US chief executives are more optimistic about improvement in the American economy, but worry that Washington's fiscal stalemate continues to hold back growth and jobs, a survey showed Wednesday.
The Business Roundtable said its fourth-quarter CEO Economic Outlook Survey showed a "modest uptick" in expectations for the first half of 2014, pushing its outlook index to 84.5 from 79.1 in the third quarter.
A BRT index reading above 50 indicates expectations of economic expansion.
Expectations for sales, capital expenditures and hiring increased for the next six months compared with the prior quarter, said BRT, which represents CEOs of leading US companies.
The survey "reflects slightly increased optimism despite an underperforming economy that continues to grow more slowly than we all would like," BRT chairman Jim McNerney, chief executive of Boeing, said in a conference call with reporters.
McNerney pointed to Washington's federal government budget impasse as leaving businesses uncertain about investment and hiring decisions.
"For five years we have not had a budget," he said.
"We do have an economythat is on the cusp of growing a little bit more," he said, adding that businesses had a lot of cash to invest if the outlook were clearer.
McNerney gave as an example the bumpy rollout of President Barack Obama's health-care reform that includes a requirement that companies with more than 50 employees must offer them health insurance.
"There seems to be an exception every other day," he said.
The Boeing chief said uncertainty was not only holding back hiring, but also had reduced employment as companies shed jobs to hedge against a downside outcome.
The BRT survey, conducted November 4-21, found that CEOs viewed regulations as the top cost pressure expected over the next six months, followed by labor and health-care costs.
McNerney emphasized the association did not blame Washington fiscal and regulatory uncertainty entirely for the less-than-desirable situation, citing the "sluggish, slow-growth global economy" as the biggest concern.
Asked about calls for a raise in the minimum wage, John Engler, BRT president, said that a pay hike would not spur growth in the economy if the worker's productivity did not improve in parallel.
"Artificially propping up wage rates is not something the business community favors," Engler told reporters on the call.