Congressional stalling on tax reform, currency fluctuations and mixed signals from the Federal Reserve on an interest-rate hike are making strategic planning difficult for CFOs, according to a new survey by Grant Thornton.
The firm polled more than 900 CFOs for its latest CFO Survey and found that 55 percent say uncertainty in the U.S. economy is a major concern that could impact their businesses’ growth in the next 12 months Particularly frustrating for CFOs is the dysfunction in Congress over a bill to extend more than 50 popular tax provisions that expired at the end of last year.
More than a third (37 percent) of the CFOs polled said they are acting as though the extension will not occur, while only 9 percent of CFOs assume the extension will occur. Twenty-six percent are assuming some amount of risk that it will not occur, and are planning accordingly. Only 9 percent of the CFOs surveyed assume the extension will occur. Just over half (51 percent) of companies that actually use the provisions are doing all their planning with the assumption that the extension will not occur.
“In past years, negotiations over the tax extenders bill dragged on into December,” said Mel Schwarz, partner and director of tax legislative affairs in Grant Thornton’s Washington National Tax Office, in a statement. “This is very troublesome and creates major headaches for U.S. businesses Lawmakers need to agree on at least a two-year retroactive extension of nearly all the provisions, with a one-year extension as an absolute fallback.”
Most CFOs expect the U.S. economy overall to remain the same (49 percent) or improve (43 percent) in the next 12 months. Business leaders’ concern over economic uncertainties appears to have increased significantly since earlier this year. In May 2015, only net 22 percent of U.S. business leaders saw economic uncertainty as a major constraint on their ability to grow in the coming year, according to the Grant Thornton International Business Report.
“While the U.S. economy has stabilized, our data suggest that uncertainty related to other economic factors is making strategic planning difficult for financial executives,” said Grant Thornton national managing partner of tax services Randy Robason. “CFOs are looking to Washington, regulators and the Federal Reserve for answers and getting nothing but indecision.”
Cybersecurity is also a major source of worry for CFOs, especially in light of recent high-profile cyberattacks on major U.S. companies. When considering what the most significant cyber risks they face are, 44 percent of the CFOs polled said the most significant risks are the unknown risks, and a 57 percent majority said it is the potential for undetected breaches. More public companies (47 percent) fear they are at risk of reputation loss than private companies (31 percent).
Regulatory and compliance burdens also top the list of concerns for finance chiefs. Nearly half (45 percent) of CFOs say that increasing costs of compliance present the biggest challenge to growth, and nearly a third (31 percent) say that keeping up with the volume and complexity of regulations is their number-one challenge.
Amidst the overall economic and political uncertainty, financial executives are averse to riskier growth strategies. CFOs at the vast majority of companies polled (80 percent) said they plan to pursue growth strategies in existing markets, and only 11 percent plan to expand into international markets. More than half the CFOs polled (54 percent) said they plan to fund growth in the coming year by leveraging existing cash reserves, while 47 percent said they will use debt financing.
While the survey also suggests that the recent enthusiasm for mergers and acquisitions may be waning, with only 28 percent of finance chiefs planning to pursue M&A opportunities in the coming year (a 9 percent drop since fall 2014), CFOs of companies in certain industries had varied opinions. For example, 37 percent of CFOs in the health care industry plan to pursue M&A in the coming year (9 percent higher than the national average). Fifty-four percent of finance chiefs in the technology industry expect their industry’s financial prospects to improve, 10 percent higher than the national average.
Energy-industry CFOs appear to be optimistic, despite the current downturn in oil and natural gas prices, with nearly 40 percent expecting their industry’s financial prospects to improve in the coming year and only 7 percent expecting them to worsen. In the manufacturing sector, 40 percent of manufacturing CFOs said uncertainty in global markets could impact their growth, 15 percent higher than the national average.
Meanwhile, there is good news for finance professionals in the survey results, with CFOs saying they are aggressively looking to develop and hire new talent. The vast majority (70 percent) of CFOs said finding and retaining the right talent is a critical need for supporting growth. Forty percent expect their business’s new hiring to increase in the next six months; 52 percent expect hiring to remain the same. A 67 percent majority of CFOs plan to increase salaries in the coming year, holding steady since 2014.
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