Wal-Mart CEO: Shoppers weighed down by the fiscal cliff

Dec 12, 2012
Mike Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart

FORTUNE – As the economy risks tipping over the fiscal cliff, we’ve heard all too loudly from Washington and corporate America that the dreaded mix of spending cuts and tax hikes could push the economy into another recession. Until recently, we haven’t heard much from Main Street.

On Tuesday night at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York City, Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke offered a snapshot. Increasingly, Americans are following debates in Congress over tax and spending policies, he said. And a portion say it could drag their holiday spending, which retailers like Wal-Mart bank on for a chunk of their annual revenue.

For months, Duke and dozens of other CEOs have been sounding the fiscal cliff alarms, saying failure to strike a deal to reduce the deficit before the end of the year could worsen the already fragile U.S. economy. Meanwhile, the rest of America either weren't paying attention or didn’t really care or thought Washington would eventually figure it out. Consumer confidence in November spiked to more than a four-year high.

MORE: What to expect after we fall off the cliff

Since the presidential election, though, there’s been a marked shift, Duke says, referring to polls that Wal-Mart (wmt) -- the biggest retailer in the U.S. and the world – conducts on its shoppers. Whereas only 25% of Wal-Mart’s core U.S. shoppers said they knew what “fiscal cliff” meant before the election, that number rose to 75% after it. He added that 15% of those who knew about the cliff said it would affect their holiday spending.

The shift is interesting. In a way, it’s indirectly Duke’s own making, as well as the making of plenty of other CEOs who have trekked to Washington over the past few months telling Congress to get its act together. They've been lobbying for a resolve publicly and loudly. The spending cuts and tax hikes they fear technically won’t take effect until January 1, and even then some have said it will take a while before consumers really feel the impact.

It's not to say corporate America is wrong to make all this noise, but it may be accelerating the effects of the fiscal cliff without really intending to.

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