CPA business executives are feeling significantly less pessimistic about the U.S. economy and their own businesses’ prospects than they were at the end of 2012, according to a survey by the American Institute of CPAs.

The AICPA polled CEOs, CFOs, controllers and other CPAs in U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles. The Institute's CPA Outlook Index rose seven points to 66 for the first quarter, the largest quarterly jump in more than two years, but the index is still below its post-recession high of 69 reached a year ago.

After a progressively downward slide through 2012, expectations for revenue, profits and headcount growth rebounded in the first quarter of 2013, the survey found.  Fifty-four percent of the CPA business executives polled said their companies have the right number of employees. Twelve percent said they plan to hire soon, up from 8 percent in the past quarter.

“Corporate executives are still concerned about unemployment levels, deficit and debt issues, and political gridlock,” said AICPA senior vice president for management accounting and global markets Arleen R. Thomas in a statement. “But a solid majority of survey takers now expect to see their business expand in the coming year, and we’re seeing a slight uptick in hiring plans.”

Among the top challenges, “employee and benefit cost concerns” has replaced “Domestic political leadership” as the No. 3 concern from the past quarter. The top three concerns now are: 1) domestic economic conditions, 2) regulatory requirements/changes, and 3) employee and benefit cost concerns.

The biggest change this quarter involves the outlook for the U.S. economy. Survey respondents shifted from a pessimistic to a neutral stance. The number of business executives who expressed a pessimistic view fell from 49 percent to 31 percent, quarter over quarter. Yet only 32 percent said they were optimistic, with the rest falling in the middle.

Executives said they feel better about their own businesses, with half now expressing optimism, up from 41 percent in the past quarter.

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