Across the industrial parks and office towers of the Chicago region, in a more than a dozen interviews, senior executives said they see Americans for years ahead paying down debts incurred during the now-ended credit boom and adjusting spending to match their often-reduced incomes.
"It's a different era," said Daryl Dulaney, chief executive of Siemens Industry, which has 30,000 U.S. employees who make lighting systems for buildings and a wide range of other products. "Our hiring and investment decisions have to be prudent and reflect that."
Executives see little evidence that the economy is slipping back into recession. But they describe a business environment in which sales come in fits and starts and their customers can't predict what they will want to buy in the future.
"In the past, our customers had more long-term vision on what they're going to need," said Bill Larsen, president of Larsen Packaging Products in Glendale Heights, Ill. Now, he said, "they don't know what they're going to need and when they're going to need it."
Larsen's company sells boxes and other packaging materials to all types of companies, so its sales closely reflect overall economic activity. Those sales have been swinging widely from month to month.
When companies decide whether to hire workers or invest, say, in a new factory, this kind of volatility and uncertainty about future conditions makes for a strong disincentive.