by Roy Harris

Survey of Finance Execs Shows Uptick, but Still Worries

Aug 10, 20115 mins
IT LeadershipIT Strategy

A survey of U.S. finance executives by CFO services provider Tatum was suggesting a slight upturn in corporate-finance conditions in the days before the nation's debt ceiling was raised, and before the Standard & Poor's downgrade of the U.S. threw the markets into turmoil.

A survey of U.S. finance executives by CFO services provider Tatum was suggesting a slight upturn in corporate-finance conditions in the days before the nation’s debt ceiling was raised, and before the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the U.S. threw the markets into turmoil.

In releasing results compiled as part of its monthly Tatum Survey of Business Conditions, based on surveying done in late July, Tatum said the small uptick was reflected both in responses about the immediate past, and about what these finance executives see ahead. Still, results reflected some pessimism among finance executives about prospects for both hiring and capital availability.

In an earlier survey by Tatum this year, its researchers noted, results had correctly predicted the nation’s anemic second-quarter GDP growth of 1.3%.

The overall Tatum index number improved slightly, to 3.0 from 2.7 a month ago, with slight upturns in both reports of recent past activity and of future outlook. Tatum describes its index as an average of the ratio of its respondents reporting improvement, versus those reporting a worsening in business conditions for the past 30 days and for the next 60 days.

While the uptick in the index number comes after five months of consecutive declines, Tatum noted that, in a range of 3.0 to 4.0, there is “a very high correlation with near zero economic growth.” Below 3.0 suggests recession in the Tatum Index, and the Index was in that range throughout the 2008-2009 recession.

Since the recession’s end, the Index has been at or above 3.0, except for the months of September 2010 and July 2011.In the latest survey, a majority of respondents, asked about general conditions over the previous 30 days, said they considered the situation to be about the same as in the previous month, although the percentage experiencing improvement was up slightly.

Anxiety’s Effect on Capex and Hiring

The outlook for 60 days ahead — again, compiled before both the debt-ceiling agreement and the S&P-related shocks — showed an increase in the portion of respondents expecting conditions to improve, although the majority still expected business conditions to stay the same.

Tatum analysts observed in compiling the data — from 116 Tatum executives and consultants around the U.S. — that there was “no obvious catalyst on the horizon that will stimulate economic growth.” Tatum provides finance executives and finance services to a wide range of corporate clients.

In the wake of recent developments, however, Sam Norwood, Tatum senior partner and editor of the Tatum Survey of Business Conditions, interpreted the results this way in response to a CFOworld query: “Although we saw a slight improvement in July, we’re drifting along just above the ‘no growth’ zone. Factors like the U.S. debt ceiling and the situation in Europe contribute to general anxiety about where the economy is going. This anxiety impacts actions like capital expenditures and hiring.”

The survey-covered companies that have a regional operating focus reported the most improvement in business over the past 30 days, with the Pacific Coast region moving ahead of the Southwest in the positive conditions they were experiencing. Among sectors, manufacturing and healthcare were weaker while services were relatively strong.

‘Not Out of the Woods Yet’

Asked to evaluate general business conditions over the past 30 days, improvement was noted by 28% of respondents, compared to 24% the prior month. Conditions worsened in the view of 14%, compared with 15% taking that view a month earlier. And for 58%, conditions were reported to have stayed the same — down from 61% taking that view in the earlier month.

“While we are encouraged by the upturn in reports of improvement,” Tatum said in its report, “we are not out of the woods yet, with a still-strong majority of respondents reporting that business conditions remained the same.”

In the next 60 days business conditions were expected to improve in the view of 34% of respondents, up from 31% in the prior month’s report, while 9% said conditions were expected to worsen, versus 8%. The same level of conditions was expected by 57% in the July research, compared with 61% in the prior month.

‘Particularly Alarming’

Against the backdrop of continued caution about the nation’s economic growth prospects, the pessimism about hiring and capital-availability prospects seemed to stand out.

Respondents who said they had hired more workers over the past 30 days increased slightly, to 21% from 20%, while those indicating they did less hiring also increased, to 13% from 11%. But looking to the future, executives saying they planned to increase hiring decreased significantly — to 18% from 24% — and the percentage expecting to reduce hiring increased, to 16% from 9%.

Tatum viewed the employment result as “particularly alarming in its magnitude,” reflecting a soft outlook on the economy, along with “various uncertainties. “

In terms of financing availability and pricing, there was a slight dip among those seeing an improvement over the past 30 days, to 16% from 17%. But Tatum called the decline in respondents who expected improvement in financing conditions in the next 60 days — to 11% from 18% — a subject for great concern. Further, the percentage saying conditions will get worse increased significantly, to 25% from 6%.

“This is the most pessimistic result in the entire survey,” Tatum said. “Our respondents report a tightening of credit in the recent past and they then project that it will continue and may even get worse in the upcoming months. Lenders seem to be as uncertain and cautious about the near term future as the rest of us. While increasing the Federal debt ceiling, the legislation did nothing to raise expectations of an improving economy.”