Despite signs of potential growth in manufacturing and a slightly improving outlook for organizations, many CPA financial executives are still pessimistic about the U.S. economy in the first quarter.

A survey by the American Institute of CPAs and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School found that 38 percent of CPA executives expressed pessimism about the economy, a slight decrease from 40 percent in October, while 25 percent were optimistic. Thirty-six percent of respondents believe that conditions will not return to pre-recession levels until after 2012, according to the latest survey conducted Jan. 27 to Feb. 15.

Thirty-five percent said conditions would return to pre-recession levels in 2011, and 23 percent said things would return during 2012. Only 4 percent thought conditions would snap back to pre-recession levels this year.

Outlooks for respondents’ own organizations improved this quarter. Overall, 44 percent of respondents said they were optimistic about their organizations this quarter, a 6-percentage-point jump from 38 percent in late 2009. At the same time, 24 percent were pessimistic about their own organizations, an improvement over the 30 percent who had been negative about the prospects for their organization in the fourth quarter.

CPAs working for organizations in the manufacturing sector led the increase in optimism with the percentage of optimists jumping to 56 percent this quarter, up from 39 percent last quarter.

However, unemployment remains a thorny issue. “The employment situation continues to be problematic,” said AICPA vice president Carol Scott in a statement. “Less than one-third of our members’ companies are planning to increase their number of employees, and we still have 27 percent telling us they are planning to reduce their headcount in the next 12 months.”

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