In the days after the explosions at Japan's Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, the markets were furiously trying to process the financial fallout. The White House, too, hungered for raw data that could help clarify the economic impact of the disaster. So Austan Goolsbee, the President's top economist, contacted Chief Executive Officers Paul Otellini of Intel (INTC) and James McNerney Jr. of Boeing (BA), pumping them for information, according to a senior Administration official. Goolsbee's takeaway: The biggest economic threat was the possibility of long-term rolling blackouts. If they could be minimized, the impact on U.S. inventories would not be that significant.
When the government's indicators aren't immediate or specific enough, the Administration has been ringing up a cross section of high-level CEOs. The Rolodex consists of business leaders who have dined with the President, developed informal relationships with senior aides, or serve on one of Obama's economic advisory boards. Aside from Otellini and McNerney, regular interlocutors include Wal-Mart Stores's (WMT) Michael Duke and Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.A) Warren Buffett.
"These CEOS are actually making decisions about whether or not to invest," says Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser who, along with Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Goolsbee, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling, regularly talks with business executives.
The flow of information is mostly one-way even though the White House is often sitting on economic indicators that corporations would like to know. Goolsbee, for instance, delivers the monthly jobs report to the President on the first Thursday of the month, a good 15 hours before the Labor Dept. releases it the following morning.
The White House has to balance the executives' insights with reams of government statistics, a process that is "both a science and an art," says Jarrett. "The science comes from the data" prepared by the government. The art lies in judging "the psychology and the confidence" of the CEOs and what their demeanor says about the economic outlook.
The aides also try to focus their consultations on CEOs whose businesses touch on the part of the economy the White House is trying to understand. Jim Owens, the former CEO of Caterpillar (CAT), is a trusted source on industrial equipment sales. Wal-Mart's Duke speaks to consumer spending. For a bird's-eye view of the real-time economy, White House officials consult Fredrick Smith of FedEx (FDX) and D. Scott Davis of United Parcel Service (UPS), as shipping orders can serve as a broad economic barometer. To gauge how full airplanes are, they talk to United Continental Holdings (UAL) Chairman Glenn Tilton.
The upshot of all the advice? "Business optimism has rebounded on a pretty broad basis," says Goolsbee. That insight is apparent in the official statistics, too. But "government data comes with a lag," says Goolsbee. "Theirs is real time."
The bottom line: Seeking timely economic insights, White House aides have called Warren Buffett, Mike Duke, Fredrick Smith, and other top CEOs.