The chief executives of major U.S. corporations, gathered here for the semiannual meeting of the Business Council, are like the economy itself--subdued.
None of them expects the Reagan administration's economic policies to produce a swift recovery from the recession, and most of them seem to believe the business world for years to come is going to be a hard place to make a buck.
A group of 20 economic consultants to the council, an organization of present and former CEOs, unanimously predicted a recovery will begin soon, according to Charles L. Brown, chairman of AT&T. "However," he added, "they disagree widely on its relative strength, with forecasts of the average annual rate of gain in real output between this quarter and the end of 1983 ranging from a low of only 2.2 percent to a high of 4.7 percent. Only the high forecast approaches the strength of a normal postwar recovery."
The key to the variation in forecasts is the assumed level of interest rates, with the optimists expecting that commercial banks' prime lending rates will fall to 12 percent by late this year and the pessimists looking for something close to the current 16 1/2 percent.
Consumer spending, especially for autos, is supposed to lead the recovery after July's 10 percent cut in personal income taxes. Inflation will run between 6 and 7 percent next year, they said.
Except for Walter Wriston, chairman of Citicorp and the Business Council, the executives generally say that a federal budget compromise that sharply lowers prospective future budget deficits is absolutely necessary to get interest rates down.
"All of the conditions are there for lower interest rates," said Reginald Jones, former chairman of General Electric Co., who still serves on the boards of several corporations. "But I think we are locked, very frankly, in a gridlock situation that is psychology more than anything else, all stemming from this concern about projected deficits up to $200 billion or more out over the next three or four years." Lowering the deficits could break that gridlock and lead to lower long-term interest rates, he maintained.
"I think it is paramount that the government not play politics with the economy and that we get at this question of the deficits," Jones continued.
Wriston, head of the second largest commercial bank, acknowledged "I'm in the minority in this group. I don't think that deficits have much to do with interest rates." Wriston believes that high rates are not a function of a collision between federal borrowing to finance deficits and would-be private borrowers. So long as the Federal Reserve does not directly purchase a large quantity of Treasury securities, ballooning the money supply in the process, deficits do not push up rates, he argued.
C.C. Garvin, chairman of Exxon Corp., responded "I think my friend Walter is right, but I am not sure when he is right. That's the problem."
Garvin and several other executives pointed to the recent drop in inflation as a very positive sign but one "for which we are paying a price."
Ruben F. Mettler, chairman of TRW Inc., said the electronics portion of his company has not been affected by the recession at all, while business for his plants making auto components, farm machinery and industrial machinery has been poor. "We do see the beginning of an up-pick," Mettler said. "
T.A. Wilson, chairman of Boeing Co., who has seen his commercial aircraft business drop by half over the last year, said he remains optimistic about the long term, but "for the near term, its a disaster." Wilson said Boeing "is betting on the downside because we have nothing to lose" if new orders suddenly come in, because his production lines are in place.