Despite concerns about Congress and the European debt crisis, most U.S business owners remain optimistic and expect growth to continue this year, the heads of both General Electric and FedEx said Thursday.
"There's still a lot of growth," GE CEO Jeff Immelt told about 600 executives attending a conference on middle-sized businesses in Columbus, Ohio. "It's a long, slow recovery ... but it is getting better."
FedEx CEO Fred Smith agreed, saying that shipments of goods continue to reflect a growing economy. "We don't see a contraction," Smith said, "just slow growth; steady as she goes."
Immelt, who serves as chairman of President Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, and Smith were featured speakers at the "Leading from the Middle" conference, focused on businesses with annual sales of $10 million to $1 billion. That group covers about 200,000 firms, with 41 million jobs. GE sponsored the event in partnership with Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.
Immelt said GE's customers have "a lot of cash ... and a fair amount of optimism." But growth is being restrained by worries that the European debt crisis could evolve into a global banking crisis, and that political paralysis will prevent Congress from taking actions to help businesses.
"Congress doing just one bipartisan thing would help" build confidence by showing that the political process is not completely broken, Immelt said.
Smith also said Congress' inaction is restraining growth. Existing policies on taxes, trade, energy and regulations are "optimally designed to impede growth," he said.
Still, based on goods being shipped, Smith expects holiday retail sales to grow by 2 to 3 percent. That would be down slightly from last year, but still positive, he said.
The evidence of business optimism is showing up in the bellies of FedEx planes. "People are voting with their shipments," he said.