"Our Confindex rose three points, to 130, [on a scale of 200] for the first quarter," says Stuart Binstock, CEO of CFMA. This is the first time the overall Confindex has risen in four quarters, he notes.

More significant, the CFOs responding to the survey are showing strong confidence in the market in the year ahead. The "Year Ahead Outlook" component of the Confindex rose eight points, to 140. "Our members increasingly are seeing strong opportunities in the near future," Binstock says.

This level of market confidence in the year ahead is something of a departure for CFMA members. "In the past, CFOs generally showed their highest level of confidence about the year ahead in the fourth-quarter Confindex survey, only to lose that confidence by the time the first-quarter survey rolled around," says Anirban Basu, CEO of economic consultant Sage Policy Group Inc., Baltimore, and CFMA economic adviser.

Margin Call

Basu notes that only 14% of the CFOs in this quarter's Confindex survey believed margins will be worse in the next year, compared to 23% in CFMA's fourth- quarter survey. "This is pretty encouraging. It is a sign people expect a more aggressive recovery in 2014," he says.

ENR asked survey respondents if their profit margins were better, worse or about the same as they were at this time last year. While nearly a third—32.6%—said their margins were higher than a year ago, 20.0% said their margins were lower.

Also in this quarter, 33.8% of CICI respondents said that credit for project financing was easier to obtain than six months ago, up from 33.0% last quarter.

However, some firms contend smaller firms can't get credit from banks. One subcontractor argues that, unlike giant general contractors, smaller subs can't secure from the banks lines of credit, operating capital or capital investment loans for equipment and tools.

Basu agrees that small firms are facing challenges. One of the biggest concerns among CFOs responding to the Confindex survey was that the regulatory environment has been growing increasingly hostile to business, he says. "The large construction firms can afford to hire lawyers to ensure regulatory compliance. The smaller firms without those resources are at a real disadvantage," Basu says.