Fuel prices and the Mideast political tumult appear at the heart of a dramatic fall-off in CFO optimism about corporate profit prospects, according to the latest Bank of America Merrill Lynch "CFO Pulse Survey."

The survey, compared to a broader BofA check of finance executives done six months ago, shows that 46% now expect profit margin growth this year, down from 55% in the earlier study.

Not surprisingly, the intensifying concern about oil-related issues supplanted health-care cost worries, which the earlier study identified as their number-one concern for the U.S. economy. In rating the number one issue, the latest study registered 36% of CFOs as identifying health care, down from 54%. The latest review had 68% of CFOs rating oil prices as the most significant concern for the economy -- compared to only 24% previously.

Digging deeper into the perceived problems related to energy, the CFO Pulse report registered energy cost as the main element of their concern, compared to 28% in the earlier report.

The latest report won't be released until later this spring, BofA said. But Laura Whitley, Middle Market Banking executive with BofA Merrill Lynch, discussed the sketch of results with CFOworld in an e-mail exchange, noting that the organization has commissioned an annual survey of U.S. CFOs for 13 years. The research technique -- designed to measure how corporate financial decision-makers view the American economy, and to garner insights about company expectations such things as company revenue, profit, R&D and staffing -- led to an expansion this year, with two smaller "pulse surveys," she says.

Gearing Up for a Webcast

Whitley adds that the full report is being prepared in conjunction with a webcast for clients. But that BofA wanted to share the latest snapshot broadly because of what it says about the CFO mood.

The fall-off in the percentage of CFOs expecting profit-margin growth, she said, likely reflects higher companies experiencing higher energy expenses "can't fully pass along all of those costs to their customers. That would be too much of a price increase for their customers to absorb in the short term." Because this is the first time that a pulse survey has followed the annual CFO Outlook, "we don't have historical context for the current drop-off," however.

Beyond oil prices and energy costs, she says, "In conversations with our clients, we've found that many CFOs have concerns about commodities priceds in general, especially those businesses in the agricultural industry."

Still Uncertain about Health Care

As for why health care has fallen so sharply as a concern, she explains: "there still is uncertainty about the impact of rising health care costs. But other issues -- such as oil prices -- have increased in importance and may have overshadowed health care somewhat for the time being. That said, we are still hearing from our clients that their ability to manage health care costs remains a top concern."

The latest pulse survey was conducted Feb. 28 through March 15, with interviews of 276 financial executives from U.S. manufacturing and services and commodities companies, with annual revneus between $25 million and $2 billion.

The statistical range of error is plus-or-minus 5%, Whitley says. And a second pulse survey among CFOs is scheduled to be conducted this summer.