July 5, 2022

Alberta businesses remain optimistic the year ahead: Results from the June 2022 Business Expectations Survey

Even in the face of global uncertainty, the Business Council of Alberta’s most recent Business Expectations Survey shows continued optimism for Alberta’s economic outlook. This survey, conducted in late June, shows that businesses’ economic conditions are generally holding strong, though labour and financial constraints are likely to temper business activity over the year:
  • 78% of respondents reported an uptick in forward-looking indicators (similar to February) while 65% expect sales to further accelerate over the next 12 months.
  • 61% of respondents plan to increase employment over the next year–a remarkable proportion given the already low rate of unemployment in Alberta (the lowest rate since 2014).
  • 57% plan to increase investment in machinery and equipment, while only 13% plan to scale back (similar to February).

The biggest challenges now is not customers, but capacity. Not only are hiring constraints a continued challenge—more than three-quarters of respondents (78%) report that they are struggling to meet customer demand due to difficulty finding qualified workers—but now so too is financing. Nearly half of respondents reported more difficulty accessing credit. Though not unique to Alberta, these two challenges could limit otherwise ambitious hiring and capital investment plans.

In June, 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.

In our last survey conducted in February, as well as the one prior to that in November, respondents showed strong optimism in their outlook with respect to sales, hiring, and investment. Considering fluctuating travel and other restrictions; waves of infection and isolation among consumers and employees; and a tangled web of product supply chains and growing input prices over this time, we saw this as especially encouraging.

Since then, these last two issues have taken centre stage globally. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and the world’s response to it) has limited the supply of key commodities and further strained the global market. This has brought with it fears of slowing growth, inflation, or both.  

In spite of this, business expectations in Alberta remain overwhelmingly positive: sales continue to accelerate; businesses continue to ramp up hiring to meet demand; and most respondents plan to spend more on capital investment in the year ahead.

Of course, it is worth noting that high commodity prices could themselves be contributing to optimism among Alberta businesses, given the province is a major producer of both energy and agricultural products. However, the broad optimism among a diverse array of respondents leads us to believe this optimism extends beyond Alberta’s traditional industries.

Nonetheless, challenges remain. Labour shortages and inflation—both in its direct impact on input prices and the indirect impact of the Bank of Canada raising rates to tame it—will be the biggest obstacles to overcome for businesses in Alberta and across Canada alike.

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 generally strong with some early signs of slowing

Most respondents once again reported an improvement in forward-looking indicators that signal future economic activity—things like new orders, advance bookings, and sales inquiries. Generally, businesses remain optimistic about the year ahead (when compared with the last year). However, there was a slight increase in respondents indicating they expect sales to slow. While we expect to see a moderation in sales growth over the next several surveys, more businesses indicating they expect fewer sales—rather than just a leveling off—is something to watch in future surveys.

Key Findings
  • The large majority of businesses (78%) continue to report an uptick in recent, forward-looking indicators (compared with 81% as of February).
  • Looking ahead for the year, expectations have moderated some: 65% of respondents expect sales volumes over the next year to accelerate while 13% expect sales to decelerate (compared with 79% and 4%, respectively, in February).
  • As a result, the balance of expectations remains strongly positive but has moderated: 52% versus 75% in February.

Employers continue their search for workers

A large majority of respondents plan to increase their workforce this year, even as filling open As of June, a majority of businesses plan to further increase employment. This is especially impressive considering the pace and extent of hiring over the last couple of months: as of the May Labour Force survey, Alberta’s unemployment rate had dipped to 5.3%, a level not seen since 2014. The challenge for businesses still looking to hire will be in finding and attracting qualified workers. Already, the lion’s share of businesses say this is impacting their ability to meet customer demand. Where will employers find new hires? Beyond poaching from other companies in Alberta, businesses will increasingly need to: attract individuals from other provinces or countries; entice older Albertans out of retirement; and train and support the many Albertans who have been on the sidelines for too long (those who either have been unemployed for a long period of time or have left the workforce entirely).

Key Findings
  • 61% of respondents expect to increase employment over the next year, down from the 74% as of February, while 39% expect employment to remain flat, and no respondents plan to decrease staffing overall.
  • 70% of respondents reported labour shortages are more of an issue than a year ago, fairly consistent with the February results (74%).
  • Over three-quarters (78%) of respondents reported difficulty filling the positions needed to meet demand, in line with the last two surveys.    

Investment plans still encouraging but financing could become a challenge

Despite global uncertainty, we are encouraged to see plans to increase investment spending remain largely intact. Investment intentions remain strongly positive with 57% planning to increase spending, and just 13% planning to dial back, consistent with our last survey. This, despite the reality that uncertainty has likely grown even just since the previous survey was conducted.

Credit access, however, could become the new roadblock. Nearly half of respondents reported more difficulty accessing financing, compared with just 22% as of February. This is perhaps unspurprising given the Bank of Canada’s aggressive rate hikes over the last few months and the volatility in equity markets since the last survey. It is nevertheless something to keep an eye on, especially considering investment in capital is one of the few ways to alleviate the pressure of labour shortages—an issue likely to be a longer-term challenge as the population grows older and greyer.

Key Findings
  • 57% of respondents expect to spend more on machinery and equipment—in line with our previous survey—over the next year, while just 13% expect to spend less.
  • As such, the balance of expectations for investment spending remains strongly positive at 43%.
  • Access to financing, however, has become more of an issue. 48% of respondents reported that terms and conditions for obtaining financing has tightened over the last three months while just 17% say it has improved.
  • This leaves the balance of expectations increasingly negative: -30% compared with -7% as of February, though this indicator has been somewhat volatile over the last few surveys.

Summary of Results

Overall, this is encouraging news for Alberta and for the province’s continued economic recovery. The biggest challenge ahead will be solving for the labour shortages. It will be incumbent upon the plan oAs a whole, BES survey results are encouraging news for Alberta and Albertans. The dark clouds above us—of ongoing labour shortages and emerging financial constraints—are not as dark as the alternative of weak sales which would mean little need for individuals or capital to improve and expand business operations. This is especially true in a province with high unemployment and low investment in the years preceeding the pandemic. That said, the better Alberta can address these issues in the year ahead, the more the province stands to benefit from the otherwise strong business fundamentals.

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