February 16, 2023

Alberta businesses remain optimistic: Results from the February 2023 Business Expectations Survey

The Business Council of Alberta’s most recent Business Expectations Survey (BES) shows continued optimism for the province’s economic outlook. Despite concerns about a global recession and a slowing Canadian economy, most Alberta businesses plan to see higher sales and increased staffing over the next 12 months. Furthermore, despite higher financing costs, a large number still plan to increase investment. This provides legs to many private sector forecasts that show Alberta will fare better than other provinces and resist entering a recession despite a potential national slowdown. That said, the outlook has moderated slightly since November:
  • 54% of respondents reported an uptick in recent, forward-looking indicators (down from 67% in November), while a similar share expect sales to accelerate over the next 12 months (just 13% expect sales will decline), suggesting businesses are not seeing signs of doom and gloom in their industries.
  • 61% of respondents plan to increase employment over the next 12 months—an indication that the labour market will likely remain tight in Alberta for some time.
  • 40% of respondents plan to increase investment in machinery and equipment, while 23% plan to decrease it, indicating that there has not been a major pullback since our November survey and additional rate hikes by the Bank of Canada.

Given the positive outlook, Alberta businesses’ biggest challenge continues to be one of capacity rather than customers. Hiring constraints remain a hurdle—the majority of respondents (61%) report that they are struggling to meet customer demand due to difficulty finding qualified workers. As does financing: half of respondents reported more difficulty accessing credit over the last few months.

In February, the Business Council of Alberta conducted its latest Alberta Business Expectations Survey (BES)—a tool to assess recent trends in business conditions and economic expectations in the province. This survey captures the perspectives of BCA’s strongest asset—our member CEOs—whose expectations play an important role in setting the direction of the provincial economy.

Survey Results
Broadly speaking, the BES asks questions in three general categories of business activity: past sales and future expectations; employment and access to labour; and investment plans and credit access. We highlight some of the key findings below.

Where applicable, we use a “balance of expectations” approach to analyzing the data. Effectively, what this means is that we focus on the gap between businesses who think a certain indicator will improve and those who think the opposite. For example, we ask in the survey what businesses expect their employment level to be in the next 12 months: higher, lower, or about the same as it is now. The balance of expectations is the percentage of firms reporting that employment will be higher minus the percentage reporting that it will be lower. The more positive the balance, the more overall optimism we see about future hiring. The more negative the balance, the more pessimism we see.

Sales expectations remain strong

  • A majority of businesses (54%) continue to report an uptick in recent forward-looking indicators, though sales growth is moderating: in November, this number was 67%.
  • As such, expectations for future revenue have moderated but remain strong: 55% of respondents expect sales volumes over the next year to accelerate, while 42% expect sales to remain about the same (compared with 60% and 50%, respectively, in November).
  • As a result, the balance of expectations remains strongly positive but has moderated: 42% versus 50% in November.

The search for workers continues

  • An impressive majority (61% of respondents) continue to report plans to increase staffing over the year, while just 13% expect employment to decrease.
  • At this point, labour shortages remain a challenge though more businesses (35% versus 24% as of November) find they are less intense than a year ago.
  • A strong majority (61%) continue to report difficulty filling the positions needed to meet demand, in line with the last survey.

Businesses still planning to invest despite higher cost of financing

  • 40% of respondents expect to spend more on machinery and equipment—in line with our previous survey—over the next year, while just 23% expect to spend less.
  • As such, the balance of expectations for investment spending remains positive at 17%.
  • As expected, in the face of interest rate hikes (there have been another two hikes since our last survey), most businesses (53%) report that terms and conditions for obtaining financing have tightened.
  • This leaves the balance of expectations negative: -45%, more or less in line with the previous survey.

Summary of Results

As a whole, the BES survey results are encouraging for Alberta businesses and Albertans. Ultimately, they do not suggest any major cracks in the strength of Alberta’s economy. The fact that businesses remain eager to hire and many still plan to invest is telling of the province’s fundamentals. Nonetheless, business challenges of “capacity” and the acute need for individuals with certain skills should not be ignored, especially to the extent that they represent growing needs for the Alberta economy longer-term.

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