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CEOs of Walmart, JPMorgan and GM talk about a possible slowdown

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra speaks during a visit by the President to the General Motors Factory ZERO electric vehicle assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan on November 17, 2021.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

As 2023 approaches and the prospect of a recession looms, corporate America is bracing for a slowdown in consumer spending.

CEOs of major corporations including Walmart and General Motors joined CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday morning to talk about inflation, interest rates, geopolitics and what it all means for their outlook for the new Year.

Here is what they said:

Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan

Rising interest rates, record inflation, geopolitical pressure and other factors could turn into a recession, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told CNBC.

Savings and government assistance during the pandemic help keep consumers’ wallets stable, but inflation and rate hikes are “eroding everything,” he said.

The CEO predicted that 2022’s buoyant consumer spending won’t last much longer and pointed to the risk posed by rising interest rates as the Fed scrambles to rein in inflation.

Geopolitical upheavals this year, including the war in Ukraine and strained trade with China, are also among the “storm clouds” Dimon observes. As the dollar strengthens, he noted that international trade for something like oil will continue to get more expensive as weaker currencies are forced to match the difference.

“When you look ahead, these things could well derail the economy and cause this mild to severe recession that people are worried about,” Dimon said. “It could be a hurricane. We just don’t know.”

Mary Barra, Executive Director

The consumer is still strong, but we expect a conservative 2023, says GM CEO Mary Barra

General Engines CEO Mary Barra anticipates headwinds on the economy next year, but is not yet sounding the alarm of a recession.

“I’m not going to call it a recession, that’s up to the economists,” Barra told CNBC. “But right now we still see a pretty strong consumer.”

Even so, the automaker is proceeding with caution to prepare for a potential collapse in demand, similar to what other industries have seen. During the pandemic, as consumers spent less on travel and services, some industries saw high demand and were caught off guard when that demand subsequently disappeared.

Barra said GM is preparing “a fairly conservative 2023” in terms of costs to avoid being caught off guard, but that she still sees lingering “pent-up demand” from the pandemic.

Barra also expects pandemic-related issues, such as semiconductor shortages and strained supply chains, to persist through 2023 despite improvements each quarter.

Doug McMillon, Walmart

The American consumer is still stressed and under inflationary pressure, says Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart

walmart CEO Doug McMillon doesn’t want a recession, but he thinks it could be a necessary evil to dampen inflation for his clients.

“We have more budget-conscious clients who have been under inflationary pressure for months,” McMillon said. “Should the Fed do what it needs to do, even if it’s a much harder landing than we would like? I think inflation needs to be tackled.”

Although Walmart is still seeing strong spending, McMillon spotted more conservative spending in certain categories like electronics and toys.

Walmart saw its pandemic-era staffing issues begin to ease as it increased salaries, but McMillon noted there was still hiring pressure at the cashier level. If a hard recession hits, McMillon assured that Walmart would not turn to staff cuts.

“Customers and members must be served for this to drive our membership. Growth will likely continue to increase,” McMillon said.

Scott Kirby, United Airlines

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby: We're expecting a mild recession, but travel is still breaking records

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told CNBC that his company is starting the year optimistically but that 2023 could see a “mild Fed-induced recession.”

Business travel is seeing a steady rebound after the pandemic-era slump, but Kirby said traveler demand is plateauing, which could indicate “pre-recession behavior.”

And even though the industry is in “round eight” of the Covid recovery, Kirby said it still grapples with issues left over from the pandemic, such as a shortage of pilots and expensive fuel.

For now, airlines have reaped the benefits of hybrid working, with the rise of remote working giving people more flexibility to travel, Kirby said.

United still maintain a positive outlook as their revenue figures continue to rise. Kirby said the company was “returning to near-all-time profit margins.”

“If I weren’t watching CNBC in the morning — which I do — the word recession wouldn’t be in my vocabulary,” Kirby said. “You just can’t see it in our data.”

Lance Fritz, Union Pacific

U.S. economy is clearly slowing down, says Lance Fritz, CEO of Union Pacific

Shipping slows down, Union Pacific Railroads CEO Lance Fritz told CNBC, a sign that consumer spending is declining and the economy is tightening.

“The housing market has clearly slowed down and parcel packing has clearly slowed down and we’re seeing that in paper and parcel shipments,” he said.

Fritz left it up to the Fed to decide whether putting pressure on the consumer’s wallet – and potentially triggering a recession in 2023 – is worth slowing inflation. As rates continue to rise, he said spending and demand will surely decline.

“The Fed is trying to hit us all in the line of fire with a slowing economy and falling demand. That’s not good,” Fritz said.

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