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CEOs still worried about recession, trade war risks in 2020, global survey says

Company CEOs and other top business executives around the world are still primarily concerned about the risk of a recession and trade war uncertainties in 2020, a report published by the Conference Board showed.

The Conference Board's C-Suite Challenge survey asked more than 1,500 company executives around the world, including 740 CEOs, about external and internal issues they thought their companies would likely face this year.

Most respondents pointed to the risk of a global recession as their companies' primary source of external pressure for the second straight year, despite many economic indicators angling instead for an improvement in global economic outlook in 2020.

"One real risk of this recession mindset is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy," the Conference Board said in its report released Jan. 2. It noted that cost-cutting, delays in investment, and other similar wait-and-see strategies implemented by companies amid all the recession talk could place businesses at a disadvantage when the downturn ends.

Lingering fears of recession are compounded by uncertainties around global trade, competition, political instability and tight labor markets. In particular, trade tensions are still top of mind for CEOs in China and Latin America, and are the third-most concerning issue for Europeans, while executives in the U.S. and Japan give them less emphasis.

Of special concern for Chinese CEOs is the threat of economic sanctions affecting their businesses, the report said, amid U.S. authorities' aggressive pursuit of cases against Chinese companies suspected of wrongdoing.

Tightness in domestic labor markets is the top external issue for Japanese executives, while finding qualified workers is also a major concern in the U.S. and Germany. The Conference Board noted that this may be linked to the attraction and retention of top talent, the biggest internal concern among global business executives.

Other external concerns in 2020 for global executives include cybersecurity, business competition and the impact of climate change.

Aside from finding and keeping talent, other internal hot-button issues for companies around the world include the establishment of new business models, building a culture of innovation, and developing the next-generation leaders.