The Region

Observations on Business Attitudes

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Gary H. Stern - President, 1985-2009

Published December 1, 1991  |  December 1991 issue

Many measures of business activity suggest that the recession bottomed out in the spring and that a modest recovery has been under way since that time. Despite gradual improvement in the economy, attitudes in the business community remain extremely negative, far more negative, in many instances, than seem justified by economic performance. These attitudes persist even though our country's standing in the world is high. We have been trying, admittedly without complete success, to understand the origins of and basis for these attitudes, and our thoughts on this subject are summarized below.

One straightforward explanation for the negative attitudes prevalent in the business community is that, while the economy has started to recover, activity has not yet returned to the pace of the spring of 1990, before the onset of recession. Indeed, the recession itself was probably a shock to many, since the preceding expansion was so long-lived that it may have contributed to expectations of uninterrupted growth. Moreover, in view of the modest nature of the expansion, previous peaks in business may not be reached for several quarters. This pattern implies that unemployment is likely to remain high and profits subdued for some time.

To be sure, a number of policymakers and private analysts suggested all along that the recovery would be unusually modest by historical standards. Nevertheless, many business people apparently hoped, and perhaps expected, that the economy would turn in a more robust performance and are therefore disappointed by results to date.

The modest pace of the recovery means that corporate restructurings and layoffs have continued, certainly a highly visible and unsettling feature of the present landscape. More generally, the bulk of recent evidence clearly suggests a marked faltering of the expansion. In addition, given the sluggish state of demand, opportunities to raise prices and improve margins have been constrained. Pent-up demand for autos and houses, frequently a characteristic of the first years of recovery, is absent this time, implying mild gains at best in these two important sectors.

Some businesses, moreover, continue to labor under outsized debt loads incurred in the 1980s and, in view of the greater prudence demonstrated recently by lenders, may be encountering difficulty in refinancing their positions. Related to this is a pronounced decline in real estate values in some parts of the country. Although not altogether unprecedented, pervasive weakness in real estate undoubtedly has come as a shock to those who benefited from the "boom" of the past 10 to 15 years. These sizable, ongoing balance sheet adjustments are clearly one major source of the deep-seated unease pervading the economy.

No doubt recent financial scandals and, more importantly, the very real problems of the thrift and banking industries have undermined confidence to a degree. And while large federal budget deficits are neither new nor unusual at this point, the fiscal problems of state and local governments, with both attendant reductions in services and tax increases, probably were not fully anticipated. Perhaps more troubling, recent conversations with a wide variety of business leaders reveal a distinct lack of confidence in government's— especially the national government's—ability to efficiently solve problems.

These observations are not offered as a complete explanation for prevailing attitudes. As suggested at the outset, such an explanation is lacking as something more fundamental, transcending these comments, appears to be going on. Its duration and ultimate significance remain to be seen.

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