Chief financial officers' confidence continues to rise, but has yet to translate into concrete improvements such as increased hiring, a new survey finds.
The survey, conducted by Financial Executives International and Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business and released Friday, showed that the CFO Optimism Index for the US economy rose nearly 33 percent during the first quarter, to 58.14 from an all-time low of 38.96 a year ago. Any measurement above 50 indicates that CFOs are more optimistic than pessimistic about the economy. An index measuring CFOs' optimism about their companies also increased during the quarter and was up sharply from a year earlier.
"CFOs are undoubtedly more optimistic and they see several bright spots for the future," the press release accompanying the results said.
But CFOs still remain cautious in their outlook for the overall health of the economy, and they continue to keep a close eye on staffing, layoffs and compensation internally.
They expect progress to be slow and gradual. For example, almost half of surveyed CFOs don't expect the economic recovery to be truly underway until the first half of 2011 or later.
Their main worries include health care, especially as the new reform act is anticipated to create added costs. CFOs are anticipating an 8 percent increase in costs directly related to the new act. As a result, 62 percent of CFOs said they may be forced to increase employee co-payments and almost half said they will have to reduce the quality of health care packages or even reduce benefits.
CFOs also see minimal change regarding unemployment. Fully 69 percent of surveyed CFOs said they won't conduct layoffs this year, while 14 percent of them said they would. Almost a quarter of CFOs are planning to delay employment start dates for new hires by a few months and 11 percent will delay start dates by more than six months -- down from 46 percent and 29 percent respectively a year ago.
CFOs also continue to take advantage of outsourcing to retain efficiencies.
"It is clear from the results of out first quarter survey that CFOs are feeling more confident about the economy and the impact on their business, but they are treading lightly, and we are seeing more modest increases in the Optimism Index than we saw in the third and fourth quarters of 2009," said John Elliott, dean of the Zicklin School of Business.