The survey released by profession services firm Deloitte Canada found that optimism among CFOs appeared to be at its lowest level of the year in the fourth quarter.
And, if anything, the quarterly Deloitte CFO Signals Survey found the decline in optimism most pronounced in Canada.
It said net optimism among Canadian CFOs — the difference between the percentage of CFOs expressing rising and falling optimism — fell from plus 47 in the third quarter of 2012 to minus six in the fourth.
A the same time, the net optimism of U.S. CFOs taking part in the survey fell from an already pessimistic minus 16 in the third quarter to minus 21 in the latest survey.
The CFO Signals Survey tracks the thinking and actions of chief financial officers at a number of North American companies averaging more than $5 billion in annual revenue.
Seventy-seven per cent of the 86 CFO respondents were from companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenues and three-quarters were from publicly traded companies. Seventeen of the CFOs were Canadian, representing 20 per cent of the total surveyed.
As a result of the decline in optimism, the survey said companies in both countries have lowered growth expectations for capital investment, research and development and marketing and advertising spending.
They also don't expect much growth in domestic hiring, said Deloitte Canada, the Canadian arm of the international tax and financial consultancy.
Despite the drop in net optimism, however, there was an improvement in expectations for earnings growth in both countries, Deliotte said.
But while U.S. CFOs also raised their sales growth expectations, Canadian CFOs dropped theirs to the lowest level in more than a year.
Canadian CFOs have lowered their estimates for sales gains to 5.5 per cent this quarter from 6.5 per cent last quarter and 7.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2012.
At the same time, U.S. CFOs raised their estimates for the first quarter to 4.8 per cent from 4.3 per cent.
"Canadian companies appear to be increasingly concerned about a negative impact on their operations caused by ongoing economic problems in the United States and Europe," said Trevor Nakka, co-leader of Deloitte Canada's CFO program.
"This is leading many of them to take steps to preserve cash and protect revenues from existing markets rather than investing and expanding."
"Unlike in previous quarters, when companies had relatively high expectations for hiring and capital expenditures, we now see them pulling back on investments as they await greater certainty about what is going to happen in the United States and Europe" said Dick Cooper, co-leader of Deloitte Canada's CFO program.
"It's no surprise that a lack of clarity on fiscal policy is one of the top challenges facing North American businesses," Cooper added.