Behind the sagging sentiments are concerns over the execution of corporate growth agendas. Whereas past pessimism was driven largely by deteriorating assessments of the macro-business environment, roughly half of the renewed doubt this quarter is driven by internal concerns. In addition, CFOs are having second thoughts about their capital investments. In fact, almost half (49 percent) of the CFOs surveyed are more worried about the quality of their capital investments than they were three years ago and 40 percent are more concerned about the level of those investments.
"It's fair to say that delivering growth is a lot harder than cost-cutting in this environment," said Sanford Cockrell III, national managing partner, CFO Program, Deloitte LLP. "In addition to the continued regulatory overhang and economic uncertainty, the very real possibility of internal missteps is making CFOs understandably nervous and leading them to invest cautiously and formulate contingency plans."
Still, CFOs appear to be only raising a cautionary flag at this point. They continue to expect year-over-year revenue growth (7.1 percent this quarter versus 8.2 percent last quarter) and positive earnings growth (14 percent versus 12.6 percent last quarter) as well as increased capital spending (10.7 percent this quarter compared to 11.8 percent last quarter). Approximately 64 percent of CFOs also expect domestic hiring increases although the hiring will not be substantial -- year-over-year domestic hiring growth projections for the second quarter of 2011 remained low at 2 percent and slightly higher than last quarter's 1.8 percent.
"CFOs foresee moderate growth, but rising volatility in input prices, government policy and economic trends is making them wary of major investments," explained Greg Dickinson, who leads the Deloitte CFO Signals survey. "Boards and other stakeholders appear to agree that cash enhances strategic options and are not currently pressing for capital investment."
The Deloitte CFO Signals survey also revealed the following (estimates are adjusted averages to reduce the effect of outliers):
- The strategic focus of many companies continues to tilt toward revenue growth and away from cost reduction. CFOs say that 52 percent of their companies' strategic focus is now on revenue growth, up from 47 percent last quarter.
- Revenue growth from existing markets is the most prevalent company challenge, cited by more than half of CFOs (53 percent) as a top three concern. But talent is a fast rising concern with 40 percent of companies ranking it among the top three, up from 31 percent last quarter.
- More than 40 percent of CFOs indicate a preference for holding cash at this time. In fact, less than 10 percent of CFOs say they feel pressured to invest their high levels of balance-sheet cash; nearly 30 percent feel pressure to return cash to shareholders.
- CFOs continue to be very concerned about government's impact on their growth plans as more than 25 percent view detrimental policy as their most worrisome risk.
- Almost 95 percent of CFOs expect rising input/commodities prices, up from 84 percent last quarter. Moreover, pricing trends are a top concern for 53 percent of companies, on par with industry regulation.
- For the first time, "major change initiatives" tops the list of CFOs job stresses. Nearly 56 percent of all CFOs cite this stress, and half or more of CFOs in each of the eight sectors surveyed (other than Healthcare/Pharma) ranked it in their top three.