A compounding lack of confidence in the future has kept American companies from investing in their businesses and is leading the country back into recession, real estate mogul Sam Zell told CNBC.
The CEO of Equity Group Investments, which holds multiple publicly traded companies primarily in the real estate space, said a lack of leadership in Washington is keeping the $2 trillion or so of cash on company balance sheets on the sidelines.
That's happening even as the Federal Reserve continues pumping liquidity, which Zell said is being used only to prop up the stock market.
"Nobody wants to make commitments beyond tomorrow," Zell said during a"Squawk Box" interview. "One of these (recession) triggers is when enterprise projects start getting delayed. We're heading for a recession and that's exactly what you're looking at now. You're looking at capital expenditures across the board being deferred for a reason: There's no confidence."
The U.S. economy remains mired in high unemployment, at 8.1 percent, and low growth, in which gross domestic productgained just 1.3 percent in the second quarter.
While not mentioning President Barack Obama by name, Zell has been a critic of the administration and said it is "using the executive branch to legislate by fiat or by threat."
Zell has donated $70,000 to the campaign of Republican challenger Mitt Romney through the candidate's political action committee.
"We need leadership, not criticism. We need encouragement, not discouragement," he said. "Until that scenario changes, I think the United States is, quote-unquote and I hate to use this word, in a malaise."
Yet Zell said he does not envy whoever wins the race because of the myriad challenges the country faces.
"Whichever guy wins is going to have to do an enormous amount of stuff very immediately," he said. "It's very hard and, based on all the stuff we're looking at, very hard not to assume that we're on the cusp of going back into recession."