In Their Own Words: How 13 CEOs Feel About the Economy

Economists aren't very good at what they do because they deal mostly with theories and assumptions. Businesses are pretty good at what they do because they deal mostly with customers and competition. If you want to know how the economy is doing, ask the business leaders. They have the scoop.

I dug through a pile of conference call transcripts to see what CEOs are saying about the economy. Here are 13 excerpts, all from conference calls and presentations that took place in the last 90 days.

Stephen Schwarzman, CEO, Blackstone  (NYSE: BX  ) :

So you're seeing a lot of strength in housing, and it's coming from almost every place geographically ... So that's sort of the big winner. Auto and that whole complex is a big winner. They're doing over 15 million cars this year, up from 8.5 at the bottom. And then you have the energy complex, which is really, really a revolution. This is hard to underestimate the impact of energy and all the natural gas that's being produced and all the subsidiary types of things that come from that activity. And if you add on top of that, technology which is still a very big pocket of strength and quite robust in the United States, you've got some really good stuff happening.

On the other hand we do have the U.S. government at work, trying to decrease growth as rapidly as they can. And so they've, unfortunately, had some success in that area, and that leaves us somewhere in the 2%-plus area.

Harris Simmons, CEO, Zions Bancorp:

We think that the next big risk in the industry is rising interest rates. And so we're very focused on what happens when interest rates return to a more historically normal level.

W. Edmund Clark, CEO, TD Bank:

On the positive side, economic fundamentals in the United States continue to improve. The main impediment to growth appears to be the speed and nature of the withdrawal of fiscal stimulus. Debate has actually now opened up on how and when to withdraw some of the monetary expansion. All of this is very good news.

At the same time, the rest of the world looks no stronger. Europe is mired in a recession, Asian growth seems more modest and Japanese attempts to restimulate their economy through monetary stimulation have set off further downward pressure on interest rates and currency values.

Stuart A. Miller, CEO, Lennar:

The overriding driver of recovery in the housing market remains the underproduction of both single and multifamily product throughout the economic downturn and up to and including this year. Over the past 5 years of housing production, we've built an average of under 700,000 single and multifamily homes total per year, with an average obsolescence rate of approximately 300,000 per year. This compares to a need for new dwelling units per year of between 1.2 million and 1.5 million.

This year, a significantly stronger year of building activity, we will produce approximately 950,000 single and multifamily dwellings, and again, will underserve the country's needs. We have more than absorbed the overbuilding of the early to mid-2000s, and have been underproducing for a protracted period of time. This shortfall will have to be made up, and the builders of both multi and single-family products have been pushing to increase production.

Martin Mucci, CEO, Paychex (NASDAQ: PAYX  ) :

I think when you look at some of the economic indicators, housing starts are up, prices are up on housing. I think housing is a really important measure for us because we have a lot of jobs around that. A lot of contracting roofers, et cetera, around that. All of that is positive. And so we're feeling like we're coming off the end of the year with some momentum, and that will certainly help us.

Timothy J. Naughton, CEO, AvalonBay Communities:

I think there's reason to be very optimistic when you consider that demographic tailwind that will continue over the next 5 to 10 years, certainly. And then when you think about just the economy itself and you look at the strength of the balance sheets of consumers and corporations, the amount of liquidity out there, combined with the depth of the housing correction, I think there's a good argument we made that the housing cycle we're in right now will be strongest of the last 3 that we've seen.

Gary Cohn, president and COO, Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) :

Although we have seen recent improvements in the U.S. economy, growth is relatively light and confidence remains fragile. In addition, while the market generally feels better about the tail risk in Europe, the economy is challenged.

Given the continued uncertainty in the market, we are not managing the firm with the hope that the macro backdrop will improve. We are focused on managing through a continued difficult operating environment.

Prem Watsa, CEO, Fairfax Financial Holdings:

We continue to be very concerned about the prospects for the financial markets and the economies of North America and Western Europe, accentuated by potential weakness in China. There continues to be a big disconnect between the financial markets and the underlying economic fundamentals.

Jeffrey T. Mezger, CEO, KB Homes:

Markets are firming. If the economy continues to expand like it is, I think you'll see the banks loosen up. And if sort of rates go up a little bit but underwriting loosens up a bit, I think you'll see similar demand, if not more. That's why we're not troubled by a little uptick in interest rates right now.

Pierre Nanterme, CEO, Accenture:

The situation in Europe is not even slightly better. It's probably slightly worse. Even if we do not have a Greece event, if you will, the environment is moving from an economic standpoint to recession. And so the mood with our clients over there is still to be thoughtful and to be very mindful about the way they invest. And when clients are thoughtful and mindful, they tend to wait a little bit more and to think further on when and how much they're going to invest. 

James R. Craigie, CEO, Church & Dwight (NYSE: CHD  )

I think the whole thing about the 2% extra payroll tax wasn't helpful. Don't forget, in America, the average household makes $50,000. 2% is $1,000 a year. I mean, after tax, that's a hurt in their pocketbook. Gas prices have been going up. I -- and you've seen the retailer results, the Walmarts, Kmarts, Targets, Costcos of the world had, had results less than they expected, not very good. So it's weak. I don't think it's -- I'm not ready to declare it's a permanent decline or a second dip on the recession there, but it's a little nervous as far as what's going on up there.

David Cote, CEO, Honeywell (NYSE: HON  ) :

We're really proud now that the [government budget] deficit could only be $600 billion in the year, and while that's encouraging, it doesn't do anything to fix the long-term problem, and the long-term problem is entitlements. If you take a look at the Medicare and Medicaid in particular and some on Social Security that while debt as a percent of GDP is we'll say around 75% today and under the new estimate grows to 83% by the end of the decade ... You take those same numbers, go up to the next decade and it goes to 135% debt as a percentage of GDP largely driven by the baby boomer generation retiring which no politician, Republican or Democrat, really wants to talk about. They're more than willing to say we got to reform entitlements but as soon as you say well, like what, that's when they all start to back off because they don't want to anger the voters.

Brian Shore, CEO, Park Electrochemical:

I think there's a lot of concern about central banks not just in the U.S., China elsewhere, and maybe they stretched themselves out, and they played this maybe game, you want to call it for quite a while and maybe they are getting a brick wall, and the days of easy and free money may be coming to an end or at least maybe tapering off. But it probably wouldn't be good [for the global economy in the short-term], maybe good for long-term because then it would be more based upon fundamentals rather than speed injections.


More from the Motley Fool
Interested in more about the economy? My new free report, "Everything You Need to Know About the National Debt," walks you through with step-by-step explanations about how the government spends your money, where it gets tax revenue from, the future of spending, and what a $16 trillion debt means for our future. Click here to read it. 

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 08, 2013, at 10:55 AM, rsmoans wrote:

    13 CEO's and not one talked about how they are creating jobs. That is not the function of government, that is up to the private sector. CEO's, what are you doing to increase employment?

  • Report this Comment On July 08, 2013, at 6:38 PM, Zombie111 wrote:

    "Govt deficit could only be $600 billion..." Wow. I hope China doesn't foreclose.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 10:17 AM, Johny205 wrote:

    "13 CEO's and not one talked about how they are creating jobs. That is not the function of government, that is up to the private sector. CEO's, what are you doing to increase employment?"

    It's not their job to create jobs, it is their job to make money.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 11:04 AM, SkepikI wrote:

    Morgan- this is somewhat interesting but would be more riveting if it contained fewer financial/bank CEO's and more mid to large cap "real" business CEO's. I am about half convinced after the past two decades that CEO's of banks and financial institutions got to be CEO by crony manipulation rather than smarts and capability. As a matter of fact some of YOUR articles helped cement that opinion that I already was holding tentatively.

    I was much more interested in what the CEOs of Honeywell and C&D had to say and it worries me. An interesting follow up would be the agreement or lack thereof between Bank CEO's and other than financial CEO's ... What does the CEO of Lowe's or HD have to say?

    In a "central bank easy money" and low interest rate environment, and with caution insisted on to plump bank balance sheets, its no mystery why Bank CEO's would be optimistic. What really matters is what their potential customers think!

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 12:44 PM, StockGamingCom wrote:

    The economy had been supported by debt for many decades. When debt goes down, the economy slows down.

    Governments have been trying to get people to go into bigger debt, with near zero interest rate, to support the economy.

  • Report this Comment On July 09, 2013, at 7:39 PM, TMFBoiseKen wrote:

    I wonder what the folks over at Nucor had to say??

  • Report this Comment On July 10, 2013, at 9:50 AM, MattBurns25 wrote:

    U.S. economy recovering signs were seen already in December:

    Warren Buffett is with the tide:

    “American business will do fine over time,” Buffett writes.

    “And stocks will do well just as certainly, since their fate is tied to business performance.

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