Financial officers expect best growth since 2008

Chief financial officers say the U.S. economy is performing at its highest level since the recession hit and next year is looking up, too. 

In a survey released Monday, financial executives report increasingly positive sentiment, giving the U.S. economy an average score of 59, up from the 53 reported in the outlook for this year, the highest level since 2008, according to the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2015 CFO Outlook results.

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For the first time in seven years, more than half (52 percent) of CFOs report they expect to hire additional full-time employees in 2015 while 44 percent said have no plans to change the size of their workforce.

“With a steadily improving economy as a backdrop, growth is top of mind for CFOs in 2015,” said Alastair Borthwick, head of Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

“Companies are moving from maintaining their position to growing in earnest by hiring new employees and taking steps to expand.”

In the 100-point index, zero is extremely weak and 100 is extremely strong.

Overall, 74 percent of CFOs feel optimistic about their companies in 2015, while another 18 percent view their company’s outlook as stable.

A majority (52%) say they are more optimistic that the economy will expand in 2015 than they have been in the past four years, while 37 percent expect the economy to remain stable.

CFOs report their companies are investing in retaining and attracting qualified employees by providing benefits, including 96 percent offering health insurance; 92 percent funding retirement programs; and 87 percent offering bonuses or other compensation.

More than half also offer wellness programs (63 percent), education funding (54 percent) and flexible work hours (52 percent).

That could bode well for a long-awaited rise in wages, which have stagnated over the past few years.

Their top concern remains healthcare costs (56 percent) but that is down from 67 percent in the last survey.

Concern over global conflicts, a new category on the survey, shows that 45 percent of CFOs are worried about their effects on the U.S. economy.

Notably, companies with no foreign market involvement are more likely to be concerned with this issue (50 percent), while companies with foreign operations are less concerned (40 percent).

All told, 63 percent of the 603 CFOs surveyed expect sales growth next year, up from 54 percent for 2014.