Once-wary CEOs now eager for Trump's agenda, leaders say

FILE - Donald Trump ridiculed and defeated a banker-backed Democrat and his own party's leaders to win the White House. But for these beaten elites, no hard feelings.

JPMorgan Chase boss Jamie Dimon is a Democrat, like a lot of New York bankers. And Joshua Bolten, new president of the Business Roundtable, the gang of 200 big-company CEOs that Dimon chairs, is, like many corporate leaders, an establishment Republican — he was chief of staff to President George W. Bush.

Donald Trump ridiculed and defeated a banker-backed Democrat and his own party's leaders to win the White House. But for these beaten elites, no hard feelings: Meeting with reporters Tuesday, Dimon and Bolton said Big Business was already judging President Trump — not by the president's provocations, but by how fast sales and profits can be boosted on the Businessman President's watch.

Things are looking better under Trump, they added, citing a new survey of their members, who locally include Aramark CEO Eric J. Foss, Campbell Soup's Denise Morrison, Comcast's Brian Roberts, Day & Zimmerman’s Harold Yoh, DuPont's Edward Breen, FMC’s Pierre Brondeau, SAP's Bill McDermott, and Vanguard's William McNabb.

"CEOs do sense the business environment is improving, with the president's focus on jobs and growth," Bolten said.

More than nine of 10 Roundtable members said things were looking up. That's up from about three-quarters last fall, the first time it topped 80 percent since early in Barack Obama's last term, and the biggest three-month jump since the last recession.

Nearly three-quarters of the big-business bosses plan to add workers, up from a little more than half last year. Sales and capital-expenditure projections are up similar amounts.

And most CEOs now expect that the economy will grow more than 2 percent this year. "We're not believers that we are somehow stuck in low growth," said Dimon, as if to bury the "New Normal" low-growth thesis some pro investors pitched in the late 2000s. (But the CEOs don't yet believe in Trump's promise that growth will soon top 3 percent and keep zooming.)

Why so cheerful? Four out of five top CEOs said tax reform and regulatory changes "are the best way to create a positive environment for corporate growth," and they are encouraged that Trump has named these as early priorities, Bolten said.

"Our tax system has been driving capital and research out of the country," Bolten maintained. Big business "gets by," but employment has suffered, he said, insisting that lower business taxes will be reflected in higher wages.

Also, he said, "Trump has moved aggressively to relieve the regulatory burden that slows the economy."   

Pressed to cite examples of how cutting regulation boosts the economy, Dimon complained that the nation had not built a major new airport "in 30 years. America's a can-do country. We have to get back to that."

Bolten blamed the "ozone rules" limiting industrial combustion for "making it almost impossible to build new manufacturing facilities" in smoggy U.S. counties. "That makes it hard" for pro-business local governments "to generate growth and revenues."

More broadly, the Trump administration is "exploring regulation in the right mindset: Do what's necessary to protect health and the environment. Don't do more, just because you can." Bolten called that narrower pollution standard a pro-growth "change in mentality."  

Bolten also said most CEOs agreed that Trump's rough instrument of telling agencies to cut two regulations for every new one "actually sets the right tone."

Asked whether the political fight over replacing Obamacare shows Trump will have an equally tough time passing pro-business programs, Bolten maintained that health-care "turbulence" won't get in the way of tax or regulatory streamlining, which has broad Republican support.

For taxes in particular, "we think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity" to get a simpler system that will ease the corporate tax burden "across the finish line," Bolten added.

Asked how badly the Federal Reserve's push to boost interest rates will slow U.S. growth, Dimon said higher rates are a symptom of prosperity: A stronger economy that pushes the Fed to move "is far more important than raising rates by 25 basis points" (0.25 percent, the Fed's expected Wednesday rate hike), he said. "The economy seems to be OK and getting a little stronger."

I asked Dimon, as a banker, whether big-business bosses' optimism is an elite phenomenon — or can his loan officers testify that confidence is expanding to middle-market and small businesses, the credit-card and mortgage borrowers of working America?

It's everyone, Dimon insisted, "pretty dramatically." Small-business formation had been declining in the U.S. even as the economy recovered, he noted. But now small-business confidence, as expressed in surveys and in loan demand, is showing "the biggest increase ever. We see it broadly."

"Business optimism surged in the wake of the presidential election, suggesting many mid-sized companies are looking forward to potential changes in economic policy under President Trump's new administration," Gary Keith, regional economist for Buffalo-based M&T Bank, found in a survey of 500 mid-sized companies.

M&T, which has branches in the Philadelphia area and is the dominant bank in Delaware, found that seven of 10 mid-sized firms expect the economy to improve over the next six months — the most since the 2008-2009 recession.