As the credit crisis deepens, many finance chiefs are bracing themselves for a long, tough row to hoe.

That’s according to a new survey of 125 senior financial executives in a wide range of industries, conducted by CFO Research Services, a division of CFO Publishing Corp. (CFO.com’s parent company), and underwritten by Towers Perrin. The executives were surveyed immediately after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch, and the bailout of American International Group in September, all transpiring in a span of a few days.

While 61 percent of finance chiefs are concerned about their companies’’ access to day-to-day financing, even more — 65 percent — are worried about the availability of long-term credit. Further, 73 percent say the turmoil on Wall Street makes them anxious about their companies’ ability to carry out strategic plans.

The respondents were evenly split on the question of whether the credit crisis itself will be long-lived, but most (86 percent) predict the economic disruption will be global in scope. As for the damage wrought by the crisis, 62 percent of finance chiefs say their companies’ financial prospects have been harmed, but only 4 percent fear the worst will befall their businesses.

What is to blame for the mess? Poor risk management practices at banks and other financial institutions, say 62 percent of survey respondents. Culprit number two, identified by 59 percent, is the increased complexity of financial instruments. Lagging well behind are deregulation (28 percent) and fair-value accounting (24 percent).

Considered separately, however, the 32 financial-services CFOs responding to the survey have a different perspective on assigning blame. Three out of four (78 percent) rank complexity of financial instruments as a top cause of woe, while only 53 percent name risk management. (Those instruments must be opaque indeed, given that so many finance chiefs in the financial industry finger them as the primary contributor of the market meltdown.)

The banking industry’s risk management shortfalls may be prodding finance execs to examine their own practices. As a result of the crisis, 55 percent of all survey respondents say their companies are likely to change their risk management practices, either at the board level, the employee level, or both. Fifty percent say they’ll make changes to their companies’ banking relationships, and 49 percent will alter their cash management practices.

There was little consensus in the executives’ answers to an open-ended question about what regulatory actions should be taken in response to the crisis. But 59 percent think the current wave of consolidation in the financial-services sector will harm U.S. companies.

Finally, concerning the market for complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations, 46 percent of finance chiefs say it is “somewhat likely” to revive, while an optimistic 14 percent think it is “very likely” to do so. Whether that revival would be regarded as a welcome sequel or the return of Frankenstein’s monster remains to be seen.

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