by Roy Harris

Overall CFO Optimism Fell in July…

Aug 11, 20115 mins
Data CenterIT Leadership

...But in the U.S., the outlook for their own companies was quite strong, the FEI/Baruch survey shows.

Even as optimism about the U.S. economy was falling last month, an-email survey of CFOs in the U.S. showed that they were forecasting sharp rises in net earnings and capital spending over the next year at their own companies. And most of the executives questioned also were anticipating hiring in the next six months.

The quarterly “CFO Outlook Survey” by Financial Executives International and Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business released this week — part of a series of surveys taken between July 8-24, and returned by 228 U.S. finance chiefs. (Italy also had 78 CFOs participate, and France 44, for a total of 350 on some questions.) The responses rolled in, of course, while the debate still was raging about the U.S. raising its national debt ceiling, and before the shock of the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. to AA+ from AAA. Other surveys of executives taken in July have had similar overall optimism or confidence results, although each survey picks different subtopics.

For the FEI/Baruch survey, overall index numbers showed a decline in optimism among U.S. CFOs from the previous quarter — to 59.40 from 61.70 — although the index number remained higher than their counterparts in Europe, where the dip was about the same degree.

When it came to evaluating their own companies, however, the CFO optimism level was much higher (72) and consistent with the prior quarter’s.

And no wonder.

Over the next 12 months, U.S. CFOs said they were expecting an average 21% increase in net earnings, 11% in revenue, and 15% in their capital spending. (European CFOs anticipated increases in all those areas, as well, although they were more modest.)

Price Concerns

Globally, CFOs remain seriously concerned about rising commodity prices and general inflation levels. Asked to rate their inflation concerns on a scale of one to five, with five being highest, 70% of U.S. CFOs and 66% of the Europeans rated it three or higher. While more than half indicated the level of concern was unchanged from last quarter, more than a third in both the U.S. (39%) and European (36%) groups expressed more concern this quarter.

“Globally, CFOs continue to display caution,” according to John Elliott, dean of Baruch’s Zicklin School. “Inflation concerns and fears about the recovery may further delay new hiring and investing.”

He adds, “While U.S. CFOs have high expectations for earnings growth and generally hold a more positive outlook than Europeans about the global economy and the future of their businesses, their declining confidence in the U.S. economy reflects uncertainly. Decisions from Congressional leadership and the President will be especially significant for U.S. businesses in the coming months.”

Oil prices are expected to remain high, the CFOs in the U.S. and Europe say, and they are readjusting their outlooks to a more conservative figure. Among the U.S. group, 97% felt that the per-barrel price of oil will be $140 or lower in the next six months — contrasting with the prior quarter, when nearly 70% saw oil at $140 or more. (For the European CFOs, comparable percentages were 92 and 71.)

Thoughts on Security Breaches, Spending

Asked specifically for a reaction to the U.S. government’s decision to release oil from its reserves, 46% of U.S. CFOs were against the decision, while 31% supported it, and the rest were undecided.

Security breaches at major multi-national firms, so much in the news this year, seem responsible for 61% of U.S. CFOs now allocating more funds to data security. (It was 55% for European CFOs.) The increase, among U.S. CFOs expecting to pay more was 18%.

“In this day and age, companies are becoming increasingly aware of the frequency of security breaches and are more cautious about the dangers and potential financial ramifications of their own data systems being breached,” according to Marie Hollein, CEO of Financial Executives International. “While budgetary restraints may not allow some companies to invest in sufficient protection systems, it is clear that companies are beginning to think about it.”

Is It Now Ancient History?

By mid-August standards it may seem like ancient history. But in other FEI/Baruch survey results:

Hiring of additional employees at their own companies in the next six month was foreseen by 57% of U.S. CFOs. (The majority of European CFOs said they did not have hiring plans.)

Among U.S. finance chiefs, 27% believed a recovery had begun to occur, and 55% predicted that a recovery wouldn’t take place until the second half of 2012 or beyond.

Nearly half (46%) of U.S. CFOs said raising the debt ceiling would have a negative impact on the economy, although 27% felt there would be no impact, and another 27% saw the result of raising the ceiling as positive.

The largest percentage of U.S. CFOs (43), asked to assign a grade to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke for his actions (into July) responding to the U.S. financial situation, gave him a “B.”