Caterpillar CEO: Economic lull is Ben Bernanke’s fault

September 27, 2012

Richard Carson/Reuters

Douglas Oberhelman is the chief executive of Caterpillar Inc., the gigantic manufacturer of heavy equipment for construction and mining that is one of America’s business success stories. It exports many of the machines that are helping China, India, and other emerging nations build a modern infrastructure. And, Oberhelman says, it had a front-row seat to the way central bank timidity weakened the global economy over the last year.

“I do not recall a time when central banks have been more accommodative, all at once, together, and it appears even coordinating,” Oberhelman said. “We think that the reason we hit the soft spot in mid-2012 was because the Feds were too restrictive a year ago, and sure enough the economy slowed a bit this summer again. Now it’s full-out accommodation.”

In 2011, the Fed, under chairman Ben Bernanke, took some subtle moves to try to ease monetary policy and boost growth, including “Operation Twist,” under which it swapped out shorter-term bonds for longer-term, and announcing it expected to keep interest rates low years into the future. But it did not begin buying bonds on a massive scale until a meeting that concluded Sept. 13 of this year.

Oberhelman also discussed the “fiscal cliff,” the looming tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect at the end of the year if Congress and the Obama administration cannot reach a deal.

“As hard as this is to predict, we do think something will happen to avoid a fiscal cliff and a 3 percent drop in GDP in the first quarter, first half of the year,” Oberhelman said. “I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I was in Washington three days last week; I couldn’t wait to get home.

“Politicians on both sides who I met with, thoughtful people, all said the same thing, ‘we’re not going to let it happen.’ They all have a plan. But they’re not going to talk about it. It’s all contingent on the election. It’s going to go one way or the other depending on the election, but I left thinking it’s going to be solved.”

Oberhelman’s comments  are reflective of a broader schism between many corporate executives and the Republican party politicians they generally support. (Oberhelman himself has given money to Republican candidates, according to campaign finance records, including $4,600 to John McCain in 2008). Mitt Romney and many leading conservatives have condemned the Fed’s actions to ease monetary policy, accusing Bernanke and the central bank of risking inflation. If Romney wins the presidency, would likely face a balancing act between fulfilling his campaign promises and keeping business interests that are core to the Republican coalition happy.

(Oberhelman's comments on the economy and the Fed begin about 40 minutes into this Webcast).

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Ezra Klein · September 27, 2012