Deloitte CFO Signals™ Survey
Optimism among Large Company CFOs Tumbles Again; Corporate Performance Expected to Slow
Optimism on the global economy remains fleeting at best for CFOs from North America’s largest companies. According to the Deloitte CFO Signals survey, CFO optimism last quarter took a solidly positive turn after two dismal quarters to end 2011. However, amid a continued stream of bad global economic news in the second quarter of 2012, CFOs became more pessimistic and began to look decidedly inward at what they can control within their organizations.
The quarterly survey, which tracks the thinking and actions of chief financial officers representing North American companies averaging more than $5B in annual revenue, shows only 39 percent of CFOs are more optimistic this quarter about their companies’ prospects (compared to 63 percent last quarter), and 29 percent report rising pessimism (up from 15 percent last quarter). The sentiment is even bleaker in the U.S., where equal proportions of CFOs are more optimistic and more pessimistic. Moreover, their rising worries about Europe and domestic policy appear to be driving companies to hunker down and focus more on industry- and company-level issues.
“Continued high unemployment is driving rising concerns about consumer demand at home, and that seems to be shifting some of CFOs’ focus away from the things that are still uncertain – especially the European debt crisis, the upcoming elections in Europe and the U.S., and the fiscal cliff in the U.S.,” said Sanford Cockrell III, national managing partner, CFO Program, Deloitte LLP. “With such uncertainty, it is little wonder that many of them are retrenching and focusing less on new markets, and more on working capital, inventories, and further efficiency gains.”
In fact, unemployment topped CFOs’ economy-level concerns for the first time this quarter, with 59 percent of U.S. CFOs ranking it in their top three (well above last quarter’s previous high of 43 percent). Overall CFO expectations for year-over-year earnings growth (10.5* percent this quarter versus 12.8* percent last quarter), capital investment (11.4 percent versus 12 percent) and even sales (6.6* percent versus a survey-low 5.9* percent last quarter) remain positive. In addition, their projection for domestic hiring remains steady at an uninspiring 2.1 percent.
“With large corporations performing very well over the past few years, there is rising concern about how much longer they can keep it up in a slow-growth world,” said Greg Dickinson, who leads the Deloitte CFO Signals survey. “Up until now, CFOs have been confident in their companies’ ability to get even more focused and more efficient. But a large percentage of them are seeing diminishing returns and do not believe the gains will continue beyond a year from now.”
Past confidence has been expressed through CFOs’ expectations for strong earnings growth even in the face of slowing sales. In fact, this was the ninth consecutive quarter in which their expectations for year-over-year earnings growth have exceeded their expectations for year-over-year revenue growth. Up until now, 80 percent of CFOs say they have achieved earnings growth by reducing direct and indirect costs through process efficiency gains; more than half say they have reduced their focus on lower-margin businesses and/or lower-margin customers; and a remarkable two-thirds have raised prices. However, of the 52 percent of CFOs who expect earnings to continue outpacing sales this quarter, just 41 percent expect it to hold for more than another year.
Additional findings from the Deloitte CFO Signals survey include: (estimates are adjusted averages to reduce the effect of outliers):
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