by Ed Zwirn

Economic, Political Fronts Spook CFOs, Even if Hiring, Credit Prospects Don’t

Dec 13, 20114 mins
IT JobsIT Leadership

Finance chiefs are up there with the rest of America in the things that worry them, the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch survey shows.

In the latest survey to show promising signs for business operations, the Bank of America Merrill Lynch CFO Outlook survey suggests that most CFOs are confident they won’t have to reduce workforces in 2012, and that credit will be available to companies.

But in many ways, the wider optimism seen earlier this year has ebbed, leaving financial executives concerned about the current economy, and about prospects for economic growth in 2012, the report says.

Some 600 CFOs, finance directors and other executives selected randomly from U.S. companies with annual revenues between $20 million and $2 billion were surveyed in the annual report. And only 38% said they expect the U.S. economy to expand in 2012, down from 56% last year, and from 66% the previous year. CFOs now give the economy a score of 44 out of 100, down from last year’s score of 47, and equal to the lowest score in the survey’s 14-year history.

Still, only 7% predicted layoffs at their companies, compared with 6% last year. Indeed, 46% said they expected to hire employees, while the remaining 48% of the executives said they would hold the line on employment. Both of those responses are similar to last year’s survey.

Hiring Outlook Could Be Stronger

“The forecast for layoffs is trending down and has stabilized,” said Laura Whitley, head of Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

While “clearly everybody would like to see a stronger outlook for hiring,” Whitley pointed to evidence that many companies have resumed merit increases and 401(k) matches as a sign of a “stabilizing effect.” Companies, she said, are once again worrying about “retaining their top talent.

“Without question, many CFOs are hoping for more positive signs of consistent economic stability and growth — in the U.S. and abroad,” she said. “While they remain cautious, it is encouraging to see that reservations about the economy won’t translate to reductions in the overall workforce, and that CFOs are staying the course while waiting for the economy to improve.”

In some ways, the confidence about the credit markets is impressive, given that the political and economic outlooks are so clouded.

More CFOs this year say that more credit is available, and fewer CFOs say they expect the cost of capital to increase in 2012. When asked if their lenders have increased the credit available to their companies, 36% said yes, up from 28% last year. In addition, only 21% of CFOs said they expect their cost of capital to increase, down from 27% last year.

A Range of Concerns

But, like many Americans, CFOs are showing heightened concern about a broad range of more general factors that could affect the U.S. economy next year.

No. 1 was the effectiveness of U.S. government leaders, listed as a concern by 70% of CFOs. In addition, 63% listed the U.S. budget deficit, 60% listed healthcare costs, 58% listed unemployment and 55% listed consumer confidence. Last year’s top concern regarding the economy was healthcare reform, chosen by 54% of executives.

“Never in the history of the CFO Outlook have there been so many factors at a high level of concern,” Whitley observed.

When asked about financial concerns specific to their own companies, 56% of CFOs chose healthcare costs. That was followed by energy costs and consumer confidence, both at 43%; cash flow at 42%; and revenue growth at 40%.

Among the survey’s other findings:

  • Regarding revenues, 56% of CFOs expect growth, down from 64% last year.
  • Similarly, 41% of CFOs anticipate a growth in profit margin, down from 55% last year.
  • Only 18% of CFOs expect to participate in a merger or acquisition next year, down from 26% a year ago.

Despite economic uncertainties, there haven’t been widespread cuts to research and development. More than three-fourths of CFOs said their R&D expenses were the same or higher than pre-recession levels, similar to last year’s response.

Conducted by Granite Research Consulting, the CFO Outlook was compiled from phone interviews conducted from late September to early November. The margin of error is +/- 4%.