Super Bowl Candor

 | Feb 05, 2013 | 8:12 AM EST
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You get to talk to a lot of execs at the Super Bowl. A surprising number if you get to the parties about town. It's all off the record. It's all on a no-names basis. But they give it up knowing I won't betray them.

The overall sense of things is, "phew, Washington didn't screw it up so badly that business is hurt. In fact, with Washington off the front pages we can thrive again."

We talk a lot about confidence and what makes for confidence. I think we should spend more time talking about confidence and what makes for a lack of confidence. There is a mistrust of both parties both on and off the record. Most of the execs I talked to don't understand the Republicans. They tend to work at big companies with lots of different ethnicities and, of course, many women and they are thrown off by the "agenda," as I hear it called almost all of the time. They don't get the personal. They don't want the personal. They don't understand the personal.

I can tell you that most of the major companies just want to do business and they want to do business with businessmen and women who are sensitive to their needs for certainty. Not tax reform. Just certainty.

They have it.

I heard no grousing whatsoever about the new taxes. None. I heard no attacks on the president. I just heard that both parties have gotten out of touch with what it takes to do well.

That said, two themes keep coming back: housing and oil and gas. Those involved in any part of the housing cycle, including retail -- and they were all down there -- speak positively about the state of the American consumer despite myriad headwinds from, yep, Washington. They see loans taken out. They see expansion happening. The international firms are gratified that Asia, not China, but Asia is good and that Latin America is better and that the United States is alright.

But the section of the economy they all want to talk about, even the ones in service businesses, is oil and gas and the amazing renaissance and whether they can harness the fuel of the future, natural gas. The big transport guys are all waiting, watching, they don't want to switch because the natural gas engines are underpowered and often use LNG, which they know the EPA hates because it dissipates into the atmosphere too quickly. They want to try natural gas as a blend with the diesel to save money, but they also know the complexity of the engines is great and the fueling for their trucks, unless they are short-haul. They are all jealous of how well Waste Management (WM) is doing with the fuel-makes it a 2016 proposition at the earliest.

But the manufacturing people? They are saying that it has become so cheap to make things here, and if they can just do more with natural gas they could make something big happen.

The uniform nature of the "goodness" of the energy situation is tempered only by the intransigence of the White House. So many of these executives brought up the Keystone Pipeline as a true colors event because it shows that there may be no fossil fuel blessing in the White House at all except for clean coal technology, which none of them can seem to get to work right.

I don't want to detract from the optimism they feel, the time-to-do-business-again optimism. Their major hope is that the Republican Party stops talking social issues and starts talking business. Only then do they think there's a chance that the next few years can be productive because they know the president holds a lot of cards. They just no longer feel like the enemy any more. That's uniform. That' positive. That's going to help the next 1,000 points be better, not worse. And they almost all know it to a woman and a man.

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