Business Speaks To Clinton In Many Tongues

Bill Clinton, conciliator and consensus-builder, is in for a real workout when he convenes his summit mf business leaders and economists next month. If he expects the CEOs to speak with one voice on the problems of the American economy, he can forget it.

Consider trade. "If Clinton follows through with his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement and continues opening markets rather than becoming protectionist, I'm hopeful," says W.J. "Jerry" Sanders III, chairman of Advanced Micro Devices Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. But will he? Not a chance, says Ely Callaway, CEO of clubmaker Callaway Golf Co. in Carlsbad, Calif. "We are in a trade war and losing it every day," Callaway warns.

Or take taxes. The new Administration should raise taxes--especially user fees--to support education, rebuild infrastructure, and create a national "data highway," says Roger A. Strauch, CEO of Teknekron Communications Systems in Berkeley, Calif. Wrong, says Joseph Mooibroek, president and CEO of American Medical Electronics Inc. in Richardson, Tex. He thinks new taxes--even on the rich--will hurt more than help. From hikes in taxes, "you'll get a long-term depressive effect," he says.

In fact, CEOs seem to agree on just a few issues (table). Not surprisingly, most want incentives--either investment tax credits or targeted cuts in capital-gains taxes--to boost capital spending. And whatever Clinton does to stimulate growth, business wants to tell him: Leave the job creation to us.

James L. Vincent, chairman of Biogen Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., snaps: "I just hope that he and his Democratic cohorts in Congress remember that only the private sector can create long-term, survivable jobs." Even tax breaks to boost private-sector hiring are a bad idea, says AMD's Sanders: "No one is going to hire people you don't need, so government would be paying companies to do what they'd be doing anyway."

Just like the voters, business leaders often saw what they wanted to see in Clinton. To Mesa Inc.'s T. Boone Pickens, "it's obvious that Clinton believes in natural gas as a domestic fuel and that it should be used in place of foreign oil and foreign gasoline." Fluor Corp. CEO Leslie G. McCraw hopes Clinton's emphasis on infrastructure can be stretched to include the heavy industrial plants Fluor builds.

HIDDEN VEIN? Silicon Valley and other high-tech centers--the source of many of Clinton's business endorsements--see a new day of industrial policy dawning. "This separation between business and government needs to be changed," says Edward R. McCracken, president of Silicon Graphics Inc. James R. Houghton, chairman of Corning Inc., hopes Clinton will combine the Commerce Dept. and U.S. Trade Representative's office into a competitiveness-boosting agency.

Some CEOs will bring Clinton-style four-point programs to the summit. Chairman John Sculley of Apple Computer Inc. wants to stimulate small business by cutting capital-gains taxes, easing bank regulation, setting up pools to help smaller companies market commercial paper, and forcing federal agencies to consolidate their many reporting demands into one short form.

Many others believe Clinton needn't do a thing to give the economy a boost. Just by appearing to tackle problems head-on, says Playboy Enterprises Inc.'s CEO, Christie Hefner, Clinton has tapped a hidden vein of energy. "There's pent-up optimism among a lot of business people," she says. Ryal R. Poppa, chairman and CEO of Storage Technology Corp., puts it most bluntly. Regardless of what Clinton does, predicts Poppa, "I bet within two weeks you'll see people saying: 'Things are better.' "

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.