Financial executives at U.S. companies remain concerned about the current economy and are less confident about economic growth in 2012, according to the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch CFO Outlook survey conducted earlier this fall.
Of the 600 executives at U.S. companies who were surveyed in the annual report, only 38% said they expect the U.S. economy to expand in 2012, down from 56% in last year's survey and 66% the previous year.
Regarding the current economy, optimism earlier this year has ebbed, with CFOs now giving 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.
Despite those concerns, most CFOs don't expect their companies to reduce workforces in 2012. Only 7% predicted layoffs, compared with 6% last year. Meanwhile, 48% of executives said they expect their companies to maintain the current number of employees, while 46% said they expected to hire employees. Both of those responses are similar to last year's survey.
"Without question, many CFOs are hoping for more positive signs of consistent economic stability and growth-in the U.S. and abroad," said Laura Whitley, head of global commercial banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "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."
Another positive sign amid challenging economic conditions: 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% of executives 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.
"These responses support what we've heard from many Bank of America Merrill Lynch clients," Whitley said. "Those companies that are considering additional capital feel confident that we can provide financing-and at an affordable rate-as needed."
BofA's survey was conducted by Granite Research Consulting from late September to early November. The results were compiled from phone interviews of 600 CFOs, finance directors and other executives selected randomly from U.S. companies with annual revenues between $20 million and $2 billion.
Other notable survey findings included:
CFOs are strongly concerned about several factors that could affect the economy in 2012. Number one is the effectiveness of U.S. government leaders, listed as a concern by 70% of executives. In addition, 63% listed the U.S. budget deficit; 60% listed healthcare costs; 58% listed unemployment; and 55% listed consumer confidence. Never in the history of BofA's CFO Outlook have there been so many factors at a high level of concern. Last year's top concern regarding the economy was healthcare reform, chosen by 54% of executives.
The top financial concern for CFO's own companies is healthcare costs, chosen by 56% of CFOs. That was followed by energy costs and consumer confidence, both at 43%; cash flow at 42%; and revenue growth at 40%.
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 are the same or higher than pre-recession levels, similar to last year's response.