CEOs aren’t loving inflation

December 8, 2021, 7:12 PM UTC
A Dollar Tree store.
A person walks past a Dollar Tree store on November 23, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama / Staff/ Getty

On Friday, the U.S. unemployment rate came in at 4.8%. That’s nearly back to the 3.5%pre-pandemic rate, and a seismic improvement from the 14.8% rate we hit in April 2020. This economic progress should mean Corporate America is feeling pretty good, right? 

Well, not exactly. 

For this week’s issue, Fortune Analytics partnered with Diligent, a leading New York-based SaaS GRC company. Diligent granted us exclusive access to the raw data that powers their Corporate Sentiment Tracker. To build that tracker, they continuously scrape the web for executive statements and news coverage of more than 7,300 public companies. The power of the tool is, of course, assessing how business leaders in aggregate are feeling. 

Here’s what we found.

The numbers to know 


  • … the share of weeks in 2020 that “COVID-19”, “coronavirus”, or “pandemic” was the most frequently used term by business leaders. 


  • … the share of weeks in 2021 that “COVID-19”, “coronavirus”, or “pandemic” was the most frequently used term by business leaders. 


  • … the share of weeks in 2021 that “growth” was the top term. It was followed by “future” (31%) and “inflation” (16%). 

4 out of 5

Big picture

  • After seeing sentiment among business executives skyrocket earlier this year, it’s now souring. In 2020, the top term used by business leaders had a negative or neutral connotation in 29 out of 52 weeks. That changed this year. Through 40 weeks of 2021, it was positive 33times. But it has once again shifted: In the most recent five-week period, the top term had a negative connotation four times. The culprit? Inflation.

A few deeper takeaways

1. Big business, for the most part, felt pretty good this year. 

The word clouds above show the most frequently used terms by corporate executives over the past two years.

Even though in recent weeks inflation has caused executives to sour their views (more on that below), corporate talk this year is still clearly leaps and bounds more positive than in 2021.

2. There’s a disconnect between economic data and how CEOs view the economy. 

Not only did researchers at Diligent calculate the terms most frequently used by executives, they also ran a statistical calculation to evaluate if the term had a positive—or negative—usage.

What they found (see the chart above) is that when executives were talking about the “pandemic” in the early months of 2021, they were generally very positive. However, as the year progressed and the Delta variant delayed return to office plans, those business leaders began to speak more negatively when discussing the pandemic.

To a degree, that’s also happened to economic outlooks. Even as the labor market continues to improve, their views of the economy have shifted downward. The reason? It’s likely a combination of the hot job market making it harder to both find and retain talent, while at the same time stubbornly high inflation is eating into their margins. 

3. CEOs don’t like inflation.

We’re at the highest rate of inflation since 1990—and employers aren’t happy about it. That alone has driven down corporate sentiment over the past few weeks (see the chart above). 

This pessimism makes sense. Higher inflation means businesses must up their own prices, while also eating similar hikes from their suppliers. Not to mention the labor factor. If employers aren’t doling out raises above 5%, their employees are in an economic sense taking a hefty pay cut. Last year, employers could get away with it. Amid this hot labor market and so-called Great Resignation, they’ll simply see talent walk.

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Lance Lambert

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