Pessimism about the state of the U.S. economy appears to be increasing among CPAs who hold executive and senior management accounting roles, according to a new survey.

The survey, by the American Institute of CPAs, polls CEOs, CFOs, controllers and other CPAs at U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles. Pessimism has deepened steadily over the past three quarters, the AICPA noted, but this time there were no offsetting bright spots. Every major measure of economic expectations in the survey declined, both quarter over quarter and year over year. 

The CPA Outlook Index—a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the survey—fell four points to 59 for the fourth quarter of the year. The index had matched a post-recession high of 69 at the start of this year, but has since sagged.

The index is a composite of nine, equally weighted survey measures set on a scale from 0 to 100, with 50 considered neutral and greater numbers signifying positive sentiment. This quarter, the biggest erosion was in profit expectations, which fell six points, followed by a drop of five points for both U.S. economic outlook and business expansion plans.

“While most executives are still projecting modest growth for their businesses, the trends for hiring plans suggest retrenchment rather than recovery,” said AICPA senior vice president of management accounting and global markets Arleen R. Thomas in a statement. “Only 8 percent of firms have immediate plans to hire, and the number of businesses that say they have too many workers is on an upswing.”

Views on the U.S. economy became more sharply etched in the quarter. Approximately 21 percent of the survey respondent s said they were optimistic about the outlook for the U.S. economy, roughly the same percentage as last quarter. But the number of pessimists increased from 40 percent to 49 percent, with fewer respondents identifying themselves as “neutral.”

In written comments, business executives most often cited the federal deficit, government debt and “fiscal cliff”—a potential combination of expiring tax cuts and deep, mandated spending cuts that could blunt economic growth—as major concerns on the domestic front. They also took a less optimistic view of their own companies’ prospects going forward than in the previous quarter.

The survey also found that CPA executives’ expectations for revenue, profits and headcount growth are at their lowest levels since the third quarter of 2010. Their expectations for investment in information technology, training and capital spending are all below levels from a year ago. The top three challenges cited by the survey respondents remain unchanged in the fourth quarter from the previous quarter: 1) domestic economic conditions, 2) regulatory requirements and changes and 3) domestic political leadership.