The Economy

CFOs Hoping for the Best, Planning for the Worst

Finance chiefs are feeling a lot better than they were last quarter, but recovery is still a long way off.
Kate O'SullivanJune 3, 2009

Adrift in the sea of conflicting economic indicators, CFOs are sending mixed signals this quarter. While reporting a marked increase in optimism compared with last quarter, they still plan to lay off employees and cut spending, according to the latest CFO magazine/Duke University Global Business Outlook Survey.

Fifty-four percent of U.S. finance chiefs are more optimistic than they were last quarter, when optimism levels were near the historic low reached in the fourth quarter of 2008. Asian and Chinese finance executives’ sentiments also rebounded this quarter, although European CFOs remain more pessimistic than their counterparts in other areas of the world.

The uptick in optimism could indicate the economy is bottoming out and will be improving in 2010, says John Graham, finance professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and director of the survey. More than a third of the 540 senior finance executives who responded to the survey say the recovery will begin in the second half of this year, while 31% are looking to the first half of 2010. Another 20% don’t expect the economy to begin to pick up until later next year. On average, CFOs say the recession will last another 10 months.

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This improved outlook has yet to affect finance chiefs’ plans for their own businesses, however. On average, they expect to reduce their workforces by 6% in the next 12 months, which would yield an unemployment rate as high as 12%. The executives expect earnings to decline by 6%, and will reduce capital spending by 12%.

How to explain the gap between CFOs’ outlook and their cost-cutting plans? It could be that finance chiefs just aren’t ready to translate their more-optimistic sentiments to hard numbers yet. Improved optimism has typically been a leading indicator, showing a positive trend ahead of other fundamentals, says Graham.

Although CFOs feel better than they did three months ago, they are waiting for proof that business is truly improving. “It’s one thing to be optimistic, but it’s another thing to get out over your skis in terms of spending,” says Michael Provenzano, finance chief at Aspect, a Massachusetts-based communications software and services company that counts many distressed global banks among its customers. “I’m certainly more optimistic about our business from a revenue perspective but I’m still conservative when it comes to spending. I would love to be loosening up spending in the second half of the year, but that’s only going to happen after I see the performance on the revenue front.”

Provenzano says many customers “are realizing that it’s not the end of the world” and are cautiously moving forward with carefully vetted projects. He is watching closely for an increase in new customers and in new licenses sold to existing customers.

Thomas Carlson, CFO at Advance Food Co., a food processor that supplies the food-services industry, says his company is poised to have its best year ever by a significant margin, thanks to a highly efficient new plant it began developing in 2006 and brought online last year. But he is still hesitant: “We have every reason to be optimistic I suppose, and yet…I really think we’re probably going to see things get a little bit worse for our customers, and therefore for us, before things get better.” Carlson worries that continuing unemployment will limit dining out, hurting the largest component of his customers’ business. He is also concerned about potential inflation and a rise in commodity prices.

The credit crisis continues to hinder recovery, with 60% of firms at least somewhat affected by increased cost or reduced availability of credit. Half of the CFOs whose firms have been hit by the credit crisis expect to have new borrowing needs this year if the recession continues, and they anticipate difficulty in lining up lenders.

Companies with a credit rating of B or lower have been most severely affected, with 80% of them feeling at least some impact. Lower-rated companies that have bank lines of credit have drawn down 54% of their maximum. Among firms with good credit, however, the market tightness has eased somewhat: nearly 40% of them say conditions have improved since the end of 2008.

Whether CFOs’ optimistic outlooks or pessimistic plans will carry the day remains to be seen. Until the employment picture improves — and with CFOs set to reduce their workforces by an additional 6%, it could get worse before it gets better — growth will be muted at best. But at least finance executives see an end in sight. As Provenzano says, “Hopefully the worst is behind us.”