What Industry Needs Right Now: Confidence

Reginald Tucker

Many theories abound as to what will be required to breathe new life back into the U.S. economy in general and industry in particular. For instance, do we prop up ailing banks and financial institutions, retool America's manufacturing base, or shore up the weakened housing market—the troubled sector that, according to many, touched off the recession? Regardless of the specific plan of attack, analysts argue that any successful initiative (or combination thereof) must adequately address both industry and the economy, as the two are inextricably linked.

Following are a few frequently discussed ideas:

Narrow the trade deficit. Stephen Leeb, noted economist, believes significantly reducing America’s trade deficit ($52.4 billion in November 2008) is absolutely critical to shoring up the country’s manufacturing base while simultaneously driving innovation. Census figures show trade deficits among 13 of the country’s top 15 trading partners. Increasing America’s ratio of exports to imports, Leeb notes, “would reduce our dependency on foreign oil and imports, and divert U.S. dollars inward toward alternative energies, such as wind.” Makes sense, considering 70% of energy consumed in the U.S. can be attributed to transportation.

Boost productivity and innovation. Increasing productivity growth and driving innovation at home rather than resorting to outsourcing as a main source of cost savings would boost wages and incomes for U.S. workers, and reduce the need for the U.S. to take on huge debts to pay for foreign-made goods. So says Daron Acemoglu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Moving forward, American companies must focus on creating innovative goods and services that can be produced in the U.S and shipped abroad,” he explained. What’s needed are more breakthroughs in areas such as biotech and energy.

Meaningful economic stimulus. Michael Mandel, BusinessWeek chief economist and noted economic authority, welcomes an aggressive and meaningful stimulus package. But he offers a caveat: “When the U.S. government undertakes the fiscal stimulus measures, the money should be directed toward funding infrastructure, education, and innovation as opposed to consumer spending.” William Gaskin, president of the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), agrees, adding that any successful stimulus plan should include beefy tax incentives for capital investment, thereby increasing the availability of loans for manufacturers. Any package should also quickly address labor, energy, environmental, and job training policies, which are all necessary to sustain a robust manufacturing sector.

Support higher education. Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor specializing in competitiveness, would like to see greater investments in education and training. “The U.S. has the world’s best colleges and universities, but its rate of investment in research and development has declined,” he noted. Thus, an inadequate rate of investment in science and technology is hampering America’s feeder system for entrepreneurship. Furthermore, research and development as a share of GDP has actually declined in the U.S. while it has risen in many other countries, he added.

It is often said that crisis breeds opportunity. But a crisis, when unchecked, however, can also foster high anxieties. In order to emerge from this rough patch successfully—and we will emerge, eventually—it is going to require all of us to keep our collective cool.

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