After all the evils of the world escaped Pandora’s Box, one thing remained—hope. And after the year that was 2020, after all the wild changes and challenges it presented, it appears that hope remains, at least according to one recent survey of CFOs and other corporate finance leadership.

Q4 CFO Survey Shows Optimism

This according to the CFO Survey, a collaboration of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the Federal Reserve Banks of Richmond and Atlanta, found that many leaders remain optimistic in 2021—even with the uncertainty that exists.

“CFOs are looking past the pandemic and are reasonably optimistic about 2021,” said the survey’s academic director, John Graham, a Fuqua finance professor. “However, they note several important risks and uncertainties, including a shift from concerns of low demand to issues such as labor quality, tax policy and increased automation.”

Conducted in the weeks following Thanksgiving and the reiterated lockdowns spanning the U.S., the survey found surprising optimism. When survey participants were asked between November 30 and December 11 to rate the financial prospects of their firms on a scale from 0 to 100, the average optimism level was 71.0.  Compared with the Q3 survey, this is a slight increase.

“CFOs are seeing over the cloud of the pandemic,” Graham told The Wall Street Journal, while noting that “Some of the growth that we will see next year will be coming from the low base in 2020.”

Economic Optimism with a Few Concerns

In addition to the overall optimism, many saw above-average expectations for the 2021 economy—rating the overall economic outlook at 61.6, slightly higher than the Q3 readings and significantly higher than results from March or June. But even with the above average optimism, many still face revenue concerns.

In this, forecasts have a lot of variance, ranging from -1.6% to 13.7% and a mean of 6.9%, down from the third quarter mean of 8.7% increase. Along with this, respondents had a few common concerns about the overall market:

  • 14.7 percent are worried about demand and revenue.
  • 12.4 percent expect talent challenges in the future.
  • Economic health, tax policy, and regulatory challenges each weigh more heavily on the minds of finance leaders than in Q3. 

An Eye Toward the Future

In addition to general questions on the optimism and concerns, the study wanted to gauge the talent and technology market, noting that,

“While hiring is expected to rebound in 2021, more than half of large firm CFOs say their companies are implementing technology to replace labor, and for most of those firms, at least some of the automation was intended to solve labor-related challenges caused by the pandemic.”

However, reflecting the takeaways from our recent AI webcast, automation initiatives are focused on robotic tasks—roughly half of all automation was done to replace low-skill workers specializing in repetitive tasks.

Stay Ahead of Change: The Controllers Council is Here for You

What will 2021 bring? How do you feel about the economic landscape? As a controller, it pays to know what others are focusing on in order to steer your own organization. That’s why we launched the Controllers Council—to help you get the most from your role.

As the fastest-growing community for controllers and other corporate finance professionals, we want to help you adapt to the pressing challenges and pending changes. Membership is affordable and offers exclusive access to our forums, a place to discuss your business initiatives and the steps you’re taking. Get to know more about the perks of membership and join now before prices jump up at the end of the year.

Additional Resources

The Contemporary Controller—Changing Roles and Responsibilities

Ten Tech Trends Set to Change the World of Corporate Finance (Part 1)

New Year, New Focus: How Controllers Can Become Digital Transformation Champions