Washington playing with dynamite, Corporate America says of 'fiscal cliff'

Corporate America is raising the volume of its plea that the US Government avert a year-end “fiscal cliff” that could send the nation back into recession, but chief executives aren't pushing the panic button just yet.

With a heated election season in the rear-view mirror, executives are calling on the White House and congressional leaders to head off a self-imposed deadline that could bring $600 billion in spending cuts and higher taxes early in 2013 if they are unable to reach a deal on cutting the federal budget deficit.

The Business Roundtable on Tuesday kicked off a print, radio and online ad campaign on which it plans to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars featuring the chiefs of Honeywell International Inc, Xerox Corp and United Parcel Service Inc calling on lawmakers to resolve the issue.

One of the more dramatic warnings of the consequences of allowing the US economy to go over the fiscal cliff came from Honeywell CEO David Cote.

“If the last debt ceiling discussion was playing with fire, this time they’re playing with nitroglycerin,” Cote said. “If they go off the cliff, I think it would spark a recession that’s a lot bigger than economists think. Some think it would just be a small fire. I think it could turn into a conflagration.”

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the US economy would contract 0.5 per cent in 2013 if the government fails to stop the budget cuts and tax increases - far below the 2 per cent growth economists currently forecast.

A failure in Washington to solve the crisis by the year’s end could prompt major companies to curtail investment plans, said Duncan Niederauer, CEO of NYSE Euronext, operator of the New York Stock Exchange. “We simply won’t be investing in the United States. We will be investing elsewhere where we have more certainty of the outcome,” Niederauer said.

About a dozen top US CEOs, including General Electric Co’s Jeff Immelt, Aetna Inc’s Mark Bertolini, American Express Co’s Ken Chenault and Dow Chemical Co’s Andrew Liveris are scheduled to meet with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
The four are members of “Fix the Debt”, an ad-hoc lobbying organisation that this week launched an advertising campaign that advocates long-term debt reduction.

Bank of America Corp CEO Brian Moynihan said on Tuesday that worries about the cliff have companies holding off on spending. “That uncertainty continues to hold back the recovery,” Moynihan said, speaking at an investor conference in New York.

CEOs are not alone in this worry. The CBO report warned that failure to reach a deal could push the US unemployment rate up to 9.1 per cent, the highest since July 1991. It is currently 7.9 per cent.

Obama and the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives have signaled a more conciliatory tone since last week’s election, when Obama soundly defeated Republican challenger Mitt Romney, whose party retained a majority in the House.

Concerns about the cliff have not prompted customers to cancel orders, though they have added to an overall level of uneasiness that has companies wary of making large capital purchases or hiring significant numbers of new workers.

Likewise, JPMorgan Chase & Co CEO Jamie Dimon last month told investors he did not expect the negotiations to hurt lending in the fourth quarter.

“The fiscal cliff isn’t going to change us,” Dimon said, referring to JPMorgan’s commercial bank, which loans money to businesses. The defense and healthcare sectors are the most vulnerable to the fiscal cliff, as they face the threat of sequestration - automatic, across-the-board cuts to their funding.

Markets of weapons systems note that they have long been preparing for declining sales as the United States winds down two long warns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The industry has already shed tens of thousands of jobs and closed facilities.

Lockheed Martin Corp’s new president and chief operating officer, Marillyn Hewson, told analysts on Monday her company had been preparing for tighter defense budgets for years, even before the sequestration deal.

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