The CEO of the largest regional brokerage beyond Wall Street says he gladly gave President Barack Obama his vote in 2008. But now he's going to support Mitt Romney after four years of the country making little progress on important fiscal issues.
The first of three Obama vs. Romney debates Wednesday night seems unlikely to change Paul Reilly's stance.
"I remember when a trillion dollars was a lot of money," the Raymond James Financial CEO told the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club. Tackling the country's national debt and huge budget deficit will take the new president and both sides of Congress to work together.
Is that even possible?
"One extreme says we can't raise taxes. The other extreme says we can't cut spending," Reilly said. "Nonsense. We must do both."
He says he doesn't know if Romney will prove any more successful than Obama at moving the country's economy forward or making headway against massive deficits. But Reilly gave the current president a full term to show leadership that transcends party lines. That has not happened. Reilly suggests Romney, based on his political history, if elected may be more mainstream than he has portrayed himself during the grueling presidential campaign.
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Reilly was named Raymond James CEO — succeeding legendary 40-year CEO Tom James — in March 2009. That's exactly when the Dow dropped under 6,700, plummeting from a high of 14,169 in late 2007. During a glacial recovery, the brokerage firm's still made money every year and even completed its biggest acquisition ever, a $1.2 billion deal for Morgan Keegan, earlier in 2012.
Reilly sympathizes with Obama and the Federal Reserve for trying to fix the economy. He was more critical of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's plan to keep interest rates low to encourage borrowing and home buying. That, he says, carries consequences.
"Artificially low rates are like a tax on retirees," he said, because people trying to live off investments rather than a paycheck can't find any safe returns that pay much.
Failing to confront our fiscal crisis is like putting off surgery, Reilly says. "The pain will get bigger."
The Raymond James chief wants someone in the White House who is pragmatic, able to compromise and can actually get big things done.
"Reagan and Clinton were great compromisers," Reilly said. Of course, they did not suffer the hard-nosed ideological gulf separating Republicans and Democrats these days. They also didn't have someone like GOP influential Grover Norquist, who has successfully won pledges from most Republicans in office to never vote to raise taxes on anyone.
At Wednesday's Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon in St. Petersburg, one attendee asked Reilly if he would ever consider running for president. It was a softball question at an event renowned for hardballs. "I wouldn't take the job," he responded.
But he did volunteer his predecessor at the firm.
"I wish Tom James would. He is very pragmatic. We need that in Washington," Reilly said. "We are in a crisis."
That much everyone can agree upon.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]