"I want to dispel any notion we want to inhibit your success,” President Obama told 20 CEOs this morning, according to a source in the room. “We want to be boosters because when you do well, America does well."
The relationship between the president and the business community has been strained, with many executives complaining that the president too often uses big business as a whipping boy, or a scapegoat, while pursuing policies – health care legislation, Wall Street regulations – that they perceive as bad for business.
Today’s meeting didn’t result in any concrete achievements, but participants described it as constructive.
The president asked the CEOs for “specific recommendations" and said the "overarching theme will be competitiveness and growth. There is no reason we should not be aligned in that conversation. It is one the American people want to hear."
Of primary concern to the president is the $1.8 trillion in corporate wealth currently sitting in banks and equivalent places not being spent on job creation. The 20 companies in the room represent at least $200 billion in cash and equivalents as of the 3 rd Quarter.
“How do I get companies sitting around the table to start investing in job-creating enterprises?" the president asked.
CEOs discussed the need to increase exports through trade deals with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia; regulations they find burdensome; and needing more certainty in taxes – wanting, for instance, the research & development tax credit to be made permanent.
“We’d like to have longer visibility,” UPS Chairman and CEO Scott Davis told ABC News after the meeting. “We’d like to be able to see out three, four, five years to what policy is, that would help spur investment…. I think understanding tax policy, you know, not just tax policy, general, all policy helps when you are making investments. We make investments for long term. We make investments for 5, 10, 20, 30 years. You like to have a better feeling as to what’s the environment going to be out 5 years.”
Davis said one of the key reasons for the cash being stored away “has been coming through the financial crisis…Corporations are starting to feel more confident than they did a year or two years ago. So I think we will start to see more investments as we move forward”
UPS had $3 billion on hand at the end of the third quarter, after having eliminated 18,000 jobs in 2009.
“We certainly create jobs where we can,” Davis said. “We adjust daily based on the number of packages coming into the system. So we have technology that gives us that visibility. This Christmas season we added over 50,000 jobs this Christmas season. So we add jobs when the work is there.”
Davis was asked: “Can you understand why a citizen at home who is unemployed sees a company like yours with $3 billion sitting in the bank having laid off thousands of workers last year, thinks ‘Put that money to work hiring people!”
“Absolutely,” he said. “And what we need to do is sort of the chicken and egg to move the economy to get it growing. So what we’ve got to do is figure out ways to get this economy growing. And I think one of the areas I’m working with the president on is growing exports. You know we set a goal to double exports within five years. That creates jobs. People don’t understand. They think trade is a bad four letter word. Trade is good. It creates a lot of jobs in this country. We need to do that.”
One of the topics the president and CEOs discussed, however, is the very nature of trade and global competition – are China and India our competitors, or are they markets in which the U.S. needs to be sending more goods?
Towards the end of the meeting the president, according to a source in the room, expressed frustration with the disconnect between the “productive and reasonable conversation” with CEOs and the comments and efforts of their lobbyists.