CEO's: Really, Nothing To Fear?

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It's hell being a CEO or CFO these days. Well, try blogging. No sooner do I write something than it becomes outdated. So I'm going to blog about last week in hopes that history doesn't rewrite itself overnight.

As the markets were crashing last week, much was written about the echo chamber effect driving a widespread panic. The fear factor is not helped of course by mainstream media clamoring on TV and radio, nor by print symbolism such as the wooly mammoth Ice Age art in Business Week, alien ghouls floating across a section cover in the venerable Wall Street Journal, and a drowning scene cover for US News & World Report.

Perhaps in reaction, the week began with a blood red cover page on the New York Post exclaiming: "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself!"

Really?
It's a much-repeated bromide since the collapse of AIG and Lehman, but many of us now believe that we do have more to fear than fear. Since no one can clearly explain what's going on or predict which company is going to disintegrate next, maybe there is something fundamentally wrong. Maybe since we've all been riding a giant credit bubble for three decades, the chickens have come home to roost. Just maybe we are being served a long overdue reality sandwich, to be followed by the mother of all sobriety hangovers.

Budget Season
What will this week bring? Will GM merge with Chrysler, or Ford? A 7000 Dow? Will GEstock sink below 20? Another major bank breakdown? Adding to the apocalyptic gloom for many of us is the dawning of the 2009 budget-making season. Are we budgeting for a shallow recession with a big turnaround by third quarter? Or will it be a sharp recession with a mid-year comeback? Or, how about a deep recession with no light in the tunnel until 2010? Or, as some suggest, something worse?

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    So add it up: a pyramid of debt, a banking crisis, an energy challenge, a US Presidential Election, and your company's budget season. I was in a budget meeting Thursday afternoon, discussing variables for 2009 in a room with no TV or computer. It lasted less than 90 minutes. By the time we adjourned the market had dropped 500 points. So much for variables.

    What's a mother (exec) to do?
    Well, my mother always said you can't budget for a depression. Of course, that was just an expression from someone who happened to live through the last Great Depression. But I think it's pretty good advice. If you're not moving, you're standing still. So keep moving. Expect some hard times, but expect a recovery. It's hard to have faith in leadership when we're not really sure who the leadership will be, but assume they will get their arms around the issues before year's end and the digging out can begin.

    2009 will look different than 2008 and capitalism may work differently too, but assume some version of business as usual and make a plan for attacking the New Year. Protect your core, cut your expendable ballast, run as lean as possible and position to invest in new rapid growth sectors. If you have the bandwidth, produce a Budget Plan B and even C. And try to keep the blinders on when it comes to things you can't control like global liquidity and the DJIA. Oh, and please pass the prayer beads.

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    Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. Mr. Sorenson, 52, oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company. He is widely regarded as an expert on media strategy and industry trends, with experience spanning radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Internet. From 1998 through 2004, Mr. Sorenson served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel. He has won more than twenty Emmy awards as a writer, producer, and television executive.

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