Despite Better Earnings, CEOs Worry About 'Uncertainty'

Javier E. David | Special to CNBC.com
Terranova: Watch These Earnings Next Week
Terranova: Watch These Earnings Next Week

The final quarter of 2012 treated Corporate America well, as most companies inaugurated the New Year with a batch of quarterly earnings that beat the market's lowered expectations.

Still, most corporate chiefs say uncertainty remains the order of the day. High stakes policy skirmishes in Washington loom, which some fear could undermine the U.S. economy's budding recovery.

The dreaded "fiscal cliff" was averted only with an 11th hour deal that postponed the day of reckoning, and a tough battle looms over raising the country's statutory debt limit.

That, several CEOs said on Friday, clouds the domestic outlook, prompting them to inject a note of caution for their views about 2013. Higher taxes could derail a recovery, while fears of a U.S. debt default may ricochet across the global economy.

"The outlook for developed markets remains uncertain, but we are seeing growth in China and the resource rich countries," General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said about GE's latest earnings, which also topped expectations.

"Facing an uncertain fiscal environment, the GE team had strong fourth-quarter execution," he added. (Read More:GE Revenue and Profit Beat Estimates.)

Investment banking giant Morgan Stanley managed to join most of Wall Street in reporting better than expected earnings this week. On Friday,CEO James Gorman said a stock market rally could "still move higher" should Congress and the White House find a way to resolve the policy gridlock.

The macroeconomic trends favor stocks, Gorman observed,adding, "The U.S. economy is recovering. That's unmistakable. The speed of it still remains to be determined." (Read More: Stock Rally Still Has Legs: Morgan Stanley CEO.)

Johnson Controls was one of the earnings season's losers,seeing its quarterly profit slide 17 percent amid Europe's debt crisis and its ensuing recession.

"Uncertainties remain in our global markets and we expect earnings in the first half of fiscal 2013 to be significantly lower than 2012,consistent with our earlier forecast," said Johnson Controls CEO Roell.

In the earnings parade, Citigroup was a notable corporate laggard,as it badly missed analyst estimates. The bank faulted its poor results, the first under freshly minted CEO Michael Corbat, on regulatory uncertainty and higher costs left over from the 2008 financial pandemic. (Read More: Citi Falls Short on Earnings; Blames New Regulations.)

"Our bottom line earnings reflect an environment that remains challenging- with businesses working through issues like spread compression and regulatory changes - as well as the costs of putting legacy issues behind us," Corbat said Thursday.

Disclosure: General Electric is the minority owner of NBC Universal, the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.