WASHINGTON (AP) -- A survey of chief executives at the largest U.S. companies shows a growing number are slightly more optimistic about the economy's prospects for the next six months and expect to boost hiring.
The Business Roundtable said Wednesday that its index measuring CEO outlook rose to 84.5 in the October-December quarter. That's up from 79.1 in the July-September quarter.
The group is an association of chief executives at the 200 largest U.S. companies. Any reading above 50 suggests expansion.
The survey noted that 34 percent of the executives expect their companies will increase hiring in the next six months, up from 32 percent in the previous survey. And 73 percent of those surveyed expect their company's sales to increase, up from 71 percent in previous survey.
Still, the CEOs expect the economy will grow at a subpar 2.2 percent next year, unchanged from the previous two surveys' forecasts.
"Our expectations are consistent with an economy that will continue along the path of steady, modest recovery into the first half of 2014," said Jim McNerney, chief executive of aircraft maker Boeing Co. and the chairman of the group, in a statement.
During a conference call with reporters, McNerney said many business executives are concerned about the impact of President Barack Obama's health care law on their companies' costs. Some companies are responding by "hedging" their hiring and their investments in the businesses, he said.
The job market has shown improvement in recent months.
The economy added 204,000 jobs in October, suggesting employers shrugged off the 16-day partial government shutdown.
And employers have added an average of 202,000 jobs a month from August through October. That was up from an average of 146,000 from May through June.
The government reports Friday on November employment.
Growth has also picked up since the last survey. The economy grew at a 2.8 percent annual pace from July through September, up from a 2.5 percent pace in the April-June quarter.
But much of the third-quarter growth was fueled by restocking, which can be volatile. Many economists predict that growth has slowed to 2 percent pace in the current October-December quarter.
The Business Roundtable CEO survey results are based on 120 responses received between Nov. 4 and 21.
The latest reading of 84.5 is above the index's long-term average of 79.2. The survey has been conducted for 11 years.