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Uncertainty remains but optimism improves in the North American mid-market

Mid-market optimism in North America moved slightly higher in H2 2019, with the number of businesses feeling optimistic rising two percentage points (pp) across the region. In the US 73% of  businesses were optimistic about the economy, up from 69% in H1 2019; whereas confidence fell in Canada with 56% of businesses optimistic, down from 61%. Profitability expectations for the region were also up 3pp at 62%.

Despite the US-China trade war, export expectations for the next 12 months have significantly improved, partly on hopes a ‘phase 1 trade’ deal with the US will prevent further escalation of trade tensions between the two. US businesses expecting exports to increase over the next 12 months were up 3pp to 35%. China aside, there are also hopes for improved US/Canada trade following completion of the UMSCA, and a US-Japan deal.

Investment intentions in the region have also risen across all categories. Diane Swonk, Chief Economist at Grant Thornton US says: “Some short-term business investments that were delayed last year should move forward once a phase one agreement trade with China is signed.”[1]

In the US, the number of businesses which intend to invest in technology rose 6pp to 62%, whilst the number that intend to invest in their staff increased 9pp from H1 2019 to 59%. At the same time, 49% of businesses in the US expect skills availability to limit growth with labour costs also expected to rise.

Trade risks, politics and the coronavirus are clouding the outlook

However, despite some positive sentiment, uncertainty has jumped. In the US, 49% of businesses now expect economic uncertainty to constrain business activity, up 12pp from H1 2019 and the highest level since IBR records began in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of businesses in the region citing a potential shortage of orders in the next 12 months rose again to 34%, having tripled previously from 11% to 30% in H2 2018.

The ongoing trade conflict with China may be partly behind this, despite recent thawing in relations; whilst trade tensions with Europe are also heating up. Meanwhile, mounting debt piles, unpredictable policymaking in the White House as well as presidential elections in 2020 are also factors clouding business leaders’ foresight. Added to these, the coronavirus which broke after the survey is adding considerably more uncertainty into the picture.

The story for mid-market businesses in 2020 is that the potential for growth is still there. Investments and exports could rebound but the significant risks and uncertainty swirling around the North American and global economy could hamper progress.

Speak to a local Grant Thornton adviser via to find out how your business can thrive in international markets in 2020.

[1] Grant Thornton US economic insights and analyis blog, January 2020

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