&A over the next 12 months, and 90% anticipate that the M&A market will improve during the same timeframe.

The UK remains a significant investment destination for middle-market executives, despite its intention to leave the European Union, and ranks second globally behind only the US. The remaining top five investment destinations of choice for middle-market executives are GermanyChina and France.

In terms of sector focus, technology companies (54%) have the biggest appetite for deal making, followed by telecommunications (49%) and industrials (49%).

Technology investment still key to middle-market growth ambitions

To improve their agility and resilience against risks that could negatively impact their growth plans, almost all middle-market companies (97%) indicate that they are planning significant investments in technology in the year ahead.

The past two years have seen been a dramatic shift in attitudes towards new technology. In 2017, 74% of middle-market executives said they would never adopt robotic process automation. However, in 2018, 73% of executives said they were already adopting or planning to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) within two years. This year, 71% say they are planning to develop and deploy AI in-house.

The emphasis on technology investment is spread across multiple priorities — creating new products and services, improving internal efficiencies, enhancing the customer experience and improving data access and analysis. However, risk reduction (including cybersecurity) is a stand-out priority for investment. In 2018, only 7% of middle-market executives said they would be investing in technology that reduced risks, while this year that percentage has more than doubled, with 19% now looking to invest in technologies that can help them manage and mitigate risk.

Burke says:

“Looking ahead, we anticipate that middle-market executives will focus on achieving their ambitious growth plans through a combination of seizing fast-growth opportunities through M&A, and strengthening financial discipline, managing their supply chains and implementing AI. In finding the right balance between growth and investment, middle-market companies can achieve growth, improve agility and build resilience while navigating the uncertain times ahead.”