CFOs entered 2012 with lower expectations about the economy, their company's earnings, internal and external risks, hiring and other factors, based on results from Deloitte's fourth-quarter survey of large-company CFOs. The reason, not surprisingly, is the ongoing European sovereign debt crisis, unemployment concerns, increasing social unrest and governments' difficulties in finding effective solutions.

Few CFOs see economic conditions improving by the middle of 2012. When asked about their expectations for their own country's economy over the next six months, 83% of U.S. CFOs and 64% of Canadian CFOs expect no change (while 12% and 28% expect worse conditions, respectively).

Moreover, just 30% of CFOs expect their home economies to be in better shape a year from now and only about 10% expect conditions to be markedly better three years from now. The silver lining may be that, although CFOs have been steadily trimming their expectations since the first quarter of 2011, many of their earnings and investment projections are still positive year-over-year.

The survey also found that 38% of CFOs are less optimistic while only 27% expressed more optimism in the fourth quarter of 2011 (compared to 29% and 60% in the third and first quarters of 2011, respectively). Economic uncertainty was the most worrisome risk for almost all surveyed CFOs.

The Deloitte quarterly survey has been tracking the views of CFOs representing many of North America's largest and most influential companies, on issues ranging from the outlook for the economy and the state of finance to on-the-job stresses, since 2010.