November 30, 2021

Alberta businesses are optimistic: Results from the November Business Expectations Survey

The Business Council of Alberta’s most recent Business Expectations Survey shows growing optimism about the province’s economic outlook for the year ahead. Conducted mid-November, the survey shows that businesses’ economic conditions are continuing to improve markedly, with recent indicators looking especially promising.
  • 93% of respondents reported an uptick in forward-looking indicators—things like new orders, advance bookings, and sales inquiries.
  • 73% of respondents expect to increase employment over the next year, up from 62% in the July survey.
  • 44% plan to increase investment in machinery and equipment while only 8% plan to make cuts.

Hiring and financing constraints, however, could weigh on future growth. Almost three-quarters of respondents (73%) report that difficulty finding workers is limiting their ability to meet customer demand. Meanwhile, for the first time since the beginning of the year, there was an increase in the number of businesses reporting that financing conditions are tightening, an issue which could be related to a recent finding by RBC that corporate debt has increased. Altogether, these factors mean economic recovery is likely to continue, albeit more slowly.

In November, the Business Council of Alberta conducted its fifth 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.

In our last survey conducted in July, respondents showed optimism in their outlook for future sales, hiring, and investment as restrictions were first being eased across the province.   

Since then, the pandemic situation has continued to fluctuate with the rise of the third wave followed by the announcement of Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program. Meanwhile, at the national and global level, as labour markets return to more normal levels, supply chains and inflation have emerged as growing business concerns.

Despite these challenges, our survey shows that business expectations over the next year remain strongly positive: sales continue to recover; indicators of future business activity are picking up; and businesses plan to increase their workforce over the coming months. Further, many businesses also anticipate an increase in investment spending.

It is worth noting that this survey took place before the discovery of a new COVID variant (Omicron) and its impact on stock markets and crude oil prices. That said, oil prices are already recovering and international travel restrictions remain targeted. While the threat of new restrictions always looms over Alberta’s economic recovery, we generally believe our results still hold true in the face of this recent development.

That said, recovery from here is likely to come a little slower. The labour market is clearly tightening as businesses report more difficulty filling open positions; and access to credit could be an issue for some businesses looking to expand.

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 continue to move in the right direction

Perhaps the best news coming out of this month’s survey is that nearly all respondents reported an improvement in their forward-looking indicators—things like new orders, advance bookings, and sales inquiries that signal anticipated future economic activity. It is no surprise, therefore, that businesses are likewise optimistic about their expectations for future sales (when compared with this past year). What is unclear from the survey alone, however, is if those businesses anticipating flat sales (26% of respondents) are currently at or above pre-pandemic levels or if they have reached a new, lower level of “normal.”

Key Findings
  • An impressive 93% of respondents reported an uptick in forward-looking indicators (compared with 83% in our July survey).
  • 74% of respondents expect sales volumes over the next year to accelerate compared to the last year—roughly in line with our last survey—while 26% expect sales to remain flat.
  • Overall, there is a strong positive balance of expectations of 74% for future sales activity (with no businesses expecting a decline). That figure is 5 percentage points higher than our July survey.

Employers are looking to hire more workers but are facing challenges

With the continued optimism for future sales, even more respondents report that they expect to increase hiring over the next year—good news for those who are looking for work.

However, businesses continue to report trouble filling open positions. 62% of respondents said labour shortages are more of a problem than they were last year. Given the state of the economy a year ago, this should not come as too much of a shock. However, what is more of an indication of a real constraint is that three quarters of respondents said that the inability to find qualified workers is impacting their ability to meet customer demand. There are likely a variety of factors at play—one obvious one being that the labour market is tightening. But, given that job vacancies have persisted for some time and unemployment still remains elevated, this may suggest there is a discrepancy between the skills of those who are unemployed, and the skills businesses are looking for.

Key Findings

  • 73% of respondents expect to increase employment over the next year, up from 62% in the July survey. Another 23% are expecting employment to remain flat, and just 4% are expecting to reduce staffing.
  • 62% of respondents reported more intense labour shortages compared to a year ago, a 7% increase from the July survey.
  • Nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents reported difficulty filling the positions needed to meet demand, a 21% increase over the July survey.

Investment expectations are encouraging, but credit availability will be something to watch

Over the past year, we have seen a gradual increase in business investment expectations as companies found some stability after the initial shock. As of this latest update, investment intentions remain largely positive, with 44% planning to increase and just 8% planning to dial back investment spending. Given the collapse in investment since the pandemic, and its importance in future economic growth, this is an encouraging sign.

However, credit access could be an issue for some businesses. Though the vast majority of respondents report conditions have not changed (80%), 16% report that it has become more difficult to access credit. This could indicate that some businesses are in a weaker financial position at this point and cannot easily access loans. Though too early to raise as a red flag, it is something to keep an eye on in the coming months.

Key Findings
  • 44% of respondents expect to spend more on machinery and equipment over the next year, while just 8% expect to spend less.
  • Due to an increase in respondents expecting to spend more, the balance of expectations from July to November increased 5%.
  • On balance, respondents noted that access to financing declined, after steady signs of improvement the last few surveys. After reaching +10% in July, the balance swung back to -12% in November, due to more businesses stating conditions had tightened and fewer stating conditions had eased.
  • Specifically, 16% are reporting that access to credit markets has tightened over the last three months while just 4% report it has improved; the remaining majority report no change.

Summary of Results

Overall, this is really encouraging news for Alberta and bodes well for the province’s continued economic recovery. That said, there are two outstanding issues, one to investigate and one to monitor. The issue worth further investigation is labour shortages, especially the extent to which it signals a need for broader reskilling of the workforce. Meanwhile, credit conditions are something to keep an eye on in the coming months, as many businesses have taken on more debt in the face of the pandemic —a concern which could weigh on future investment. This is to say, it is not over until it is over. The goal now is to not just ensure Alberta sees a full economic recovery; we must also ensure Alberta is in a position for future economic growth.

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