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Business Outlook Survey

As the economy struggles, pessimism permeates the C-suite.

When it comes to predicting a U.S. economic revival, even optimistic finance executives sound gloomy. They do expect the economy to show signs of life — but not until mid-2009. And while this quarter’s Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook Survey counts fewer pessimistic CFOs than it did last quarter, the morose majority continues to dominate.

The main culprit? The credit crunch. More CFOs felt a direct impact from the credit crisis this quarter than last — 43 percent versus 36 percent. Credit woes are more common among firms rated B and lower, with 69 percent of such respondents saying they’ve been directly affected, either by the increased cost or the decreased availability of financing.

Steve Ragaller, the finance chief at Cretex Cos., a Minnesota manufacturer of concrete products for construction, says business with his commercial clientele is stagnating. “Developers are having difficulty getting financing, and even if they do have money they’re skittish about starting projects,” he adds.

While the survey was conducted before the federal government’s announcement that it would take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a large majority of CFOs said they would approve of government intervention in the case of the giant mortgage lenders. Still, finance chiefs don’t see such a dramatic move as an instant fix for the slumping credit and housing markets. “I think things will be on hold as the government works through the solution,” says Brian Schaefgen, CFO at Harbor Group International, a private real estate investment company in Norfolk, Virginia.

Survey respondents expect to shrink payrolls by an average of just under 2 percent in the next 12 months. They also foresee rising prices, sluggish spending, and continued credit woes. In other words, says Ragaller, “we see 2009 looking a lot like 2008.”

CFOs on domestic-economy optimism, expected change/recovery, the Fed's financial market intervention

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