UK corporates have gone into defensive mode as a result of growing uncertainty over the global economic outlook. But overseas expansion remains on the agenda for the most international among them, according to a Deloitte survey.

The quarterly CFO survey found that the proportion of chief financial officers (CFOs) who say that external financial and macroeconomic uncertainty is ‘high’ or ‘very high’ has almost doubled to 46%, from 26% in the previous quarter. 

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Optimism has fallen amongst CFOs of major UK businesses for the third quarter in a row – its lowest level since early 2009, when the UK was in recession. Risk appetite has also fallen at the fastest rate for four years, with this shift in risk aversion leading to a tilt in the balance sheet strategies employed by CFOs. For the first time in a year cost control is the top priority, with capital expenditure and acquisitions taking a back seat.

However, despite all of this, results illustrate that expansion is still a priority for corporates with major overseas footprints. Ian Stewart, chief economist at Deloitte, said: “There is a clear distinction between the UK and internationally focused corporates. Companies which derive 70% or more of their revenues from outside the UK still see expansion as their top priority. Nonetheless, even among this group, defensive strategies such as reducing costs and increasing cash flow have gained importance.”

On the other hand, the survey showed that companies which derive 70% or more of their revenue from the UK have adopted defensive strategies such as prioritising cost reduction and raising cash flow. “It’s a case of overseas expansion and domestic caution. The bottom line is that finance chiefs see the greatest opportunities for growth lying outside the UK,” says Mr Stewart.