Major CEOs don't see this 'economic slowdown' everyone's talking about

Key Points
  • Despite investor worries, top CEOs told CNBC this week said they don't see an economic slowdown on the horizon.
  • "It feels like we're almost talking ourselves into a downturn — there are some markets outside of the U.S. but the U.S. consumer seems healthy," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson says.
  • Stock markets sold off as much as 700 points on Thursday, partially fueled by the risks of a stalling economy signaled by Treasury yields
Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, speaking at the Business Roundtable CEO Innovation Summit in Washington, DC. on Dec. 6th, 2018.  
Janhvi Bhojwani | CNBC

An economic slowdown seems to be on top of the list of investor worries this week. But leaders of three massive U.S. companies aren't losing sleep over it.

Despite the potentially worrisome economic indicators, J. P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg were overwhelmingly optimistic on the current U.S. business environment.

"It feels like we're almost talking ourselves into a downturn," Stephenson told CNBC's Becky Quick at the Business Roundtable "Ambitious Innovation" panel on Thursday. "There are some markets outside of the U.S. but the U.S. consumer seems healthy."

Stephenson acknowledged potential clouds on the horizon, and J. P. Morgan's Dimon chimed in adding that those clouds have "always been there."

"Right now from our standpoint, things look pretty good," Stephenson said.

He underlined that AT&T did not lower its guidance for next year and plans to spend roughly $23 billion, mostly on 5G infrastructure. That spending was spurred on by recent tax cuts, which Stephenson called "one of the most powerful catalysts we've seen for capital expenditures."

Boeing is pouring money into everything from autonomous flying cars to partnering with NASA to land on the moon and Mars, which the CEO said will happen sooner than people think and likely within his career at Boeing. That too, he said was a result of tax reform.

"We think about the tax reform passed last year, ripple benefit to our economy is extraordinary," Muilenburg said. "The biggest thing we're doing with that tax reform benefits is we're plowing it back into innovation and R&D. That's creating jobs and that's creating competitive advantages."

Dimon also applauded the corporate tax cuts for keeping the U.S. competitive in a global economy. He pushed back on criticism for companies that used that tax windfall to buy their stocks. The practice has come under pressure as executives profit from selling the shares they own back to the companies they worked for, often for a hefty profit.

"People act like buying back stock is a bad thing. It's not. We have to educate the American public and my Democratic friends about how that benefits America," Dimon said.

Wall Street has been closely watching the difference in interest rates between U.S. government bonds. Analysts often compare the rate on the 2-year Treasury, for example, to that of the benchmark 10-year Treasury and a change in that relationship can often signal that a recession is on the horizon. The "yield curve" as it's called is close to inverting.

The rate on the 2-year has already jumped above the shorter-term 5-year note, a move that suggests the "economy is poised to weaken," DoubleLine Capital's Jeffrey Gundlach told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.

Dimon, though, pointed to strong consumer confidence, especially among small businesses.

"You're starting to see consumer animal spirits," Dimon said. "It's all quite good."