Obama's CEO Problem

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

He needs business on his side now.

The American economy is sputtering, and we are running out of options. Interest rates can't go any lower. Another burst of government spending--whether a good or bad idea--looks politically impossible. Is there anything that could protect us from the dangers of stagnation or a double dip? Actually, there is a second stimulus, one that could have a dramatic effect on the economy--even more so than government spending. And it won't add to the deficit.

The Federal Reserve recently reported that America's 500 largest nonfinancial companies have accumulated an astonishing $1.8 trillion of cash on their balance sheets. By any calculation (for example, as a percentage of assets), this is higher than it has been in almost half a century. And yet, most corporations are not spending this money on new plants, equipment, or workers. Were they to begin loosening their purse strings, hundreds of billions of dollars would start pouring through the economy. And these investments would likely have greater effect and staying power than a government stimulus.

Now, let me be clear. I think there is a strong case for a temporary and targeted government stimulus. Both people and companies are being very cautious about spending. Right now, government spending is what's keeping the economy afloat. Without a second stimulus, state and local governments will have to slash spending and raise taxes, which will produce a downward spiral of higher unemployment, slower growth, lower tax revenue, and a larger deficit. Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, told me that when the stimulus money runs out at the end of this year, he will be forced to lay off 5,000 teachers. Multiply that example a thousand times to get a sense of what 2011 could look like.

But government spending can only be a bridge to private-sector investment. The key to a sustainable recovery and robust economic growth is to get companies to start investing in America. So why are they reluctant, despite having mounds of cash lying around? I put this question to a series of business leaders over the past few days. They were all expansive on the topic, and all wanted to stay off the record, for fear of offending people in Washington.

Economic uncertainty was the primary cause of their caution. "We've just been through a tsunami, and that produces caution," one said to me. …