Mirroring the mood of the economy, CFO confidence is on the upswing in the United States. “With consumer sentiment strong, the market booming, and some of the other indicators up, CFOs feel like there’s a recovery happening,” says Tom Fitzsimmons, CFO of TMP Worldwide, a digital recruitment-advertising agency. “For a pessimistic lot, we can be pretty optimistic.”
Or even downright upbeat. Optimism among finance executives about the U.S. economy is now above the long-run average for only the second time since 2007. The U.S. Business Optimism Index rose to 61 on a scale from 0 to 100, well above last quarter’s reading of 55 and also above the long-run average Index value of 59. “The economy is improving to the point where we don’t have to hoard cash anymore,” says Mike Herbert, CFO of Delta Dental of Kansas, a provider of group dental benefits. “We can put it to productive use to help us grow the business.”
Herbert’s confidence in the budding opportunity that awaits his employer — the Wichita-based insurer is projecting “small percentage growth” in sales, and planning to beef up hiring next year — is not widely shared by participants in this quarter’s Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook Survey.
In fact, as U.S. economic growth starts to accelerate, it shows signs of outpacing CFOs’ outlooks for their own companies. CFOs’ confidence level in their own firms has stalled this quarter, with the gauge sticking at 64 on a scale from 0 to 100. What’s keeping finance executives so restrained? “It took us five years or so to get from the depths of the recession to where we are now,” says Herbert. “There’s always this nagging doubt in the back of my mind that it could fall apart overnight.”
While such distressing doubts may be symptoms of post-economic-meltdown-disorder — rather than a realistic assessment of prospects — there remain reasons for CFOs to proceed with caution. “Underlying job creation,” as Fitzsimmons points out, “is still not back to the levels where we saw it pre-recession, and this is long after the Great Recession ended, technically.” Indeed, full-time domestic employment is up only 1% in this quarter’s survey — not enough to significantly affect the unemployment rate.
The reluctance to take on the expense of full-time hires may be, as Fitzsimmons suggests, at least partly a function of the fact that “the cost of bringing people on may be going up as the health care legislation rolls out next year.” Randy Lay, CFO of Lazydays, a recreational-vehicle dealer with sales of more than $500 million, expects revenues to rise as much as 25% this year. Even so, Lay says that “we are being pretty conservative when it comes to hiring,” shying away from bulking up the ranks of managerial or support positions. “Those aren’t the areas that we would spend money in,” he notes. “We don’t want the fixed costs.”
Finance executives’ guarded outlook is also reflected in the nearly even split between respondents who are looking to spend down accumulated cash reserves (48%) and those who maintain their reserves (52%). About one in five of those who don’t plan on spending say they simply lack excess cash to deploy. But more often, the executives in this group are “keeping their powder dry” as they wait for investment opportunities to ripen, or are simply taking a conservative stance towards credit availability and financial risk.
On the upside, slightly more than a quarter of U.S. finance executives report that they won’t have to use cash reserves to fund their companies. And half of the companies represented in the survey plan on spending down reserves, mainly in pursuit of new business opportunities. The largest number of these companies (63%) expect to deploy accumulated cash reserves toward capital spending or investment, far outstripping the need to make acquisitions (39%) or pay down debt (29%).
The outlook remains much starker in Europe, as countries continue to search out solutions to sovereign debt crises and bank failures. Similar to their U.S. counterparts, 48% of European companies plan to spend from their cash hoards during the next year — but they will do so primarily to cover operating losses, rather than to pursue new growth.
Finance executives from emerging economies tend to have a more aggressive growth outlook, and between 60% and 70% of these companies plan to begin spending their accumulated cash. Asian firms, in particular, will use their cash to fund research and development as they look to expand their reach.
However, this quarter’s Business Outlook Survey sounds a note of warning for these regions. In developing economies, a good number of finance executives see business corruption (fraud or bribery, for example) as hindering their economic growth. Half of CFOs in Africa say that corruption is a significant risk to economic development, as do more than one-third of Asian and Latin American financial executives. An additional one-third of CFOs in these developing regions say corruption is a moderate problem.
These concerns are in danger of spilling over to some of the mature economies looking to increase market share in developing regions. About one-quarter of finance executives from the United States, and a third from Europe, say that their companies have shied away from business opportunities in other countries on account of their perception of corruption.