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CEOs no longer question if there will be a recession. The question now is when?


The fight against high inflation is getting tougher, fueling fears the United States is heading for a recession. For many top executives, the question is no longer if there will be a recession, it's when. NPR's David Gura reports.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: It's hard to find a CEO anywhere who doesn't worry there will be a recession in the next year or year and a half. Steve Odland is the head of the Conference Board, a group of business leaders.

STEVE ODLAND: We're finding that our CEOs are overwhelmingly bracing for a recession both in the U.S. and in Europe, but also a slowdown virtually everywhere else.

GURA: Today, the Conference Board has released the results of its latest CEO survey. And 98% of respondents said they're preparing for recession in the United States. And 99% of them said they're getting ready for one in Europe. Jamie Dimon is in charge of the largest bank in the U.S., which means he pays very close attention to the global economy. And these days, a lot's got him worried. There's high inflation worldwide. The cost of borrowing is going up. There have been wild swings in stocks and bonds and currencies. And then, there's the war in Ukraine, which is already hurting Europe's economy.


JAMIE DIMON: These are very, very serious things, which I think are likely to push the U.S. and, you know, the world - I mean, Europe is already in recession. And they're likely to put the U.S. in some kind of recession six or nine months from now.

GURA: Dimon said that on CNBC this week. And once again, he startled Wall Street. Back in June, Dimon forecasted an economic hurricane on the horizon. What's changed since then is how many CEOs agree with him and have started to prepare for a downturn. Steve Odland ran Office Depot before he got to the Conference Board.

ODLAND: You know, as a CEO, if you are going into a recession, what you want to do is you want to batten down the hatches.

GURA: And companies are starting to do that. Meta's Mark Zuckerberg recently told staff to expect layoffs. FedEx is closing stores and cutting back on delivery as its CEO warns of a global recession. Executives say they feel less certain about the future. Odland notes.

ODLAND: So we're down to a level now that is the lowest level of CEO confidence since the Great Recession.

GURA: But the factors that led to that downturn were different. What started as a real estate slowdown infected the whole economy. Balance sheets were in tatters from households to companies, to banks. Today, it all goes back to high inflation and how the Federal Reserve is fighting it. And that is shaping how the heads of companies think about what the next recession will be like. David Rubenstein is the co-chairman of the Carlyle Group, one of the world's largest private equity firms. And as he decides where to invest billions, Rubenstein keeps a close eye on the economy.

DAVID RUBENSTEIN: I don't see a great recession. I see, if we have a recession, a modest recession - a two-quarter type of recession, not a one-year type of recession.

GURA: That's in line with the Conference Board's results. Eighty-five percent of CEOs expect a brief and shallow recession. And that's because this economy is so unique. People are still spending, but most of them are not overextended. Companies have strong balance sheets, and people have jobs. Steve Odland says almost half the CEOs surveyed plan to hire more workers over the next 12 months. And 85% of them expect to boost pay by 3% or more.

ODLAND: That's unheard of from this group going into a recession. Typically, you would hear that they're cutting back, that they are not going to increase wages.

GURA: Executives caution no one can predict what a recession will be like. And Federal Reserve officials continue to say it's not inevitable. They argue there is a way for them to nail a so-called soft landing, whereby they get inflation under control without triggering a recession. But that path has gotten so narrow, most business leaders expect the landing will be a little rocky at least.

David Gura, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Based in New York, David Gura is a correspondent on NPR's business desk. His stories are broadcast on NPR's newsmagazines, All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and he regularly guest hosts 1A, a co-production of NPR and WAMU.