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Deloitte survey: Canadian business optimism recovers slightly, but fears of further stagnation remain

Capital spending in Canada expected to decline by nearly 10% this year

Toronto, April 3, 2013 – The state of the world’s major economies continues to cause concern among North America’s chief financial officers (CFOs) even as they report an improved level of optimism over their companies’ prospects compared to the final quarter of 2012. According to Deloitte’s Q1 CFO Signals™ survey, those concerns have largely shifted from the possibility of economic crisis or collapse to fears of further stagnation, leading to restrained expectations for sales and domestic hiring this year.

The quarterly survey which tracks the thinking and actions of CFOs representing North American companies averaging more than $5 billion in annual revenue, reported an increase in net optimism (the percentage difference between CFOs expressing rising optimism and those expressing falling optimism) after two dismal quarters. Led by CFOs in the United States, net optimism rose from -11 last quarter to +32 this quarter. Canadian CFOs were however more modest in their expectations, with net optimism recovering only slightly, to +7 from -6 last quarter and still well below the peak of +57 at the same time last year.

“Canadian CFOs have traditionally expressed higher net optimism than their U.S. counterparts, so this quarter’s findings mark a significant change from the past,” said Bill Cunningham, Co-leader of Deloitte Canada’s CFO program. “Although sales growth expectations in Canada continue to outpace those in the United States and earnings growth expectations are roughly the same, Canadian CFOs are more muted when it comes to such things as dividend growth and capital investment.”

Tax policy among the major drags
Public policy uncertainty seems to be a major drag across North America at the moment, with more than 90% of CFOs saying current and recent policy decisions/debates — ranging from debt ceiling and sequestration policies to possible defence cuts — are having at least some impact on their company plans. But it is tax policy that appears to be having the most substantial impact across industries with some 75% of CFOs claiming at least some impact and 40% indicating substantial or strong impacts.

The potential detrimental impact of government actions on a stagnating global economy tops the list of most worrisome risks for CFOs, particularly the possible effects of the government’s taxing and spending policies on consumer demand and the broader economy. More than half of all CFOs surveyed see the current state of the North American economies as the main driver of growth, but a quarter of them also consider it the top impediment. The economic situation in Europe is also seen as an impediment to growth by 23% of CFOs, a figure offset by a similar level of optimism about the positive effect of economic growth in China.

Cuts expected in domestic hiring
Nevertheless, some CFO expectations did rebound this quarter. For example, Canadian CFOs raised their expectations for year-over-year earnings growth to 11.8% in line with North American expectations of  12.1%* while their expectations of a 7.4% jump in sales outpaced the North American figure of 5.4%*. But Canadian CFOs were much more restrained with regards to capital spending, predicting a 9.4% drop from last year compared to the expected 10.9% increase in the United States. Domestic hiring expectations did recover significantly among Canadian CFOs however, improving to 3.5% from just 0.2% last quarter, even as a substantial proportion – 27 % – of North American CFOs now expect cuts in domestic hiring.

“Many of these estimates have rebounded from survey lows seen in 2012, but they are still for the most part below their longer-term survey averages,” said Dick Cooper, Deloitte’s co-leader of the CFO program. “As net optimism recently has tended to peak in the first quarter only to decline in subsequent quarters, this survey may suggest that CFOs believe the North American economy still has some way to go before they consider this a sustainable recovery.”

Other survey highlights
The Deloitte CFO Signals™ survey also revealed the following results (estimates are adjusted averages to reduce the effect of outliers):

  • Increased public policy advocacy efforts. About 40% of CFOs said their most significant response to possible changes to public policy has been to begin or increase their policy advocacy efforts, including new or revised government relations strategies, increased lobbying efforts and, for U.S. companies, an increased presence in Washington, D.C.
  • Boards focused on operational performance. Boards of directors appear predominantly focused on income statement metrics and risks to operational performance. Revenue growth/preservation is a substantial or strong focus for more than 75 % of boards; risk management/mitigation and cost cutting are next at just under 60% and 50% respectively. Boards appear relatively less focused on liquidity and investment.
  • Companies mostly on the offensive. Companies are generally more focused on pursuing opportunity than on limiting risk, more on growing and scaling than on contracting and rationalizing, and more on growing revenue than on cutting costs.
  • Agreement on government spending. There is general agreement around the need for the United States to cut spending in the largest budgetary areas (Social Security, Medicare and Defence), but there is considerable diversity of opinion about which areas should be cut with no single category receiving more than 60% of the vote. Comparatively few CFOs supported cuts to programs that provide aid to low-income individuals and families.
  • Finance is focused on planning and strategy. Managing financial planning and analysis (FP&A) is the most common “core finance” focus area, with half of CFOs citing it among their top three. Managing information/IT is an equal priority for Canadian CFOs, followed by managing finance strategy, while U.S. CFOs see managing liquidity and managing finance talent as their other top-three priorities. The top “business support” priority in both countries is supporting strategy, with supporting M&A the next priority in Canada compared with supporting sales as the No. 2 priority in the United States.

Download now a copy of the survey

*All numbers with an asterisk are averages that have been adjusted to eliminate the effects of stark outliers.

About CFO Signals
The Deloitte CFO Signals™ survey was conducted for the first quarter of 2013. Of the 106 CFO respondents, 85% were from companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenue and more than 70% were from publicly traded companies. There were 15 Canadian CFOs who took part, representing about one in seven of all CFOs surveyed.

Each quarter, CFO Signals™ tracks the thinking and actions of CFOs representing many of North America’s largest and most influential companies. This report summarizes CFO opinion in five areas: business environment, company priorities, company expectations, finance priorities and the CFO’s personal priorities. Contact us to get more information about Deloitte’s CFO Signals™ or to participate in the survey.

About Deloitte
Deloitte, one of Canada's leading professional services firms, provides audit, tax, consulting, and financial advisory services.  Deloitte LLP, an Ontario limited liability partnership, is the Canadian member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. Deloitte operates in Quebec as Deloitte s.e.n.c.r.l., a Quebec limited liability partnership.

Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a UK private company limited by guarantee, and its network of member firms, each of which is a legally separate and independent entity. Please see www.deloitte.com/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and its member firms.

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