Executives See Bright Spots, No Reason to Panic

Friday, 12 Aug 2011 12:00 AM

 

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Americans are still spending money at casinos, amusement parks and concerts. Some are even shopping at Bloomingdales and looking at new homes.

Even as the stock market's wild swings heighten fears of another recession, many business executives see bright spots. Worrisome signs abound, too, especially for companies struggling to recover. But for a lot of corporate leaders, the general state of the economy has not changed much in the past three weeks of upheaval.

Executives addressed the turmoil this week during earnings conference calls and in interviews with The Associated Press. From their vantage point, the economy looks less troubled than major stock indicators like the Dow Jones Industrial average, which has tumbled by 12 percent since July 21.

"Overall, it's kind of business as usual," said Michael Rapino, CEO of concert promoter Live Nation Entertainment Inc. He expects all of the company's shows to go on this fall after seeing North American attendance rise by 13 percent in the April-June period.

Executives at rebounding companies still sound upbeat. Despite the confusion and uncertainty, they aren't panicking — at least not yet.

In some ways, the recent market upheaval has been easier for business leaders to endure because it's not entirely surprising. The outlook in corporate America had been darkening even before the stock market's harrowing plunges began to evoke memories of the recession's nadir in late 2008.

A survey of 1,200 senior executives taken last month by the Corporate Executive Board produced the lowest level of confidence since 2009. The same poll found only 38 percent planned to expand payrolls in the next year, down from 58 percent six months ago.

That doesn't bode well for a U.S. economy that lost as many as 8.6 million jobs and has only regained 1.7 million since the recession officially ended two years ago. Unemployment remains above 9 percent.

However, the jobless lines probably won't get much longer right away because companies are unlikely to lay off workers as quickly as they did during the financial calamity of late 2008 and early 2009.

Businesses are leaner and, even more important, in a stronger financial position than they were three years ago. The companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 now have nearly $1 trillion in cash, up from $648 billion in September 2008. With more money in the bank, companies won't be as apt to take drastic measures.

"We are in a much different situation than we saw in 2008," said Michael Griffin, executive director and head of global research for the Corporate Executive Board's finance division. "The recent market volatility has heightened some of the concerns we had already been seeing, so executives may be starting to do some stress testing of their plans. But I don't think we are going to see as many knee-jerk reactions as we saw in 2008."

In another reassuring sign, people are spending money in search of a good time, even though about $2 trillion in wealth has evaporated on paper in the past 15 trading sessions.

MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren said the Las Vegas strip was still bustling last weekend, and all signs point to his company's hotels being near capacity through the rest of the month.

The lines are still long at Walt Disney Co.'s amusement parks, and management does not expect to lower prices to reach attendance targets for the traditionally slower fall season, CEO Robert Iger said Tuesday.

Bloomingdale's emphasis on top-of-the-line merchandise tends to scare off many shoppers when money is tight, but that hasn't happened yet, according to Karen Hoguet, chief financial officer for Macy's Inc., the department store's owner.

At Beazer Homes USA Inc., CEO Allan Merrill was pleased to see prospective buyers still touring homes in Atlanta during the past weekend, but he was troubled by the anxious tones of his conversations with them.

"There is clearly some trepidation," Merrill said in a conference call. While he expects most people already hunting for homes to end up buying, he is worried the market volatility will dampen activity as summer draws to a close.

He thinks it will take several more weeks to get a handle on consumer behavior.

Macy's Hoguet agrees that it's too early to draw any conclusions about customers' reaction to the tumult. At this point, Macy's is monitoring all its major categories of clothing and merchandise so it can quickly reduce its orders if sales start to weaken.

"We can't ignore all that is going on in the world this week, but we also can't ignore the momentum we have nor the confidence we have in our strategies," Hoguet said Wednesday. "We are staying focused on what we can control."

The economic turmoil has prompted some companies to rule out acquisitions or buy back stock until things settle down.

Kenneth Cruse, CEO of Sunstone Hotel Investors Inc., is taking a cautious approach, even though he says there is still ample demand at the company's 33 hotels, which operate under a variety of brands, including Marriott, Hilton and Renaissance. He still described the concerns about the economy as "well-founded."

Hyundai Motor America CEO John Krafcik remains upbeat partly because his brand's sales have climbed 23 percent so far this year in the U.S. The way he sees it, the makers of luxury cars and SUVs will suffer the most as more people decide to check out relatively inexpensive Hyundai models such as the Sonata, Elantra and Santa Fe.

Panera Bread Co., which owns or franchises about 1,500 bakeries and cafes, believes its reasonably priced menu will also hold its appeal, even if the economy gets worse.

"I certainly don't want to respond to the market — that's the worst mistake you could make," Panera co-founder Ron Shaich said in an interview. Now the company's executive chairman, Shaich thinks he learned a valuable lesson during the Great Recession while he was still Panera's CEO, a job he gave up last year.

"If our competitors are overly reactive to short-term pressure, that creates opportunity for us ... The trick is not to react to everything."

Companies that had already been wobbling will be on an even shakier ground unless the market stabilizes.

That list includes most major newspaper publishers, which have been stuck in the throes of a five-year slump while struggling to make the transition from print to the Internet, and Web pioneers Yahoo Inc. and AOL Inc., which hired new CEOs in 2009 to engineer turnarounds that still haven't happened.

AOL CEO Tim Armstrong remained undaunted Tuesday, even after his company reported a second-quarter revenue drop that triggered a nearly 26 percent plunge in its stock price. That left the shares worth about half as much as they were in late 2009, when AOL spun off from Time Warner Inc. In an effort to boost its stock price, AOL intends to spend as much as $250 million buying back its shares during the next year.

Said Armstrong: "I think right now is one of the best opportunities if you have a clear strategy and a clear plan."

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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