American Express CEO: Pay attention to OWS

December 7, 2011, 12:52 AM UTC

Ken Chenault

FORTUNE — As the eurozone approaches a critical point in resolving its ongoing debt crisis, American Express (AXP) CEO Kenneth Chenault says he is “more encouraged than discouraged” that leaders will strike a plan that would help ease investors’ worries during this week’s emergency EU summit. But like most observers, he remains cautious on whether the debt-ridden nations will actually be able to implement the plan and significantly reduce spending.

Needless to say, what’s unnerving investors globally is how the crisis could effect the world’s financial services industry. Chenault, who has led American Express since 2001, said this morning at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City that his company’s sovereign debt exposure to the troubled European countries is zero, and only “limited” in Germany and the United Kingdom.

Chenault went on to talk about a broad range of topics – from how the Western world was dealing with soaring debts to Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

On the U.S. deficit, Chenault says the supercommittee’s failure to come up with a debt reduction package of at least $1.2 trillion is “very disappointing for America. I think our leaders need in fact to face reality.”

That’s not to say that Europeans are doing a better job than Americans when it comes to solving its budget problems. “I would say in the Western world in general – not just the U.S. –  our leaders need to speak more directly to their people and they need to give the context for the situation we face.”

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And while the idea of raising taxes was one of the sticking points weighing on the supercommittee, Chenault says he’d support higher taxes for the top 1% of earners but says it isn’t going to resolve budget woes.

“What will it take to make America more competitive? What will it take in fact to have a fair tax system in this country? What will it take in fact to encourage employment? And if one of the elements is that we in fact increase taxes on the 1% that’s not an issue that I personally would have a big problem with,” he says. “Where I would have a big problem is if someone said that’s the isolated issue, that’s the only thing we need to do and we’re going to be in great shape. I would say you’re kidding yourself – we’re not going to be in great shape.”

On the topic of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, Chenault says it would be a mistake to discredit them.

“I think it’s easy to be dismissive, to be angry and to say they don’t really have a coherent approach in strategy,” he says. “But I think what you can say is there is a level of helplessness and anxiety and frustration about what’s going on. Generally when you have that in a country or a company it means people don’t have an understanding of where they fit.”

Though Chenault might sound unexpectedly sympathetic to the OWS movement, he doesn’t see CEO pay as the main problem. “Everyone talks about the tremendous contributions of Steve Jobs. The reality is that 10 years ago when the board bought his plane people said that was incredibly excessive. Was that excessive? Maybe. But the question is what was the contribution, how do you balance that off? I think it’s very hard to legislate what happens from a compensation standpoint.”

Chenault, it’s worth noting, took home $16.3 million in 2010, down just slightly from his 2009 payday of $16.6 million.