CEO Confidence Soars


    April’s arrival brought with it some good business news, some better business news and some much better business news … well, the news was positive all around.

    • The good news was the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary report showing 308,000 new jobs created in March.

    It not only was the seventh consecutive gain in employment that the bureau has reported, but it also was a huge gain for a single month. And taking into account the scope of previous months’ revisions, March payrolls actually could finalize about 395,000 higher than in February.

    • The better news was the bureau’s report that for the first time in 44 months, manufacturing employment did not decline, but held steady at 14.3 million jobs. No sector showed job losses.

    Concurrent with the bureau’s announcement and related explicitly to manufacturing, the Institute for Supply Management announced that its own index for March was 62.5. Anything above 50 indicates growth.

    • The best news: The U.S. Labor Department household survey showed 1.9 million more Americans at work today than at the beginning of the recovery in late 2001. The survey showed unemployment down to 5.7 percent from 6.3 percent — a rate that embraces the March addition of 180,000 people to the work force. The 5.7 percent rate is low by historic standards, one-tenth percent higher than its lowest point — 5.6 percent — during the ’90s boom.

    Such numbers don’t measure the entire economy, but they are strong indicators. There’s no guarantee that job growth can or will continue at the March pace. But if past booms — particularly the Kennedy and Reagan booms — are anything to go by, these indicators hint at tremendous pent-up demand for new jobs.

    Hiring carries with it expensive regulatory commitments and still-rising health-care costs so that it’s often simpler and cheaper to pay overtime than to bring new people on board.

    Moreover, many CEOs apparently have delayed hiring in the wake of the nation’s economic triple whammy — the dot-com winnowing, the 9-11 attack and the Enron collapse and scandal. There has been the worry that yet another shoe might drop.

    But according to the Conference Board, a not-for-profit group that tracks the global economy, that worry is diminishing. The board reported last week that the index from its quarterly survey of CEO confidence, covering more than 100 executives across the economy, has risen sharply to 73 since the first of the year.

    “CEO confidence has surged to its highest level in 20 years,” reported Lynn Franco, director of the board’s Consumer Research Center. “Half of all CEOs surveyed anticipate an increase in hiring plans over the course of the year, suggesting labor market growth should gain momentum in the months ahead.”

    Now this is an election year chockablock with damnation and denial on both sides, fighting, wishful thinking and hyper-positive spin. For the moment, we don’t want to go there.

    The implications of the numbers, whatever they may portend politically, is that the unemployed are starting to find jobs again. The planet’s most resilient and vibrant economy has suffered a lot of pain, working out, pumping iron and building stamina.

    Now it’s sprinting out on the field ready to take on all comers from the Asian Tigers to the Continental Euros.    

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