Optimism among chief financial officers about the U.S. economy dimmed in the second half of this year, helping explain why companies plan to temper spending on equipment and hold more cash in 2016.

The Duke University/CFO Global Business Outlook's latest gauge of sentiment stood at 60.3 in December, down from 63.7 at the end of 2015. The index was little changed from a third-quarter reading of 60. Some 26.1 percent of CFOs this quarter said that they were more upbeat about the economy, down from 50.3 percent a year ago.

"U.S. companies indicate that slowing growth in China, along with low energy prices and a strong dollar among export firms, are curtailing spending plans," John Graham, a finance professor at Duke, said in a statement.

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