By Ernest Scheyder
(Reuters) - U.S. chief executives expect to hire more workers in the next six months and that sales will improve modestly, a tepid if slightly optimistic reading of the economy, a Business Roundtable survey has found.
The group's CEO Economic Outlook Index, released on Wednesday, rose to 84.3 in the second quarter from 81 in the first quarter and 65.5 in the fourth quarter of 2012. Any reading above 50 indicates expectations of economic growth.
The increased corporate optimism came as consumers are spending more on cars and other goods.
Roughly 32 percent of CEOs said they expected to hire more workers in the next six months, a slight improvement from prior surveys. But about 26 percent expected to cut jobs, a 1 percentage point increase from the last survey.
The unresolved U.S. debt crisis and an "uncertain political environment" were holding back the American economy, the Business Roundtable said.
"Overall, CEOs see the U.S. economy still on a slow road to recovery," said Jim McNerney, chairman of the Business Roundtable and CEO of Boeing Co
CEOs said they planned to spend less on capital projects in the next six months. Many companies have stashed billions of dollars in cash amid uncertainty about U.S. tax reform. Some estimates have put corporate America's cash stockpile near $2 trillion.
McNerney and other executives on a conference call to discuss the survey again called for reform of the U.S. corporate tax system, saying current rates are too high for companies to compete globally.
"The last time our corporate tax system was reformed was during (President Ronald Reagan's) administration," McNerney said. "We have to fit into a global tax environment."
It was unclear based on the survey data whether the U.S. Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was keeping businesses from hiring new workers, McNerney said.
The Roundtable surveyed 141 CEOs from May 13 through May 31.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Lisa Von Ahn)