Covid-19’s $ 1.9 trillion stimulus bill past without Republican support, yet Suzanne Clark, the head of the United States Chamber of Commerce, sees a bipartisan path for infrastructure and immigration bills, according to Clark, to help heal the United States from the economic scars created by the pandemic.
Given the current political divide exposed in the latest back-up plan, this may sound optimistic. But Clark, one of Barron’s 100 most influential women in American finance and a self-proclaimed optimist, sees it both so crucial to the country’s economic health and long-term competitiveness that he might push politicians to find common ground. Clark has led a transformation within the nation’s most powerful business lobby in recent years, making it more inclusive and bipartisan as businesses face a less business-friendly environment and new demands related to the pandemic, as well as climate and social justice. Barron spoke with Clark, who added the title of CEO to his role this month, about what the economy needs to turn around, what it’s like in a polarized capital, and what investors should look forward to US-China relations. An edited and condensed transcript follows.
Barron’s: What does it take for the economy to recover further?
Suzanne Clark: Job # 1 is beating the pandemic. We ask employers to commit to encouraging mask wear and social distancing, reducing barriers to employee immunizations, and communicating with customers and the community. N ° 2: In all sectors, we still hear about a need for skilled labor. We have 10 million people out of work and 7 million unfilled jobs. One of the things we need to do to get the economy going is to close that gap.
What does the recovery look like small enterprises?
Small businesses are not monolithic. In construction, the problem is finding workers and keeping skilled workers. If you’re talking about restaurants, little inns, or small businesses popping up around gyms or concert halls, they really hurt. We’re looking at this divergence in the economy—this “K-shaped” economy. It is based on the size. If you’re little, you don’t have cash reserves to wait around. But it is also sectoral because of the inequality of the sectors affected.
Markets are largely focused on the upper K-shaped economy. Should they be worried about the other K-leg?
You are not talking about the health of the economy if you only look at certain parts. The damage to family businesses that have been around for decades and were lost during this pandemic is truly heartbreaking, but it is more than that. The economy is an ecosystem. It’s easy to talk about big and small businesses as if they weren’t related, but when big businesses are working from home and all the small businesses that support them go bankrupt …[that impacts] the dynamism of a city and real estate. What is the impact on spending when there are no jobs for small businesses?
The stimulus bill has just been passed, without the support of the Republican senator. What is needed next and to what extent is it feasible given the impasse?
We were disappointed that we missed the opportunity to secure bipartite legislation and strengthen our governance power. We want to see the PPP loan deadline extended, but we are happy that the minimum wage has been removed. There is a time for a debate on raising the minimum wage, but not in the middle of this bill. Then there is a bill on infrastructure and good management of immigration. Both have the option of resuming work.
At some point, what unites us must be greater than what divides us. If you look at the crumbling roads, ports, bridges, and airports in the United States and think we can compete globally with this lack of connective tissue, you are crazy. We need to put the infrastructure in place and we are asking for a bill by July 4 – and we believe we can do it.
It sounds optimistic.
You can be true to your district, your state, your political philosophy while giving and accepting the margins to get things done. History will remember who the adults were and, and it will look with benevolence on those who came together and rebuilt. We need to focus on what we have in common, realize how great the opportunities and challenges are, and become adults.
Another major problem is relations between the United States and China. What should investors watch for over the next 12-18 months?
About 2.6 million American jobs depend on this trade relationship. The number of middle-class Chinese is expected to exceed the entire US population by 2026. This is a very important relationship. At the same time, we need to confront China on unfair practices, intellectual property issues and cyber attacks. Investors should look for [whether] we can have a nuanced approach — trying to have a good trading relationship, but also getting them to discuss some of these structural issues and using a multilateral approach.
What is the priority of the business leaders you are talking to right now?
A lack of skilled workers. We are behind in education and it is a problem for equal opportunities and for global competitiveness. This should unite us: how are we going to get right to education? This includes finding talent and cool tools where you can gauge the ROI of an education, as well as removing some stigma about trading and skilled jobs that offer fantastic pay and benefits. We are about to launch a national workforce initiative so that businesses and public-private partnerships can support it. I don’t think there is a bigger problem for our future.
Thank you Suzanne.
Write to Reshma Kapadia at [email protected]