Chief executives are feeling pretty good these days, judging by the results of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ latest Global CEO Survey. Nearly twice as many of them feel very confident about revenue growth over the next 12 months compared with five years ago and confidence levels have nearly doubled since 2001.

Of course, business leaders have their worries. But it is not terrorism, global warming, bird flu, energy shortages or political strife that is keeping most of them up at night. The fears that dominate newspaper headlines do not necessarily dominate boardroom discussions or dictate business decisions. In the list of 17 potential business threats posed to more than 1000 CEOs, pandemics ranked last, with only 11% “extremely concerned” about a breakout, preceded by global warming (14%), protectionism (15%), political instability (16%), scarcity of natural resources (17%), inadequate infrastructure (17%) and terrorism (again, 17%).


So, what is worrying them? The top five concerns cited – in order of importance – were over-regulation, skills shortages, low-cost competition, energy prices and commodity prices. Two-thirds of respondents said they were either somewhat or extremely concerned by over-regulation. The message from the CEOs: “It’s the red tape, stupid.”

The authors of the report noted: “While not surprised to find their greatest focus to be on near-term business threats, we were interested in finding that the more systematic, macro risks… ranked relatively low.” The only real surprise is why this should be so surprising. Natural and man-made disasters might be devastating when they occur, but they are still hit and miss: in most cases, the odds of escaping danger are greater than not. Excessive regulation, however, is dead certain to hurt industry, and even many of the best-governed jurisdictions find it difficult to resist the urge to over-legislate. But resist it they should: if red tape is business’ biggest worry, then it follows that it is also the biggest deterrent to inward investment.

The clear message to governments eager to impress CEOs? Get snipping.