CFOs are Improving Their Outlooks, But Still Cautious


  • The outlook among U.S. CFOs has improved this quarter, with stronger hiring and spending plans relative to last quarter. At the same time, U.S. CFOs remain cautious about the future and peg the odds of a recession by mid-2012 at about 1 in 3.
  • The situation in Europe is much worse than last quarter, with no growth expected in spending or hiring. The outlook in Asia has also softened.
  • U.S. finance chiefs plan to expand their workforces by 1.5 percent on average over the next 12 months, a staffing increase that would yield an unemployment rate of approximately 8 percent, down a point from today’s 9 percent rate.
  • U.S. CFOs rated their optimism in the nation’s economy at 53 this quarter (on a scale from 0 to 100), higher than the recession low of 40 in March 2009, but lower than the long-run average of 60.
  • With the debt crisis continuing to unfold, things are worse in Europe, with optimism down and very little to no growth expected in hiring, business spending or earnings.
  • Asian CFOs are the most optimistic about 2012, but the outlook has dimmed as CFOs’ optimism rating declined to 57 from last quarter’s 60.

The Duke University/CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey is done quarterly. In the most recent survey (which concluded Dec. 9) 1,050 CFOs from a broad range of global public and private companies were asked about their expectations for the economy. The research has been conducted for 63 consecutive quarters, making it the world’s longest running research on senior finance executives and one of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind.

“The 1.5 percent increase in employment is an improvement from the 1 percent increase that was projected last quarter. With a 1.5 percent increase in workforce, national unemployment should fall to near 8 percent by year-end 2012.” – John Graham, professor of finance at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and director of the survey

“It’s encouraging to see this rebound in optimism because increases in CFO optimism have historically preceded improvements in the overall economy. Still, the level of optimism is low by historic measures, suggesting that economic growth will remain relatively slow.” – Kate O’Sullivan, deputy editor at CFO Magazine

“Even more worrisome than CFOs’ recession fears is that 46 percent of CFOs have no plan in place to deal with a recession next year if it happens. It seems like they will wing it, which is shocking because the risk is substantial at 31 percent as opposed to just a couple of percentage points.” – Campbell Harvey, a Fuqua finance professor and founding director of the survey