Polling CFOs Worldwide

U.S., European and Asian finance chiefs weigh in on the economy.

U.S. CFOs are more upbeat about a broad range of finance issues than their European counterparts, while CFOs in Asia view their region’s economy more favorably than the world’s, according to two recently released surveys.

U.S. CFOs see their company’s net earnings growing 12.7% this year and their revenue rising 8.2%, according to the 361 U.S. and European finance chiefs polled by Financial Executives International and Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business between Jan. 30 and Feb. 1. European CFOs, however, look for earnings growth of 4% and revenue growth of 3.3%, and see a gain of just 4.8% in capital spending and 5% in technology spending. U.S. CFOs expect their capital spending to rise 13% and technology spending to increase 9.1%.

“In the U.S., the expectations are still pretty strong,” says John Elliott, dean of the Zicklin School of Business. “In Europe, the numbers are much more anemic.”

CFOs in Asia rate the region’s economy (excluding Japan) as strong, at 6.5 out of 10, while they give the state of the global economy a score of 4.7, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s first CFO Outlook Asia survey of 465 finance chiefs in seven countries and territories—Australia, China, India, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore.

More than half of the CFOs still forecast revenue growth (58%) and higher profits (52%) for their companies in 2012. Only 16% expect to decrease capital spending in 2012, while 39% plan to increase cap ex.

China CFOs are particularly positive, rating their own economy at 7.5. “The region’s CFOs expect sales in Asia to expand, despite worries about threats from the West: the eurozone debt crisis and the U.S. budget deficit,” says Percy Batliwalla, BofA’s head of treasury sales for Asia Pacific. “And they are reacting to this by focusing more on opportunities within Asia.”

The European crisis registers at 7.7, making it the Asian CFOs’ biggest worry, according to the survey.

Baruch’s Elliott also notes that “the U.S. CFOs seem a little more worried about what’s going on in the eurozone than the European CFOs do.”

About 73% of U.S. CFOs said they were apprehensive about the fate of the eurozone, selecting 4 or 5 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 equaled “very concerned,” vs. about 43% of European CFOs. Elliott says the European CFOs’ responses may reflect their greater “proximity to events and sense of control.”

On the other hand, the European CFOs clearly see a hit coming in terms of financing, with 54% saying they expect more difficulty in accessing credit over the next six months, vs. just 10% of U.S. CFOs.

“The credit crunch that plagues the West does not appear to worry the CFOs of Asia,” Batliwalla says. “Only 10% of CFOs expect the availability of financing to be lower in 2012. M&A activity is expected to rise, with CFOs looking to buy in Asia, but bargains are not anticipated.”

The gap between the U.S. and Europe also shows up in the finance chiefs’ outlook on employment. U.S. CFOs expect the U.S. jobless rate, which declined to 8.3% in January, to be slightly lower, at 8.1%, a year from now. The eurozone’s unemployment rate rose to 10.4% in December, and European CFOs see it approaching 11% within six months and nearing 12% in a year’s time.

The survey also shows that 75% of the CFOs in both the U.S. and Europe say their companies are using temporary or contract employees.

In Asia, “unemployment levels do not seem to be a serious concern,” according to the BofA report.

European CFOs’ confidence in the financial prospects of their own businesses fell to 57.6 from the 61 reading reported in the previous survey in November, while their confidence in the global economy jumped to 51.8 from a survey low of 46.8 in November.

CFOs in Asia are positive but cautious, with 38% saying that GDP growth in their own countries will remain flat and 27% that it will contract. Just 32% see an expansion.

“Sales to the U.S. and Western Europe, the traditional destinations of Asian exports, are not expected to grow by many CFOs—only 35% of companies that sell to the U.S. and 33% of companies selling to Western Europe expect higher sales,” says Batliwalla.

U.S. CFOs’ confidence in their own businesses inched up to 67.6 from 67.3 in the third quarter, while their confidence in the global economy also increased very slightly, to 46.1 from 45.5 in November. But their confidence in the U.S. economy jumped to 57.1 from 51.1.

The fact that U.S. CFOs are more upbeat about the U.S. economy than about their own companies may point to a realization that they’ve already eliminated a lot of excess costs and inefficiencies as they pushed their companies to perform through the downturn, Elliott says.

“Some of the capacity slack has been used up, some of the ability to enhance the efficiency of the workforce has been used up,” he says. “The next improvements are going to require a little more investment and incur a little more cost. It’s not a negative picture, but it’s the next stage of the recovery.”




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