Business Executives More Pessimistic on U.S. Economy – Survey

September 06, 2012 /

For the second straight quarter, business executives grew sharply more pessimistic about the outlook for the U.S. economy, according to the third quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey, which polls chief executive officers, chief financial officers, controllers and other certified public accountants in U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles.

In addition, senior-level CPAs’ perception of prospects for their own companies fell to a 12-month low, resulting in a more bearish view on hiring.

The CPA Outlook Index–a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the survey–fell four points to 63 for the quarter. The index had matched a post-recession high of 69 at the start of this year, but has declined each of the past two quarters.

The index is a composite of nine, equally weighted survey measures set on a scale from 0 to 100, with 50 considered neutral and greater numbers signifying positive sentiment. Each component of the index fell this quarter compared to the previous one, with U.S. economic optimism suffering the biggest decline (down 13 points to 41). Year over year, the picture is brighter: all index measures stand higher now than in the third quarter 2011.

“One change this quarter is the dimmer view survey takers hold of their own companies’ outlook over the coming year,” said Arleen R. Thomas, CPA, CGMA, the AICPA’s senior vice president for management accounting. “For the first two quarters in 2012, more than half said they were optimistic about their organization’s prospects. Now, only 44 percent say so.”

That deepening pessimism may have an impact on hiring, at least in the short term. Only 9 percent of survey takers said they have immediate plans to hire new personnel, down from 12 percent last quarter and the lowest rate of the past 12 months.

In addition, senior-level CPAs who said their company had excess employees increased to 11 percent–the highest level since the second quarter 2011–suggesting that layoff or job attrition strategies are more likely to be adopted by some companies.

Modest growth is still expected, but expectations for revenue, profit and headcount growth all fell slightly for the second straight quarter.

Investment is still supposed to increase slightly in most categories, but the expected rate declined substantially in information technology, marketing and research & development. Despite that, IT still leads the pack for planned spending increases in aggregate, while R&D investment is expected to lag other categories.

All industries suffered a decline in their perceived prospects this quarter. Manufacturing and real estate remain the most optimistic sectors. Technology and construction suffered sharp drops in optimism.

Survey takers have consistently identified “Domestic Economic Conditions” and “Regulatory Requirements/Changes” as the No. 1 and No.2 business hurdles over the past 12 months. This quarter, “Domestic Political Leadership” moved up to the No. 3 spot, continuing its rise from No. 6 at the end of 2011.
Arleen Thomas and Jim Morrison, chief financial officer of Teknor Apex Co., are available for interviews on the survey results and what they mean for businesses in the coming months.


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