Economy Continues On Road To Recovery, Despite Fiscal Bumps In Washington

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There were more signs on Wednesday that the economy has returned to a modest growth path after losing momentum in the fourth quarter. Retail sales were up more than expected, and two separate surveys showed business executives feeling pretty good about the outlook for their businesses.


Moving on now to the U.S. economy, there are several signals today that its chugging away at a healthy pace despite fiscal uncertainty in Washington. A report on retail sales finds them up more than expected, and two separate surveys reveal that top executives are feeling pretty good about the outlook for their businesses.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi tells U.S. more.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Ron Arrington is chief money man for a Fort Worth construction company who likes what he sees in his crystal ball.

RON ARRINGTON: Honestly, I'm becoming increasingly optimistic.

NOGUCHI: The Fricks Company builds huge, refrigerated warehouses customized for food companies. Business is good. And Arrington says the company will likely hire almost 10 percent more people this year, as a growing number of clients press the go button on new projects.

ARRINGTON: I think there's been so much pent up demand that these companies have been sitting out there for a number of years, with plans on shelf that have literally been on the shelf.

NOGUCHI: As for Washington's skirmishes over fiscal affairs, Arrington says, that had been a concern. But, on the other hand...

ARRINGTON: People got to eat.

NOGUCHI: Back in December, talk of the fiscal cliff had business leaders wringing their hands and putting hiring plans on ice. Now, that freeze appears to be thawing across many sectors. The Commerce Department said retail spending was up 1.1 percent last month, better than expected. CEOs surveyed by the Business Roundtable showed a significant jump in business optimism from last quarter.

And Duke University Professor John Graham released a similarly upbeat survey of chief financial officers.

JOHN GRAHAM: So there seem to be some indications of some underlying strength building in the U.S. economy. Companies plan to hire about two percent more employees over the next year, business spending up about five percent. So overall these are moderate growth numbers.

NOGUCHI: In other words, the economy is getting back to the moderate growth that had faltered at the end of last year. The Duke survey, conducted with CFO Magazine, also shows 40 percent of businesses are planning to acquire companies in the next year - that's up from 30 percent a year ago.

GRAHAM: Right now interest rates are low, stock market is doing well. And finance is relatively available, so I think that's encouraging companies to make acquisitions.

NOGUCHI: Graham says one of the biggest concerns now isn't lack of hiring activity overall, but the lack of availability of higher skilled workers - especially in science and technology, which is why so many of the executives surveyed put immigration reform at the top of their agenda.

GRAHAM: Businesses overwhelmingly would like to see a movement in the United States towards more of a merit-based immigration system, where companies would be able to find and hire these high skilled workers that they haven't been able to find.

NOGUCHI: John Engler is president of the Business Roundtable. Its survey showed more member CEOs expect higher sales and more investment in the next six months. Taken together, the survey's index reflects more optimism, though Engler noted even after spiking it's at average levels.

JOHN ENGLER: Everybody is feeling better but they're not having parties.

NOGUCHI: It might be cheerier, Engler said if Washington stopped lurching from one fiscal crisis to another. But for better or for worse, businesses are getting used to that.

ENGLER: In Washington, they get stated awfully dramatic: The end of the world is coming, you know. And I think businesses tend to look at these things and say, probably not quite end but it's also probably not going to be paradise, either.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi NPR News Washington

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