Deloitte's quarterly survey of chief financial officers representing the largest companies in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico does show a marked improvement from the previous two samplings, both of which were described by the consulting firm as "dismal."
And in a break from recent surveys, American executives appear to have taken over from their Canadian counterparts on the optimism scale.
"Canadian CFOs have traditionally expressed higher net optimism than their U.S. counterparts, so this quarter's findings mark a significant change from the past," said Bill Cunningham, co-head of the Deloitte survey project.
"Although sales growth expectations in Canada continue to outpace those in the United States and earnings growth expectations are roughly the same, the Canadian CFOs are more muted when it comes to such things as dividend growth and capital investment, which is actually expected to decline this year."
The Deloitte survey predicts a 9.4 per cent drop from last year in capital spending.
That would be unwelcome news for the Bank of Canada, which is expecting a rebound in business investment to support its two per cent growth forecast for the Canadian economy as a whole.
In a separate outlook, the Royal Bank also cited subdued business investment as a key reason why its economists believe the Canadian economy will underperform this year and keep the loonie from returning to parity on a sustained basis over the next two years.
The Deloitte survey of 106 CFOs — 15 in Canada — at companies with more than $1 billion in annual revenues was conducted in February.
The results show the executives do expect some pickup in employment at their firms this year, although a substantial minority of the North American sampling — 27 per cent — said they anticipate cuts in hiring.
Many economists see the U.S. economy recording its first strong rebound year in 2013 since the recession. But the CFOs, while registering the improved outlook, remain at best cautiously optimistic.
In the U.S., net optimism among executives surveyed rose from a minus 11 in the fourth quarter of 2012 to a plus 32 in the first of 2013. In Canada, the bounce was smaller, from a minus six to a plus seven.
"Many of these estimates have rebounded from survey lows seen in 2012, but they are still ... below their longer-term survey averages," notes Dick Cooper of Deloitte.
The CFOs cited the troubled state of many of the world's major economies, particularly in Europe, and public policy uncertainty in the U.S. ranging from debt ceiling issues to government cost cutting and taxes as reasons for their muted outlook.
Still, Canadian executives raised their expectations for earnings growth to 11.8 per cent in the survey, while their 7.4 per cent projection for sales growth outpaced the North American average.