Grant Thornton said that its Business Optimism Index has hit an all-time low, the lowest point since the accounting firm introduced the semiannual confidence measure in May 2002.

The firm said that the index dropped from 64.1 in November 2006 to a current level of 59.5. However, the index has been declining steadily since it hit a high of 75.6 in November 2003.

The survey also found that executive optimism about the economy has slid. In 2006, 30 percent of the more than 500 senior executives polled said they thought the economy would improve in the next six months. But in June 2007, that proportion had fallen to 24 percent. Back in November 2003, the figure was at a high of 83 percent.

In addition, the proportion of survey respondents who believe the economy will worsen has increased 5 percentage points to 20 percent since the survey was last conducted. Back in May 2002, the proportion was at an all-time low of 2 percent.

The hiring picture does not look good either. The number of executives who expect their companies to increase employee headcount over the next six months has declined 11 percentage points, from 53 percent to 42 percent. Eleven percent of the executives polled expect a decrease in headcount in their companies.

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