The Heartache of Big Company CEOs


John Mathias Engler, the heavy-set former Governor of Michigan who is now the President of the Business Roundtable, recently addressed an audience of Detroit executives. At the core of his message were mostly obvious comments. Senior management at huge companies fret that GDP growth is only 2%. Unemployment was over 8% for 44 months, and Washington is to blame. That is a convenient way for big business to wash its hands of the nation's financial and economic problems -- problems it could help to solve.

Engler commented:

Washington's failure to work together to address our economic problems -- or even do the routine business of government -- has created uncertainty and chilled business investment and hiring.

Engler has been a high-tier lobbyist for the past several years, having also serviced as CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. But the Business Roundtable is likely to be the peak of his professional achievements. Member CEOs run American companies with more than $7.3 trillion in annual revenues and nearly 16 million workers. Engler has his job because of his politician's ability to work the crowd on behalf of his employers. In Detroit, those skills were on parade. Where else would executives be more concerned about jobs and the reasons behind joblessness?

The argument about huge companies and the future of the economy remains a chicken-and-egg debate. These firms have hundreds of billions of dollars in unused cash on their balance sheets. And most are profitable. Many of the companies have not broken the habit of cost cutting, which they honed during the recession. Cost cuts usually mean layoffs, or at least not adding workers. Should big businesses wait for aid from Washington, or should they aid Washington by increasing their own workforces, even if it may compress their profit margins?

The Business Roundtable has decided to put the entire weight of responsibility for the troubled economy on Washington, when these firms have the ability to help relieve some of the unemployment in the United States. Engler is not a fool, but he brings an fool's message. America's largest companies cannot take care of themselves.

Douglas A. McIntyre