CEO PULSE: Time to slash the surplus

Australia's CEOs would prefer Treasurer Wayne Swan act like a CFO, cutting costs to reflect tough financial times – even if it means axing the NBN and forgetting the budget surplus.

Australia’s chief executives have spoken – "wrong way, go back” is their message to the government, and specifically to Treasurer Wayne Swan.

The latest quarterly CEO Pulse survey for Business Spectator, conducted by GA Research and sponsored by IBM, is loud and clear: don’t worry about returning the budget to surplus, drop the carbon tax and the NBN, and spend money on infrastructure and superannuation.

The CEOs are remarkably uniform in their views. Seventy-three per cent are opposed to putting a price on carbon, with most of those – 61 per cent – "strongly opposed”; almost two-thirds say returning the budget to surplus should be low priority or not a priority at all.

Interestingly the CEOs are in favour of the minerals resources rent tax by a small majority – 48 per cent to 41 per cent.

The treasurer will no doubt take some comfort from this, having picked a fight with "vested interests” – specifically naming Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest as "undermining our equality and threatening our democracy”.

He went on (in his essay in The Monthly): "The infamous billionaires’ protest against the mining tax would have been laughed out of town in the Australia I grew up in, and yet it received a wide and favourable reception two years ago.”

Australia’s CEOs, according to our survey, are not taking sides in the so-called debate that has suddenly sprung up between the Left and the Right over income equality as a result of Wayne Swan’s essay – they are focusing on specific policies and issues rather than backing a philosophy.

But on the issue at the centre of the argument – minerals taxation – CEOs support the treasurer, albeit narrowly. On the carbon tax, they’re overwhelmingly against; on superannuation increasing the flexibility of the workforce and regional infrastructure (except for the NBN), they are overwhelmingly in favour.

The issue on which CEOs would most like the treasurer to pull his head in is banks. Eighty-six per cent are opposed to giving him the power to direct the banks on interest rates, and many of the comments attached to the survey focused on this subject.

"Stop bank bashing and accept an open free economy is logical.” "Focus less on the anti-bank interest rate rhetoric and provide the banking system with his unqualified support.” "Stop meddling in the decisions of banks”.

One CEO told Swan to start acting like a real CFO and "dramatically lower the cost of government, in the same way businesses have had to lower costs in tough financial times”. "Reduce spending on public service and substantially increase investment in growing productivity. Revise government policy in order to engage and encourage business (not beat them up).”

Overall the CEO's score for the government on its economic performance has fallen again, from 3.3 out of 10 to 3, having gone up in previous quarters from a low point of 2.6 out of 10 in September last year.

There is slightly more optimism about the Australian economy (up from 28 to 35 per cent), but it’s still the case that more CEOs are pessimistic than optimistic (48 to 35 per cent).

The percentage that is optimistic about their own businesses has stayed the same at 60 per cent, but that’s down from 76 per cent in the first quarter of last year. That’s a bit worrying actually – that 20 per cent of CEOs are pessimistic about their own businesses and 20 per cent are neutral is not great. If a CEO is not upbeat about his or her business, then nobody is.

Follow @alankohler on Twitter.

Research design and analysis for the CEO Pulse was conducted by GA Research and fieldwork by AFS. The sample comprised n=86 CEOs of organisations with an Australian turnover of $100 million or more who opted to participate in a five minute survey conducted over the phone or online between February 26 and March 4 2012.

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