The nation’s top CEOs sharply stepped up their hiring and investment plans in the first quarter amid a burst of confidence in President Trump’s pro-business agenda, showing no signs that early political roadblocks have dimmed their optimism.
Meanwhile, small business sentiment pulled back slightly but remained near its recent record high.
“CEOs are increasingly positive about the direction of U.S. economy,” Business Roundtable CEO Joshua Bolten told reporters Tuesday on a conference call. “I think it’s fair to say that CEOs see the business environment as improving with the President’s focus on jobs and growth.”
Forty-one percent of CEOs plan to increase hiring in the next six months, up from 35% in the fourth quarter, according to a Business Roundtable survey. Just 18% expect to reduce employment, down from 30% late last year.
And 46% of the top executives intend to increase capital spending, up from 35%, while just 13% plan to rein in such investment, down from 21%.
Their more expansive plans are rooted in an optimistic outlook. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed believe sales will rise in the next six months, up from 67% in the prior quarter. Just 4% expect sales to fall, down from 14%.
The Business Roundtable’s overall index, which combines all these elements, jumped from 74.2 to 93.3, the first time it cleared its historical average of 79.8 in nearly two years.
Trump’s plan to reduce corporate taxes already has faced hurdles, with many senators opposing a border adjustment tax on imports, for example. And Trump has yet to lay out his $1 trillion plan to upgrade the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and highways.
But the President has taken steps to roll back financial and other regulations, and that’s largely stoking the executives’ confidence in the administration’s early days. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said ta reform would be the best policy for creating a progrowth environment, followed by the 27% who cited regulatory reforms.
“We don’t think the hopes will be dashed,” Bolten said. Speaking of cutting regulations, he said, “The Trump administration has started off very aggressively and very positively.”
He added, “It’s never easy to do tax reform but this is a great opportunity. We are optimistic that if businesses, Congress and the administration work together, we'll do what we need to get across the finish line.”
And Jamie Dimon, chairman of the Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said he had high hopes for infrastructure upgrades. “This country is not built a new airport in 30 years,” he said.
Dimon said he wasn’t worried that Federal Reserve interest rate hikes will slow the 7 ½-year-old recovery. “If the Fed is raising rates into a strong environment, he strong environment is far more important than a raise of 25 basis points.” The Fed is expected to lift its benchmark short-term rate by a quarter percentage point at a meeting that ends Wednesday. That would be just its third hike in the last 11 years but Fed officials are forecasting at least two more such moves in 2017.
Separately, a monthly index of small business optimism dipped in February – with hiring and investment plans edging down -- but it remained record highs following the largest ever monthly increase in December after the election. But small firms took a more cautious view of whether Trump can turn his blueprint into reality, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.
“The sustainability (of the postelection surge in optimism) and whether it will lead to actual economic growth depends on Washington’s ability to deliver on the agenda that small businesses voted for in November,” says NFIB CEO Juanita Duggan. “If the healthcare and tax policy discussions continue without action, optimism will fade.”
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