CFOs were more optimistic about the economy and their own companies in the fourth quarter of last year, according to a new survey.

Financial Executives International and Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business polled 371 CFOs for its quarterly CFO Outlook Survey and said the survey’s CFO Optimism Index for the U.S. economy rose from 54.20 in Q3 to 56.98 in Q4. Optimism about the CFOs’ own companies rose about 3 points on the index from 64.10 to 67.09.

Despite an improved overall outlook, U.S. economic growth remains at the top of the list of CFOs’ concerns. Thirty-eight percent rank it as their No. 1 economic worry for 2010. One quarter of CFOs cite consumer spending/demand as their top concern. Specific business challenges on CFOs’ minds include competition (25 percent) and expense control (23 percent).

Fifty-eight percent of CFOs believe a U.S. economic recovery will be realized by the end of 2010; however, 22 percent do not believe it will occur until the first half of 2011.

“The findings of our Q4 survey demonstrate that CFOs overall closed 2009 with a much improved sense of optimism than when it began, but they are realistic about the challenges that still lay ahead,” said John Elliott, dean of the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College. “CFOs are indicating that they have learned lessons from the downturn and can face the coming year looking forward to the opportunities at hand.”

In the shadow of 2009’s dismal unemployment rates, hiring prospects at respondents’ companies show modest signs of buoyancy in 2010, with 44 percent reporting an anticipated increase in hiring at their companies. This joins the finding that the majority of CFOs (62 percent) indicated they do not plan any layoffs for the coming year. However, 27 percent admitted it is “too soon to determine” if they will conduct layoffs.

Retrospectively, three out of four CFOs indicated they were forced to cut back on staff during the course of the downturn. When those companies that had reduced staff were asked what they will do prior to rehiring new full-time employees, 49 percent say they do not plan to replace the positions. In addition, at least one-fifth plan to reinstate overtime for existing employees (31 percent), hire part-time employees (23 percent), or make current part-time employees full time (21 percent) before rehiring new full-time employees.

Full survey results and historical data comparisons are available at www.cfosurveys.com.

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