Counting the cost

The nation's top finance directors assess the mood of the nation in a major new report.

The latest Deloitte CFO Survey of the UK’s largest companies reveals that while business confidence has improved significantly since the start of 2012, corporate strategies remain cautious.

Optimism among chief financial officers (CFOs) about their companies’ finances has risen at the fastest rate since the CFO survey began in 2007, taking it close to levels seen in late 2010.

Expansion – whether through entering new markets or introducing new products or services – are, by a narrow margin, the top priorities for CFOs.

However, while business confidence is higher now than in Q1 2011, corporates are less likely to be raising capital spending, undertaking M&A or introducing new products than 12 months ago. Instead, there is a greater focus on defensive strategies, including boosting cash flow and reducing costs.

The Q1 Deloitte CFO Survey, which gauged the views of CFOs from 136 major companies, including 39 FTSE 100 and 53 FTSE 250 businesses, reveals that the proportion of finance chiefs who expect a double dip recession has fallen to 30%, down from 54% in December.

The number of CFOs expecting one or more members of the single currency to leave the euro this year has dropped to 26%, from 37% last quarter.

Deloitte spokesperson Paul Feechan said: “The worries about the risk of recession and a break-up of the single currency that dominated corporate thinking at the end of last year have eased.

"Stronger financial conditions, reflected in rising global equity markets, are seen to be benefiting larger UK companies, with CFOs reporting an increase in credit availability.

“Perhaps surprisingly though, the balance sheet strategies of large companies remain cautious. Rising levels of optimism have not yet led major UK corporates to adopt significantly more expansionary policies.

Perceptions of uncertainty have eased since December but the world remains unpredictable and 84% of CFOs still rate the general level of uncertainty facing their business as being above normal.

Record petrol prices and rising concerns about the pace of debt reduction in Spain underscore the varied and changeable nature of the macroeconomic risks facing corporates.

In the background is the possibility that rates of growth in the UK and other industrialised economies will be slow to return to pre-recession levels.

CFOs are not counting on a swift return to pre-recession rates of growth. Most expect the UK’s current weak patch in growth to last for more than a year.