The Economy

Hope Returning to Exec-level CPAs, with an Asterisk

CFOs, controllers, and other top-level CPAs say they're getting cheerier about the economy generally, yet their views on the time frame for a recov...
David McCannMay 13, 2009

Pessimism about the economy among executive-level accountants has receded markedly since February, according to research results released today.

At least, that’s one way to interpret the research, performed in late April and early May by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Almost 90% of the 1,071 participants were either CFOs or controllers; the rest were CEOs, chief operating officers, owners, and other top officials who possess the CPA designation.

While 52% of respondents said they were “pessimistic” or “very pessimistic” about the U.S. economic outlook for the next 12 months, that’s a steep drop from the 83% who said so three months earlier. The percentage who were “optimistic” or “very optimistic” leaped from 5% to 19%. AICPA has been conducting the survey quarterly since early 2007, and this is the first time participants’ outlook was more sunny than it had been in the immediately preceding period.

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Those results were shocking, Mark Lang, an accounting professor at Kenan-Flagler, told “I thought it was just going to flatten out a little bit,” he said, adding that a swing of that magnitude is unprecedented in the year he’s been involved with the ongoing research project. “This is the first encouraging news we’ve seen in a long time.”

The rise in hopefulness seemed to vanish, though, when participants were asked a more specific question: When do you think an economic recovery will begin? The response was virtually identical to that recorded in the prior survey, with about 40% looking for the turnaround in the first half of 2010, and one in five expecting it in the second half of next year.

But that result actually represents progress, according to Lange. He noted that for the past several quarters, the CPAs continually pushed out the time frame for the recovery by a quarter, and this is the first time they’ve stood pat with their previous prediction.

(In the most recent edition of CFO magazine’s own quarterly Business Outlook Survey, conducted in February with Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, 67% of participating CFOs had grown less positive about the economy than in the prior quarter. Expectations for the timing of a recovery were similar to those in the new AICPA survey.)

More troubling to Lang is companies’ spending plans, or lack thereof, despite improving prospects for the top and bottom lines.

Indeed, 53% respondents expected their companies to see decreases in sales and revenue over the next year, down from 60% who felt that way in January. And 35% expect profits to rise, up from 26% three months ago.

But even if companies are going to be bringing in more cash, they aren’t necessarily expecting to part with it. Plans for overall spending on sales and marketing, research and development, capital investments, and training held steady at last quarter’s levels, though that represented an end to a trend of increasing spending reductions over the past year. Staffing costs should continue to fall sharply, with 45% expecting to shed employees compared to only 19% who will add them.

“These are senior executives, and while you could take their predictions on the economy with a grain of salt, I’m inclined to believe they have a good sense of their budgets,” said Lang. “And it doesn’t seem like they’re planning to take actions that would stimulate the economy. They say they see light at the end of the tunnel, and if only they would act it would come to pass.”

Meanwhile, survey respondents on average viewed their companies as price discounters. While about 55% said they expect to pay the same or lower prices for what they buy, 67% said the prices they charge will be the same or less.