Business executives have sharply reined in expectations for profit and revenue in the coming year, with anticipated growth for those two key performance indicators now at their lowest ebb since the end of 2012, according to the fourth quarter AICPA Economic Outlook Survey, which polls chief executive officers, chief financial officers, controllers and other certified public accountants in U.S. companies who hold executive and senior management accounting roles.
Overall expectations for revenue growth now stand at 2.9 percent, down from 3.3 percent last quarter and 4.7 percent a year ago, the survey found. Profit growth expectations, meanwhile, slid from 2.6 percent last quarter to 2 percent, almost half the rate from a year ago.
The dimmer projections are reflected in how business executives perceive their own companies’ prospects. Only 53 percent of survey respondents expressed optimism about their organization’s anticipated performance for the coming year, down from 59 percent last quarter and 67 percent a year ago. Optimism about the U.S. economy also fell since last quarter, although at a more gradual rate.
“We’re seeing rising concern about U.S. economic conditions and domestic competition,” said Arleen R. Thomas, CPA, CGMA, the AICPA’s senior vice president of management accounting and global markets. “Those factors, coupled with a potential slowdown in the global economy, have contributed to a perception that growth opportunities are going to be more challenging in the near-term.”
The reduced forecasts haven’t had an immediate impact on the hiring outlook, however. Some 18 percent of business executives said their companies are looking to hire immediately, the same as last quarter. There was a slight drop in the percentage of respondents who said they had too few employees but were hesitant to hire (20 percent last quarter vs, 17 percent this quarter). Overall, 53 percent of respondents said their companies had the right amount of staffing.
The AICPA survey is a forward-looking indicator that tracks hiring and business-related expectations for the next 12 months. As a point of comparison, the U.S. Department of Labor’s November employment report, scheduled to be released tomorrow, looks back on the previous month’s hiring trends.
The CPA Outlook Index—a comprehensive gauge of executive sentiment within the AICPA survey— fell two points in the fourth quarter to 69, the fourth consecutive drop from a post-recession high of 78 in the fourth quarter of 2014. The index is a composite of nine, equally weighted survey measures set on a scale of 0 to 100, with 50 considered neutral and greater numbers signifying positive sentiment.
Other key findings of the survey:
The percentage of companies expecting their business to expand dropped three percentage points over the past quarter to 57 percent. It stood at 71 percent a year ago.
Growth in IT investments led planned spending categories again, but dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 2.8 percent from last quarter.
For industry sectors, optimism about retail trade, wholesale trade and manufacturing dipped below the 50 percent mark in the quarter. In general, optimism was down across all sectors.
Professional services led all categories for expected headcount growth in the coming year at 2.7 percent. The mining and natural resources sector swung from a positive to a negative growth projection for headcount in the quarter.
The fourth quarter AICPA Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey was conducted Nov. 3-23, 2015, and included 852 qualified responses from CPAs who hold leadership positions, such as chief financial officer or controller, in their companies. The overall margin of error is less than 3 percentage points. A copy of the report can be found on aicpa.org.