Survey: CEOs expect to hire more as sales grow

More top corporate executives expect to hire workers and boost spending on their companies over the next six months.

A survey released Tuesday by Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of big U.S. companies, shows 45 percent of executives say they expect their companies to add more workers.

That's the highest percentage who have said they planned to add jobs since the survey began in late 2002. Meanwhile, only 18 percent said they expected their work forces to shrink, one of the lowest readings over the past five years, and 38 percent predict no change.

That follows years of layoffs. Unemployment has jumped from 5 percent in December 2007, when the recession began, to 9.8 percent in November. Hiring has picked up recently, but major U.S. corporations continue to slash jobs. Yahoo Inc., for example, is reportedly planning to lay off 600 to 700 of its employees, about 5 percent of its work force.

The group said its 193 member companies, which are major corporations including Yahoo, employ more than 12 million workers and together have annual revenues of almost $6 trillion.

Small businesses, which have had a tough time accessing credit since the downturn began, are also growing slightly more confident.

The National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday that its optimism index rose to 93.2 in November, the highest level since the recession began in December 2007. But the NFIB says this level is still a "recession-level reading."

Over the next three months, more small businesses said they planned to hire workers than cut them, the group said. The average employment change per firm over the last three months was 0.01 workers — a barely positive reading. That measure was zero in October, and had been almost exclusively in negative territory since December 2007.

"Small firms employ half the work force, and their sustained weakness relative to larger firms explains why payrolls have been so weak," said Ian Shepherdson, the chief U.S. economist of High Frequency Economics, in a research note Tuesday. If owners of small businesses become more confident as sales and access to credit improves, hiring should increase overall, he said.

CEOs of major companies weren't just more optimistic about jobs. Nearly six in 10 expect to bump up capital spending, another signal of confidence in the economy, and 80 percent expect sales growth. Still, executives thought the broader U.S. economy was struggling. They said they expect the economy to grow just 2.5 percent in 2011. The economy grew at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the third quarter.

"People are somewhat more bullish about their own company's prospects. They even think their own sectors are beginning to see some improvement. But there still is cautiousness about the overall economy," said Ivan Seidenberg, the chairman of the association and the CEO of Verizon Communications Inc.

Business Roundtable surveyed 137 CEOs from Nov. 8 to Dec. 3, before the White House and Republican leaders cut a deal on extending tax cuts that economists think will help propel the economy.

Economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics expects that economic growth could reach 4 percent in 2011 if the deal passes. He had earlier predicted 2.7 percent growth for next year.