By Jon Fortt
May 25, 2010

Sustained unemployment would eventually put a damper on the market’s early gains

So far the main beneficiaries in the nascent recovery have been well-off, says Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. For things to really bounce back, things need to get better for everyone else.

I caught up with Ballmer at Microsoft’s (MSFT) Redmond headquarters last week, and we covered a wide range of topics. His overall message: Microsoft has a lot of big launches across productivity, mobile and entertainment, and expects to do well. But he also offered his nuanced perspective on the U.S. economic picture.

CEOs have to walk a fine line with their comments about the economy, especially with investors so jittery about whether European debt will ignite a global economic meltdown. The slightest whiff of pessimism can spook investors; just two weeks ago, Cisco (CSCO) stock sank after a stellar earnings report – even though CEO John Chambers sounded more bullish than he has in months – because traders thought they picked up an edge of sobriety. Ouch.

So Ballmer was treading carefully. I asked him how so many technology companies can be doing well – look at the strong numbers coming out of Microsoft, Apple (AAPL), Intel (INTC) and IBM (IBM) – when U.S. employment and the Euro are showing signs of trouble. His full response is below:

I think what we have seen is that the affluent part of American society has bounced back well. The less affluent side has bounced back less well. Because we’re riding a product cycle here, and a number of the other companies in our industry are riding product cycles, you see a lift. But I don’t think we should ignore the fact that unemployment is still high, and there’s been less bounce-back amongst less affluent people, and obviously all the way to unemployed people.

On the business side, we have started to see what I’ll call signs of life. But the business market is going to reflect some combination of the consumer market and exports. Europe, we know there is a set of problems. I don’t think that’s going to be good for exports. The real question is what happens on the consumer side here, and how does that get our business customers then to think about their spending. We see some comeback, and hopefully that will continue to pick up. I think it’s too hard to predict.

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