February 2, 2016 / 7:08 PM / a year ago

U.S. CEOs unleash recession fears in earnings calls

3 Min Read

A 'Wall St' sign is seen above two 'One Way' signs in New York August 24, 2015.Lucas Jackson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. companies are growing more concerned about the prospects of a recession in the year ahead for the first time since the end of the financial crisis.

So far this year, the number of companies whose executives have mentioned recession concerns to analysts and investors is up 33 percent from the same period a year ago; the first such increase since 2009. Some 92 companies have discussed a U.S. recession in their earnings calls, according to Thomson Reuters data.

That gloomy talk highlights worries that growth in the world's largest economy may be coming to a halt. Gross domestic product grew 0.7 percent in the final quarter of 2015, down from 2 percent in the third quarter, while double the number of companies are cutting or flat-lining their capital spending in the year ahead, according to Reuters data. The benchmark S&P 500, a leading indicator of economic strength, had its worst January since 2009 as oil tumbled below $30 a barrel and remained near 12-year lows.

While nearly all companies that have discussed recession say that U.S. consumers continue to look healthy, many are growing concerned that the steep declines in energy prices and job cuts in the industry are going to bleed into the larger economy. Overall, economists expect the U.S. economy to grow 2.4 percent in 2016, according to a Dec. 30 Reuters poll.

Richard Fairbank, chief executive of Capital One Financial Co., for example, said he sees a recession as increasingly likely if financial market turmoil spreads into the real economy.

"Obviously, the economy is something of a wild card," he said.

"Perhaps the consumer economy is doing okay, but there is a depression in the energy economy and it feels like there is a general malaise if not a recession looming in the industrial and manufacturing economies,” David Grzebinski, chief executive of tank barge operator Kirby Co told analysts.

And household hardware maker Stanley Black & Decker Inc chief financial officer Don Allan told analysts that the company was prepared to cut jobs and pullback spending in the event of a slowdown.

Not every company was downcast, however. Trucking operator Swift Transportation Co told analysts that one of its larger customers plans to spend $1.6 billion this year, up from $900 million last year.

"These numbers are not signaling, to us, a consumer recession," said CEO Jerry Moyes.

Reporting by David Randall; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli

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