Let's kick off 2011 by admitting that the phrase "cautious optimism" has become redundant. The only form of optimism on display anywhere in the business world these days is the cautious kind, and that is very unlikely to change over the next 12 months.
But optimism, however tempered and qualified it may be, is nonetheless in the air, so let's take a breath and savor it — even as we acknowledge that noxious fumes might emanate from any number of sources at any moment.
Our latest Duke University/CFO Magazine Business Outlook Survey puts some hard numbers behind the general sense that things have taken a turn for the better: CFOs' views about their own companies' prospects have rebounded from their mid-2010 lows, and, even more tellingly, their optimism regarding the outlook for the macro economy is up sharply (see "Back in Business").
Lest we be accused of being Pollyannas, however, we have devoted this month's cover story to a topic that rarely inspires thoughts of optimism, cautious or otherwise. Strategies for rescuing companies on the brink of disaster are not pleasant to contemplate, but certainly many CFOs have had to do just that, and quite a few have gone beyond contemplation to actual implementation. Even if the economy improves markedly this year, the damage already done will push more companies into distressed territory. In "Looking for the Light," deputy editor Kate O'Sullivan relates the experiences of several CFOs who have had to rise to this grim occasion. On the plus side, they all say they are much better finance executives as a result.
Signals of distress will remain with us throughout 2011, no doubt, but that won't stop many companies from turning their attention to growth strategies. If you find yourself in that camp, two stories in this issue may particularly appeal to you: "Integration Acceleration" and "Forget What You Think You Know." Both offer useful examples of companies that are, via M&A and global expansion, respectively, moving forward. Cautiously, of course, but forward nonetheless.