CPA business executives are becoming more pessimistic about the outlook for the U.S. economy, according to a new survey by the American Institute of CPAs.

The third-quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey, which polled 1,365 CPAs with executive leadership and senior management positions such as CFOs and controllers in U.S. companies in August, revealed growing pessimism for the second consecutive quarter. The hiring outlook at the survey respondents’ companies also dimmed as senior-level CPAs took a more muted perspective on their own companies’ prospects. Senior-level CPAs’ perception of the prospects for their own companies fell to a 12-month low, resulting in a more bearish view on hiring.

The CPA Outlook Index--a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the survey—fell four points to 63 for the quarter. The index had matched a post-recession high of 69 at the start of this year, but has declined each of the past two quarters. Each component of the index fell this quarter compared to the previous one, with U.S. economic optimism suffering the biggest decline (down 13 points to 41). Year over year, the picture is brighter, as all index measures stand higher now than in the third quarter 2011.

“One change this quarter is the dimmer view survey takers hold of their own companies’ outlook over the coming year,” said AICPA senior vice president for management accounting Arleen R. Thomas in a statement. “For the first two quarters in 2012, more than half said they were optimistic about their organization’s prospects. Now, only 44 percent say so.”

That deepening pessimism may have an impact on hiring, at least in the short term. Only 9 percent of the survey respondents said they have immediate plans to hire new personnel, down from 12 percent last quarter and the lowest rate of the past 12 months. In addition, senior-level CPAs who said their company had excess employees increased to 11 percent—the highest level since the second quarter 2011—suggesting that layoff or job attrition strategies are more likely to be adopted by some companies.

While modest growth is still expected, expectations for revenue, profit and headcount growth all fell slightly for the second straight quarter, according to the survey. Investment is still expected to increase slightly in most categories, according to the survey respondents, but the expected rate declined substantially in information technology, marketing, and research and development.

Despite that, information technology still leads the pack for planned spending increases in aggregate, while R&D investment is expected to lag other categories.

Executives in all types of industries saw a decline in their perceived prospects this quarter. Manufacturing and real estate remained the most optimistic sectors. Technology and construction suffered sharp drops in optimism.

Survey takers have consistently identified domestic economic conditions and changes in regulatory requirements as the No. 1 and No.2 biggest business hurdles over the past 12 months. In the third quarter, domestic political leadership moved up to the No. 3 spot among business hurdles, continuing its rise from No. 6 at the end of last year.

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