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US Business Executives Expect Slow  Recovery - 2003-04-22

Executives from American exporting firms gathered Tuesday at a Washington conference sponsored by the government's Export-Import Bank are not optimistic that there will be a quick rebound from the current period of economic weakness.

As they survey the worldwide business environment, U.S. exporters say they like the weakness of the dollar over the past year. This, they say, makes their products cheaper abroad and makes their firms more competitive with those in Europe and Japan. But they are demoralized by sluggish global growth and Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says business leaders must shrug off their current apathy and invest in the future.

"We're just sitting around waiting to get going," he said. "It is a great time to get going! But my view [on the outlook] is that you're going to have one to two percent growth, if we're lucky, in the first half of this year. It'll be the fourth quarter before we really start to grow. But my over all worry, you have to get to 3.5 percent [growth] in an economy where productivity is as high as we have it, which is the best in the world, before you're going to start hiring new people."

The economic upturn that has been under way since early last year has thus far failed to create any [net] new jobs.

William O'Shea, the president of Bell Labs, the research arm of the Lucent telecom company, says his industry is still on its knees suffering from the hang-over effects of over capacity and the bursting of the telecom stock market bubble three years ago.

"We see in our industry, at least our particular part of it, probably 12 or 18 months of continued pressure on the industry," he said. "Not much forward movement. Really just focused on grabbing the business we can, focusing on drawing our international business in, and getting our costs in line with the market."

Bill Marriott, the chief executive of the hotel chain that bears his name, says his industry also has been devastated by successive crises: September 11, the Iraq war, the SARS epidemic. All have greatly reduced business and tourist travel. Mr. Marriot nonetheless remains optimistic about China.

"Thirty-five to 40 million people left China last year and went abroad," he said. "Chinese tourists. Five years ago this wasn't even thought about. The U.S. government has made a tremendous [and successful] effort to open up China and bring it into the World Trade Organization."

Most forecasters say the U.S. economy will grow by from two to three percent this year, rising to four percent in 2004.