Who to Watch to Gauge the Recovery

We all know the people who drove us into this recession. There were the bright guys on Wall Street who navigated their decades-old institutions into collapse over a weekend. And the supersmart car company executives who flew private jets into Washington and asked for bailouts. And let's not forget the analysts at the credit-rating agencies who failed to spot toxic securities and the investigators at the Securities & Exchange Commission who didn't uncover a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that lasted for decades. I can forgive them. But I can't forgive Tom DeLay for pulling out of Dancing with the Stars. "Sprained Ankle." Please. What a wimp.

The good news is that the economy seems to be recovering from all this (if you ignore the unemployment numbers). And just as there were people who drove us into recession, there are people who will affect this rebound. Most of us don't know them personally. And, like DeLay, most of them are probably not very good dancers, either. But as a business owner, they're worth watching because their actions will affect our profits. Back in March, I wrote a column about the tools and bellwethers I use to estimate when business will pick up. Now, I've compiled a list of the people I'm watching who I think will have an impact on the recovery.

Xie Xuren, Chinese Minister of Finance. Xuren directs the monetary policy for a country that sells us over $250 billion of goods and buys $81 billion of products from us each year, according to the Chinese government's China Daily. He recently won the Emerging Markets Magazine award for 2009's Best Finance Minister (and it's rumored he narrowly missed making People Magazine's list of 2009 Hottest Finance Ministers as well). Many of my customers are buying and selling products to Chinese companies. Let's hope he makes good decisions.

Brian Roberts, CEO, Comcast. Each month my checks to Comcast (CMCSA) get bigger and bigger. And I'm not even including pay-per-view adult movies. My business uses Comcast for Internet and phone service. Roberts' company controls my lifeline to the outside world. His decisions to change fees, add or delete services, and invest in more productive technologies will have a big influence (or be a big disruption) to many companies such as mine. Does anyone know if he likes chocolates? Flowers?

Doug Shulman, Commissioner, Internal Revenue Service. For most of us, taxes are our biggest line-item expense. Shulman is responsible for making sure our tax laws are executed. Ever get audited by the IRS? Or have to deal with them on a tax issue? It's usually not a great experience. And it's always costly. Shulman's actions will have an impact on those costs. Check out the IRS' Strategic Plan for 2009-2013. In it, Shulman talks about "improving customer service" and, ominously, "enforcing the law to ensure that everyone meets their obligations to pay taxes." Gulp. Hope he's in a good mood for the next five years.

Allison Watson, Channel Chief, Microsoft. Don't worry—Watson had nothing to do with Windows Vista. But she is responsible for Microsoft's (MSFT) worldwide strategy for more than 640,000 independently owned-and-operated partner companies. Like mine. Microsoft is one of my key suppliers. I've never met Allison Watson, but I hear she's very nice. Notice how I'm sucking up just in case she's reading this? That's because Watson's decisions directly affect my profit margins. Why should you care? Because you probably have an Allison Watson or two in your life. And their decisions affect your profits just as much. You better be sucking up to that person, too.

Abdallah Salem el-Badri, Secretary General, OPEC. OPEC controls and sets prices on about 50% of the world's oil supply. It's not just gasoline. Petroleum-based products, like plastics and building supplies, are everywhere. When oil prices rise we all get squeezed. And this guy makes those decisions. Hey, maybe we'll all get lucky and Mr. el-Badri's soccer team from Libya will qualify for the World Cup next year for the first time in its history. In his jubilation he may persuade his fellow OPEC ministers to lower oil prices permanently. What, like you've got a better plan?

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO, News Corporation (NWS). Murdoch heads the second largest news organization in the world and owns hundreds of publishers, newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio stations, such as The Wall Street Journal, HarperCollins, and Fox TV. More important, his network brought Family Guy into my home, and for that I'll be eternally grateful. But my business is also exposed to the messaging his company puts out about world events, the economy, and the politicians who control the economy. A man with that much power in the media can influence decisions that trickle down to us all.

Ryan Howard, First Baseman, Philadelphia Phillies. It seems like every time this guy hits a home run, the Phillies wind up winning another game. And 20% of my employees' productivity goes down the toilet the next morning talking about it. If the Phillies win the World Series again it could kill what's left of my 2009 profits! But I'll still be at the parade.

Max Baucus, U.S. Senator (D-Mont.) and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. Senator Baucus' health-care bill, working its way through Congress, may include penalties for small business owners who exceed a certain payroll threshold but don't provide health-care plans to their employees. Or maybe not. Depends on what day it is. Confused? Join the crowd. Short of taxes, health insurance is one of our biggest expenses. And Senator Baucus is going to have a big say as to how much that expense will be for me. Whatever it may be.

Tim Geithner, Secretary of the Treasury, and Ben Bernanke, Chairman, Federal Reserve. Geithner's reforms on Wall Street and our banking system have an impact on the financing available for my business and the ending balance on my mutual fund statements each month. Bernanke controls the money supply, our interest rates and inflation rates, and the liquidity necessary to avoid any more stock market crashes. Between them, these two have almost as much power over me as the guy who heads programming at ESPN. Please guys, don't let us down. I've gotta put my kids through college soon!

Mike Duke, CEO, Wal-Mart Stores. As the guy who runs the world's largest retailer, Duke has a lot of control over what people pay. And this year he plans on driving home the company's mission of "saving people money so they can live better." That's great for consumers. But it puts a ton of pressure on their suppliers and creates havoc for their competition. For every penny that Wal-Mart (WMT) haggles from a supplier, one of my customers is seeing less on his bottom line.

Michelle Obama, First Lady. This one's easy. Every married guy knows who the real decision maker is. Think the President is any different?

These people's actions may lead us out of this recession or cause us to slip back into one. I don't know them. And I certainly can't control them. All I can do is respond to their decisions as best as I can. And keep hoping that Tom DeLay will make it back for next season.

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