Worried about gasoline prices, employee health-insurance costs and a tight labor pool, Utah business leaders in a recent poll expressed muted optimism about their companies' futures.

The results of the Zions Bank Utah Quarterly Economic Forecast, released Thursday, showed optimism at the lowest level since the second quarter of 2006, when the bank began conducting the surveys.

The forecast, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, tracks trends in the local marketplace from the perspective of high-level executives throughout the state. The 2007 fourth-quarter survey, conducted Jan. 1-22, rated levels of optimism by business executives, based on profits and losses over the previous three months.

On a scale of one (very pessimistic) to 10 (very optimistic), the fourth-quarter 2007 figure was a mean score of 7.02. The figure has generally slipped from the 7.87 second-quarter 2006 initial survey result.

Predictions for improved economic health within individual companies also is at its lowest point since the forecast began. The mean score, which was 3.53 in the 2006 second and third quarters, based on a 1-to-5 scale, was 3.23 in the most recent survey.

Another component revealed that companies based outside the Wasatch Front were more likely to give optimistic ratings of their financial future than those based along the Wasatch Front.

"Our research shows that Utah executives are not as enthusiastically optimistic about the financial futures of their companies as they had been throughout 2006," said Pat Jones, co-owner of Dan Jones & Associates. "They are also exhibiting increased concern about inflation, costs and competition in the marketplace."

The forecast report also shows:

• Gasoline prices (5.52), employee health insurance costs (5.34) and finding qualified employees (5.31) topped the list of 11 economic concerns among respondents on a scale of 1 (not at all concerned) to 7 (very concerned).

• Three of the 11 concerns reached survey highs: the impact of inflation on the cost to do business (4.82), the cost of inventory and supplies (4.13) and the ability to compete in the marketplace (3.84).

• Respondents' capital expenditures will remain about the same in the current quarter as in the previous one.

E-mail: bwallace@desnews.com