AICPA CFO Survey: Optimism Trends Higher

But no recovery until 2012.


After a dramatic drop last quarter, CPA executives regained modest optimism in the past three months about prospects for the U.S. economy but believe the recovery will be slow and they are cautious about plans for expansion and hiring, according to the latest AICPA/UNC Quarterly Economic Outlook Survey.

Twenty-eight percent of CPAs serving in executive positions expressed optimism about the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter, up 7 percentage points from 21 percent who were optimistic in the third quarter. Pessimists were 29 percent, a decline of 11 percentage points from the prior quarter. Most CPA executives, 43 percent, were neutral on the economy. A majority of 61 percent do not expect business conditions to return to pre-recession levels until after 2012.

More highlights:

  • Expectations for hiring remained flat although there has been a slight uptick in hiring plans from a year ago. Thirty-four percent of respondents, the same as last quarter, said their companies would increase their headcounts over the next 12 months, while 48 percent are planning to keep employees the same, and 19 percent said they expect to reduce staff.
  • Overall expectations for growth in revenue and profits, prices, costs and spending were stable from last quarter with a slight majority of respondents continuing to expect increases across most categories. However when compared with a year ago, significant improvement can be observed in the percent of respondents expecting an increase in revenues.
  • Several new questions in the survey focused on corporate cash and liquidity. Results suggest there is not a large amount of cash “sitting on the sidelines” as some recent commentary has suggested. Forty-four percent said their non-cyclical cash position was the same now as six months ago and 42 percent said their organization’s liquidity position was about right. Only 7 percent have seen large improvements in cash positions. Forty-seven percent plan to raise capital over the next six months.
  • Respondents from the Technology, Professional Services, and Retail Trade and Manufacturing industries were the most optimistic this quarter at 69 percent for technology, 60 percent for professional services and 57 percent for manufacturing and retail trade who were optimistic/very optimistic about the outlook for their organization. Respondents from Construction, Real Estate and Healthcare Providers were the least optimistic at 35 percent, 41 percent, and 34 percent respectively.
  • Customer demand, employee health care costs, regulatory requirements and access to capital/cost of capital remain the top challenges that businesses face today. Interestingly, however, availability of skilled personnel is increasingly a concern.
  • Inflation is again a concern for 34 percent of businesses, up from 24 percent in the prior quarter, while fears of deflation waned to 14 percent. Most, 41 percent, said neither was a concern.
  • Regional differences in economic expectations appeared in the survey with New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the Mid-West appearing more optimistic than the South, Southwest and West Coast.

The AICPA/UNC Kenan-Flagler Economic Outlook Survey includes two indices, the Corporate Expansion Index (CEI) and Corporate Optimism Index (COI), that consolidate expectation and optimism trends for the economy and for respondents’ own organizations.  Index values above 0.50 are positive while ratings below 0.50 are negative.  Both indices were up this quarter to about 0.60, a level comparable to January 2008.

“We see a bounce in optimism tempered by caution,” said AICPA Vice President for Business, Industry and Government Carol Scott. “Corporate expectations for revenue and profit are improving with most expecting to make more money next year. That isn’t yet translating into strong hiring growth which would be key to any economic recovery. We do see signs of hope in that, while some companies are still struggling with cash, those with strong capital are planning to deploy funds for capital investment and expansion in the next six months.”

The survey is conducted quarterly by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and measures the outlook for both the economy and the organizations of CPA decision makers who are Chief Financial Officers, Chief Executive Officers, and Controllers who are AICPA members working in business and industry.

Measures of optimism versus pessimism registered a combined 18 percentage-point swing toward a positive outlook for the U.S. economy, partially recovering from a 34-point plunge to the negative in the prior quarter when pessimists outnumbered optimists by a two-to-one margin. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents are now optimistic about the prospects for their own companies.  Despite that improvement, a large 74 percent majority expect their business to expand only a little or stay the same over the next 12 months.

UNC Kenan-Flagler Accounting Professor, Mark Lang said: “The good news is that corporate expansion expectations continue to gradually improve and are at levels seen shortly before the recession, with improvements across most industries and geographic regions.  The bad news is that growth remains slow and companies are hesitant to substantially increase spending and hiring.  It appears that we are caught in a cycle of slow growth leading to slow corporate spending, which further limits growth, and it is unclear how we will break out of the cycle.”

GET THE INSTANT DOWNLOAD: AICPA Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey 4th Quarter 2010, Full Report (PDF, 8 pages)

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