Before the nation’s journey over the fiscal cliff was at least temporarily averted, the looming possibility that draconian tax hikes and spending cuts could severely damage the economy topped CFOs’ list of most worrisome risks in the fourth quarter and dampened their outlook, according to the results of a survey of 86 finance chiefs released today by Deloitte.

In response, CFOs are tempering their expectations for 2013 capital spending and domestic hiring, according to the accounting firm. The quarterly survey, which tracks the thinking and actions of CFOs representing North American companies averaging more than $5 billion in annual revenue, found that 40% were increasingly pessimistic last quarter about their companies’ prospects: a pessimism similar to that of the previous quarter.

But fewer expressed rising optimism. In the United States, net CFO optimism (the difference between the percent of CFOs expressing rising and falling optimism) fell from zero two quarters ago and -16 last quarter to -21 in the fourth quarter, according to Deloitte.

To be sure, CFOs expected the standoff in Congress over the cuts and hikes to be resolved. In fact, only one in five expected Washington to “go over the cliff.” Most expected change or delay of the scheduled spending cuts, and about 60% expected the Democrats to prevail on taxes, with rates going up for couples earning more than $250,000.

Finance chiefs expressed a wary outlook for capital spending, which is expected to rise just 4.2% over the next 12 months, below last quarter’s survey low of 4.6%. Further, investment in research and development hit its lowest expected growth rate on record for the two-year-old survey at 2.7% (3.0% in the third quarter). Growth in expected marketing and advertising spend similarly dropped to a mere 2.0% from 3.5% in the third quarter.

Domestic hiring is expected to rise a mere 1%, up slightly from 0.6% last quarter. In a new survey high, 28% of finance chiefs are now expecting that their companies will make layoffs this year.

There were some hopeful results, however. The finance chiefs’ expectations for year-over-year sales growth rose to 5.6% from 4.8% in the previous quarter. There was also an uptick in expected earnings growth to 10.9% from 8.0%.

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