A global economic downturn appears to be on the horizon, according to a survey of 3,775 accountants and financial professionals in the U.S. and over 20 other countries.

The survey, conducted jointly by the Institute of Management Accountants and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, also showed evidence of a slowdown in global trading activity late last year.

“Almost three quarters of the finance professionals we sampled believe that the global economy is either deteriorating or stagnating, with nearly half reporting a loss of confidence in the prospects of their organizations during the last quarter of 2011,” said ACCA senior policy adviser Manos Schizas.

The majority of finance professionals surveyed in the U.S. expect the global economy to either stagnate or deteriorate this year. Only 18 percent of the survey respondents reported increased confidence in the prospects of their organizations, compared to 38 percent who reported a loss of confidence. Sixty-nine percent of the respondents anticipate the global economy will stagnate or deteriorate further in the near future. However, North America is relatively optimistic compared to the total global sample.

“Once again, the biggest loss of confidence came in Hong Kong, Singapore and Cyprus, all countries heavily exposed to international trade and cross-border financial activity, which also reported some of the worst perceptions of the global economy,” said IMA vice president of research Raef A. Lawson. “This among other things suggests to us that international trade is in decline.”

At the regional level, Central and Eastern Europe have performed the worst in terms of business confidence, and the Asia-Pacific region is losing confidence faster than Western Europe. Africa, the Middle East and South Asia remain the most upbeat regions, in terms of both business confidence and respondents’ perceptions on the state of the global economy. But while survey respondents in some parts of the world have seen encouraging signs from new orders coming in to their companies, the damage done to global demand over the last year has been substantial.

Survey respondents in utilities firms, which are often domestically focused and fairly robust to economic conditions, have reported some of the strongest net confidence gains among the major industrial groups, while pharmaceuticals, IT and communications companies which are fairly exposed to trends in international trade and global economic activity, have been among some of the hardest hit industries. Conversely, professional services firms appear to have performed very strongly, while respondents in manufacturing firms have reported constant levels of confidence despite substantial international exposure.

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