The optimism of chief financial officers across the U.S. has fallen steeply in the fourth quarter, according to a new survey.

The survey of 345 corporate CFOs, by Financial Executives International and Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business, tracks a quarterly CFO Optimism Index. The survey found that optimism about the U.S. economy plummeted to an all-time low among CFOs in the fourth quarter, with the index falling to 39.85 compared to 41.73 in the third quarter. That represented a 46 percent drop from the 73.55 level in 2004. Optimism about the CFOs' own companies also dipped in Q4 to 58.07, compared to 61.74 in Q3.

Eighty-eight percent of the CFOs feel that the breadth of responsibility and pressure placed on their roles by employees and shareholders is higher compared with this time last year. Sixty-eight percent of CFOs identified hiring as an area for cutbacks in 2009, with 65 percent saying they have already implemented labor cutbacks during 2008. Eighty percent of CFOs have scaled back discretionary spending.

Holiday events have seen a 32 percent decrease on average, while overtime has been slashed by an average of 22 percent, and entertainment by an average of 18 percent. Thirty-eight percent of CFOs say their companies are cutting year-end bonuses for employees across the board.

Nearly 40 percent of the CFOs surveyed say that U.S. economic growth is the No. 1 economic worry for 2009, while 32 percent choose consumer spending and demand as the top economic worry. Thirty-four percent of the CFOs said that expense control would be their company's top challenge in the first half of 2009, compared with 30 percent in the second quarter of 2008.

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