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Why the Most Powerful Women—and Warren Buffett—are bullish on the economy

The International Monetary Fund, meeting in Peru, was issuing global economic forecasts full of doom and gloom. And former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had just warned that the dangers to the economy were more severe than at any time since the fall of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

But when we passed the economic thermometer at our Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington D.C. this week, the results were remarkably upbeat. Call it realistic optimism. The leaders who gathered for the confab looked with wary eyes on China, Europe and once-golden emerging markets, but continued to profess a stubborn belief in the strength of the American economy.

“America is great now,” declared Warren Buffett. “It’s never been better. The stock market does wonderfully over time because American business does wonderfully over time.”

Ever the optimist, Buffett’s long view always offers a welcome historical perspective at the MPW Summit, even in the darkest economic times. But business leaders with more day-to-day outlooks were also bullish.
Noting that $6 trillion flows through her bank each day, J.P. Morgan Asset Management CEO Mary Erdoes said she sees financial strength—not the fragility that Summers insists is putting the global economy in peril. “We have to raise our hands and tell the world it’s okay,” Erdoes insisted.

Yes, China’s growth will slow, but its 8%-plus run of economic growth is unique in history, she noted. “One way or another, China is going to 4%, and it’s okay.” China, she added, “is not going to sink the U.S.”

Fortune 500 companies betting on emerging markets are experiencing head winds after a long run of relatively stable double-digit growth. Jane Fraser, CEO of Latin America for Citigroup, cited a “convergence of the three C’s”: the commodities bust, a cutback of Chinese growth that had aided these countries, and $800 billion in capital outflows from emerging markets.

Nevertheless, company leaders are focused on riding through the volatility in those markets, not pulling out. As Sandi Peterson, global worldwide chairman of Johnson & Johnson, counseled: “The reality is back to the future. People need to go back and remember what it was once like to lead businesses in emerging markets.”

To understand the spirit of innovation that underpins the resilience of the business leaders gathered at the MPW Summit this week, Fortune editor Alan Murray’s interview with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty is a must-watch. Rometty’s exuberance practically shook the ballroom rafters as she described how big data was going to transform and strengthen American business.

Rometty’s mantra: “Don’t protect your past. Disrupt yourself….Growth and comfort will never co-exist.” In that last comment, she was referring to personal career growth—but that’s a theme that MPW leaders have taken to heart as they guide their companies through turbulent and unpredictable times.

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