Nearly one-third of the country's top executives expect to cut payrolls in the coming months as companies cope with a weakened economy dogged...

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WASHINGTON — Nearly one-third of the country’s top executives expect to cut payrolls in the coming months as companies cope with a weakened economy dogged by housing, credit and financial problems.

At the same time, a survey by the Business Roundtable, released today, showed that most executives expect sales and capital investment to remain at current levels or even improve over the next six months.

The challenging economic environment is forcing companies to produce more with fewer workers, a key driver of recent increases in U.S. productivity.

“Our CEOS realize there are still challenges for the economy going forward,” said the group’s chairman Harold McGraw III, president and chief executive officer of The McGraw-Hill Cos.

The economy perked up in the spring after two dismal quarters. However, the rebound — mostly reflecting stronger export growth but also helped by government stimulus checks that energized shopping at home — isn’t expected to last.

A growing number of analysts predict the economy will shrink in the final quarter of this year and possibly the first quarter of next year. They predict that economic slowdowns overseas may sap export growth and Americans will hunker down as the bracing tonic of the rebates disappear.

“We might see a pause in the fourth quarter and maybe in the first quarter,” McGraw said of U.S. economic activity.

The survey found that 32 percent of chief executives said they expect to reduce employment at their companies in coming months. That’s up slightly from 31 percent in a previous survey released in June.

Sixty-eight percent of executives in the new survey said they probably would hold payrolls at the current levels or boost them. That’s down a bit from 70 percent in the old survey.

Every month so far this year, employers have eliminated jobs. Thus far, 605,000 have been lost. The unemployment rate in August jumped to a five-year high of 6.1 percent, the government said last week.

New filings for unemployment benefit dipped last week to 445,000, the Labor Department reported today. The number is still considered high, however, and points to troubled employment conditions. The number of people continuing to draw jobless benefits rose to 3.53 million, the most in almost five years.

In the survey, 92 percent said they expected their sales to hold steady or increase over the next six months, up from 91 percent in the last survey. Seven percent thought sales would decrease, versus 9 percent in the old survey.

On capital investment, 91 percent said they would hold such investment steady or increase, up from 85 percent in the old survey. And, 10 percent said they expected capital investment to decrease, down from 15 percent.

Roughly half of the revenue from the group’s companies comes from sales overseas. Thus they benefited from export growth racked up in recent quarters, an important factor keeping the economy moving. U.S. exports hit a record in July, the government said today. But that wasn’t enough to stop the trade deficit from growing to a 16-month high.

Looking ahead, export growth likely will cool. “Europe is clearly slowing down. … Japan as well,” McGraw said.

For this year, the executives predicted the economy’s growth would be 1.4 percent, up from a previous estimate of 1.3 percent growth. Still, if the new estimate proves correct, it would be the weakest growth since 2001, when the country was last in recession.

The Business Roundtable is an association of CEOs of major corporations, representing a combined work force of more than 10 million employees and $4.5 trillion in annual revenues. The quarterly survey, conducted Aug. 11 through Aug. 28, was based on the responses of 100 of the group’s 160 member companies.