Surprise, surprise! CFOs, controllers, and CPAs are only slightly skeptical about the economic outlook these days. Surely it’s not because our industry has been pounded harder than others, in fact we’ve weathered the storm better than most.

The fourth quarter AICPA-UNC Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey sheds some light on where CPAs’ heads were at in Q4 2009:

Expectations among Certified Public Accountant executives for the U.S. economy remained pessimistic in the first quarter as the recovery proved sluggish amid signs of potential growth in manufacturing and a slightly improving outlook for organizations, according to a new nationwide survey conducted by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“It is good to see signs of optimism, especially from the manufacturing sector,” said Carol Scott, CPA, AICPA vice president for business, industry and government. “Unfortunately 40 percent of our CPA members in business and industry — chief financial officers, controllers and CPA financial professionals – are now telling us that they do not expect their business to return to pre-recession levels until 2012 and beyond.”

Such a conservative bunch, those little accountants.

Interestingly enough, the latest survey shows a shift in the collective thinking of CPAs, who had shown uncharacteristic optimism in previous 2009 survey responses. What gives, guys? Know something we don’t that you’d like to share with the class? Perhaps reality has finally bit down and left a mark on a traditionally recession-proof industry.

In a recent “unscientific” straw poll of AICPA Insider readers, CPA Trendlines’ Rick Telberg shares CPAs’ top 10 concerns, not surprisingly dominated by the number one concern for accounting professionals, the economic outlook. Firms are cutting costs and slicing away the “flash”, meaning no stupid tchotchkes for you!

Will this back-to-basics approach change CPAs’ outlook for the quarters ahead or simply keep everyone afloat until things do genuinely begin to look up? If nothing else it means better service for clients and maybe a little less fear for accounting practitioners who are ultimately the ones who have to deal with any shift in the industry outlook. Clients will always be around, it’s the qualified professionals I’m a tad worried about.

We’ll let you know what happens with the next survey but are not afraid to wildly speculate that respondents will continue to pull back the optimism and stick to conservatism as usual.