April 22, 2009

Doh! And Duh!

The yield curve predicts growth. Check. Consumer sentiment is ticking up. Check. But CEO confidence is lousy, and CEOs are (not) spending accordingly. Whoops. This begs the question: Why are CEOs in such a low mood?

Answer: If you are a CEO in financial services, manufacturing, energy production and health care, you are going to be more regulated. Period, end of story. Your response to forthcoming regulation of yet-to-be-determined complexity will be to hunker down. Keep your name out of the news, improve the balance sheet and hold tight.

This is why the U.S. economy, which wants to turn the corner, is still stuck in the intersection as it decides which way to go.

In her book The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes (now a Forbes columnist) wrote that the 1937-38 “depression within a depression” occurred when “capital went on strike.” President Roosevelt’s willingness to “try anything”–including retroactive taxation, laws against discount pricing and an attempted Supreme Court packing–had businesses and their backers so confused about Roosevelt’s rules that they simply withdrew.

This is the risk of Obama’s willingness to “do what it takes.” The words sound positive and action-oriented. But in practice, “do what it takes” really means “anything can happen.” Tearing up of legal contracts … that can happen. Limits to salary and travel … that can happen. Bullying by the Environmental Protection Agency … that can happen. Nationalization of General Motors and Citigroup … that can happen. Nobody knows for sure. Government is sorting it out, day by day.

Shorter version: The economy is recovering despite Washington, but that recovery is still greatly impeded by a deep distrust of the current Congress and admininstration.


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