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CEOs Have High Hopes For The Year Ahead

At the threshold of 2018, most CEOs share two outlooks: a conviction that the U.S. economy will continue to grow and even strengthen, tempered by concerns about what’s going to come out of Washington. More than anything they want tax cuts.

Then there’s the White House. CEOs didn’t like President Obama’s nonchalance about the importance of economic growth and his efforts to saddle the rich and business with the costs of social restructuring. For many chiefs, his departure has been addition by subtraction.

But they don’t like Trump’s bluntness, unpredictability and determination to pursue socially divisive policies, such as his immigration ban. Many have expressed their discontent by dropping off White House panels they had joined early in 2017.

Even the business-friendly Trump won’t be able to engender implicit trust by many CEOs until he comes through on three of his biggest campaign promises: tax cuts and tax reform, an overhaul of healthcare and the start of a massive program to rebuild America’s infrastructure. Most important, they believe that a lighter tax load will give businesses enough extra slack to fuel expanding investments in the economic future.

“If there’s no progress on tax reform, it could take some luster off of optimism in the new year.”

“Generally, manufacturers remain optimistic,” says Vicki Holt, CEO of Proto Labs, a low-volume and prototype manufacturer. “There are more projects and things are more robust” than a year ago. “But there’s concern that the things we wanted to get done, such as tax reform and infrastructure overhaul, are just taking a long time. If there’s no progress on tax reform, it could take some luster off of optimism in the new year.”

Some CEOs continue to worry about America’s bifurcated economy, where the rich get richer and everyone else struggles to rise. They also recognize that black-swan events can blow up any positive expectations, from natural disasters to man-made miscalculations. But because they can’t control Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump, they soldier on.

Stability Doesn’t Cut It
Dan Knotts believes that many CEOs and politicians have become far too complacent with an economy that has continued growing only anemically, with few signs of more dynamism in 2017. “We have to find a way as a country to drive a higher level of growth in the economy,” says the CEO of RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 marketing-services
provider. “A stable economy is okay but we should not settle for a stable economy. We need growth to drive this economy higher, and we have to figure out how to do that.”

“We’ve had debates over tax reform and tax decreases, and those are important elements, but we need to get the economy growing again in order to truly create the environment we want here in the U.S.”

“Everyone’s looking for growth,” says Grant Thornton CEO Mike McGuire, noting that M&A activity is strong and half of CEOs also believe that they’re going to make an acquisition in the next 12 months. “Everyone is bullish. It’s a matter of how they’re going to take advantage of a market opportunity,” he says. “They’re at a fork in the road. How are they going to capture market share? Now it’s about an execution risk, not a business risk.”

The Wide-Angle View
Lawson Products’s Mike DeCata and Citizens Parking’s Jerry Skillett, who both run companies with broad perspectives on the U.S. economy because their companies are involved in so many verticals, share an optimistic outlook.

Lawson Products is a Chicago-based supplier of what might be called consumable industrial trinkets: fasteners, drill bits, hydraulic fittings, automotive body clips and more. It’s got 70,000 active B2B customers. “We’re seeing no change in 2018 from the current trajectory,” says DeCata, who says his company achieved solid gains throughout 2017. “At this point we don’t see any slowdown, just a challenge for us in topping year-to-year gains that have been eight percent a quarter. Every region is improving. Every product category is improving, so we see continued, broad-based growth.”


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