CFOs are expressing more optimism as they enter the second half of the year, according to a new survey.
The quarterly survey of CFOs around the world, by Financial Executives International and Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business, found that CFOs, particularly in the U.S., are upbeat on hiring, wages and capital. However, their longer term outlook for economic growth and the fate of the Eurozone remains less certain.
The quarterly optimism index for U.S. CFOs for the global economy averaged 54.96 (up from 54.60 last quarter). CFOs were even more confident about the U.S. economy, where the index increased to 64.17 (from 62.00). Confidence among CFOs in the European Union in the global economy averaged 54.80, up several points (from 51.40) the last time they were surveyed, and they were more optimistic regarding the U.S. economy than their U.S. counterparts, with the index averaging 64.72 this quarter. However, when asked to rate their concern on a scale of one (not concerned) to five (very concerned), 70 percent of all EU CFOs and 75 percent of U.S. CFOs were moderately-to-very concerned about the fate of the Eurozone. Many CFOs also said they believe a recovery of the European economy could take more than a year or two, with 32 percent of U.S. CFOs and 28 percent of EU CFOs predicting an economic recovery would not occur until 2016 or beyond.
U.S. CFOs’ confidence toward their own businesses increased more than four points this quarter to 72.05 (from 67.70). E.U. CFOs’ confidence in their businesses averaged 59.79 on the index, less than a point below what they reported in the fall of 2013 (60.60). More than a third of U.S. CFOs (38 percent) reported capital spending at a normal rate and another 21 percent are making ambitious investments in capital expenditures this quarter. Conversely, E.U. CFOs were more reluctant about both hiring and capital spending, as 62 percent indicated cautious spending this quarter with only a third of European CFOs anticipating hiring within the next six months. Those CFOs that were making capital expenditures most commonly invested in technology (68 percent in the U.S and 50 percent in the EU).
U.S. CFOs indicated that in the next 12 months, they expect the largest increases in the areas of net earnings and revenue and E.U. CFOs anticipate smaller increases in capital spending in addition to revenue. While EU CFOs are expecting healthcare costs to increase less than one percentage point, U.S. CFOs are expecting a nine point increase on average. However, this represents a 20 percent decline in the expected increase in health care costs from the previous quarter (from 10.9 to 8.74).
Wage levels and employment for CFOs demonstrated overall stability and even increase this quarter. This quarter, 67 percent of E.U. CFOs stated that the levels they are paying are about the same as the levels they paid this time last year, while this same percent of U.S. CFOs said the wage levels they are paying are on the rise. Nearly twice the percentage of U.S. CFOs (63 percent) plan to hire employees within the next six months compared with EU CFOs (33 percent) who are hiring.
Those CFOs that plan to employ more individuals are most commonly seeking mid-career professionals, experienced and skilled technical workers and entry-level university graduates. Despite marginal progress in hiring, when asked the timeframe they anticipate their economy would reach full employment, the majority of CFOs said they see this as a long-term goal: 55 percent of U.S. CFOs and 47 percent of EU CFOs project that full employment would not occur until 2016 or beyond.
“This quarter, we asked our CFOs a number of questions related to their projections for longer term stability in the economy,” said Linda Allen, Professor of Economics and Finance for the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, in a statement. “The findings show that a majority of CFOs do not anticipate the return of a robust, full employment economy in the U.S. until 2016 or beyond, although they are rather optimistic about revenue and profitability growth in their own businesses. U.S. CFOs anticipate more hiring and capital investment in contrast to European CFOs who are less optimistic about prospects for European economic recovery (more than one half of European CFOs projected economic recovery in the second half of 2015 or later), and therefore are less likely to hire and invest in the near future.”
Respondents to the survey were also asked their opinions about the effectiveness of government monetary policies in laying the groundwork for long-term economic growth in their respective regions and the Fed’s policies were the clear winner for both E.U. and U.S. CFOs. More than half of U.S. CFOs thought that the Fed’s policies were effective: 32 percent thought the Fed was more effective than the ECB, along with an additional 19 percent who believed that both policies were relatively effective. In Europe, three in four CFOs were favorable of the Fed’s policies: forty-five believed the Fed’s policies were more effective, and another 30 percent thought both were effective. Only 5 percent of U.S. CFOs and 9 percent of E.U. CFOs believed the ECB’s policies had been more effective.
In light of several major foreign relations headlines that have affected the U.S., including Benghazi, the Syrian Civil War, the China-Japan territorial dispute, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapping, the majority of CFOs believed that the U.S. public's reactions to the Administration's handling of these issues suggests both a growing criticism of the Obama Administration for a weak foreign policy (67 percent of U.S. CFOs and 41 percent of EU CFOs) as well as a “concern with the increasing costs of U.S. commitments abroad” (31 percent of U.S. CFOs and 32 percent of EU CFOs).
Tax and Health Care Reforms
Similar to the sentiment shared in previous quarters, over a third of U.S. CFOs (39 percent) said they believe the U.S. is already in a recovery, but only 16 percent said a recovery could take place by the first half of 2015. Twenty-one percent of respondents said that a U.S. economic recovery will take place in the second half of 2015, and the same percentage believed that the recovery will be postponed until 2016 or later. Still, the majority of U.S. CFOs indicated they do not believe a recession is imminent. Fifty-six percent of U.S. respondents said they do not believe the U.S. will enter a recession in the next two years; 36 percent said it was too soon to determine.
In the past six months, U.S. CFOs stated that their companies experienced an average increase of five percent in related costs from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. With the initial implementation of the Affordable Care Act exchanges now underway, the majority of U.S. respondents (63 percent) said they believe Congress should now focus on reforming the ACA, compared with 37 percent who believe Congress should continue to try to repeal the Act.
U.S. CFOs also revealed an overwhelming dissatisfaction with the current U.S. tax laws. The majority of respondents gave the laws the lowest possible ranking of “one” when asked to measure their confidence (on a scale of one to five). Despite their disapproval, a large percentage of U.S. CFOs (84 percent) said they have not considered taking their businesses abroad to have access to a more competitive tax rate or a territorial tax system.
“While the fear of a U.S. recession seems to be over for the immediate future, CFOs in the U.S. are focusing their attention on tax reform and healthcare, two economic concerns that widely impact their businesses,” said Financial Executives International president and CEO Marie Hollein in a statement. “The majority of U.S. CFOs do not have plans to take their businesses abroad and are not asking for a repeal of Obamacare. They want reform - a comprehensive and fair solution that protects the interests of U.S. companies.”
Capital and Interest Rate Concerns
This quarter, the vast majority of U.S. CFOs (80 percent) and E.U. CFOs (71 percent) said they do not believe their company is capital constrained in terms of access to credit (from banks or capital markets). U.S. CFOs reported that they have 12 percent on average of their assets held in cash and their balance sheet comprises 57 percent equity and 28 percent long term debt obligations. E.U. CFOs also said they have on average 11 percent of their assets in cash and their balance sheet is comprised of 50 percent equity and 28 percent long term debt obligations. They are most commonly accessing capital from banks.
This quarter, CFOs expect that inflation will remain low through 2016, but nonetheless, they also expect the Fed will begin raising rates in 2015. CFOs are anticipating increases in their countries’ rate of inflation over the next year: U.S. CFOs expect the rate to remain around 2.1 in the next six months and increase to 2.7 a year from now, and E.U. CFOs expect the rate on average to increase to over one percent a year from now. When asked to gauge their level of concern toward inflation over the next 12 months, the large majority of respondents revealed a low-to-moderate concern this quarter 85 percent of U.S. respondents and 91 percent of EU respondents selected between a one and three (on a scale of one to five).
The majority of CFOs (72 percent of U.S. CFOs and 77 percent of EU CFOs) said this sentiment was unchanged from the previous quarter. Furthermore, the majority (54 percent of U.S. CFOs and 61 percent of EU CFOs) said they do not believe that tapering will have any impact on inflation; however more than a third of U.S. respondents (36 percent) and a fifth of E.U. respondents (21 percent) said they think it will increase inflation. The majority of respondents (68 percent of U.S. CFOs and 56 percent of EU CFOs) think the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates sometime in 2015.
In addition, CFOs on average expressed a low-to-moderate concern over interest rates over the next 12 months. When asked to gauge their concern on a scale of one to five, 85 percent of U.S. CFOs and 89 percent of E.U. CFOs selected a three or lower.
CFOs this quarter also offered perspective on the functionality of the finance division within their companies. The large majority of CFOs in both regions think their respective divisions consistently provide useful information for making critical business decisions (89 percent of CFOs in the U.S. and E.U. selected “yes”). Although respondents tended to be divided on how they describe the information that their Finance division provides for critical business decisions, nearly a third of U.S. CFOs (32 percent) said their division helps them explore (“why did it happen”) and 40 percent of E.U. CFOs said their finance division helps them make optimization decisions (“what’s the best we can do”).
The greatest barriers preventing their finance divisions from providing better information for critical business decisions include not enough time (19 percent of U.S. CFOs and 32 percent of E.U. CFOs) and concerns over the quality of the information (20 percent of U.S. CFOs and 21 percent of E.U. CFOs). The operations function is where CFOs said their finance divisions have most regular collaboration (83 percent of U.S. CFOs and 67 percent of EU CFOs) and it is also the function within their organization with the most influence on corporate strategy (35 percent of U.S. CFOs and 34 percent of EU CFOs).
The complete survey results and historical data comparisons are available at www.financialexecutives.org.