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CEOs have been AWOL in this recovery. And it's about time we called them on it.

The Fed has poured money in. So has Washington. Money is as cheap as it's ever been. Consumer confidence is soaring. Housing has stabilized. The budget battles in Washington have quieted.

But through all the economic ups and downs and sometimes-debatable efforts, one big thing has been missing. That is CEOs willing to take chances, start new ventures and hire people. And that's why the recovery, on real-world measures such as jobs and wages, has been so disappointing.

Spoiled by record profitability, stagnant wages and investor interest in dividends and share buybacks, corporate executives have been coasting. They're underinvesting, resulting in the slowest rate of capital formation – new machines, factories and equipment – in at least the past 60 years.

If we don't want the recovery to die out, it's time for CEOs to man up. I use the slightly sexist term intentionally. You see, three of the CEOs who have stepped up are among the most prominent women in business today.

3 getting it done

We need more of the type of leadership being shown by former eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman as she tries to turn Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) around with new products such as the Moonshot server line, the world's first "software defined servers" that cater to cloud-based providers of services for computer users.

We need moves like Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer's $1.1 billion acquisition of Tumblr and her push to expand Yahoo's mobile presence. Perhaps recognizing the risks, she has promised not "to screw it up" while pursuing video sites Hulu and Dailymotion.

Or how about IBM (IBM) CEO Virginia Rometty's decision to go after SoftLayer, the world's largest privately held provider of cloud computing infrastructure? As a result, IBM nabbed 13 global data centers as it works toward a goal of $7 billion in cloud revenue by the end of 2015.

These three are not frozen by fear of Obamacare. They're not running scared that the Fed might close the spigots of easy money. They're just getting it done.

Compare this to comments from the latest survey of CEOs by the Business Roundtable, a group headed by Boeing (BA) CEO Jim McNerney, which noted that the soft outlook for hiring "may reflect ongoing uncertainty and a wait-and-see attitude about the business climate in the United States, as agreement on the nation's debt and budgetary issues remains elusive."

What we need are more CEOs willing to take the lead and improve that business climate. That's not Washington's job.

We need CEOs who earn their outsized paychecks by demonstrating leadership skills instead of acting like middle managers maintaining the status quo. They need to look beyond the near-term issues to think more strategically. That will lead to investments in tangible assets, which in turn will require new hiring.

If they don't get busy, we'll all suffer for it. The Fed and the government can't do it all, and shouldn't.

Rusting away

The nation's economic potential has already been diminished. Instead of near 4% annual GDP growth, we struggle to stay above 2%. Instead of creating the 300,000 jobs a month typical for a recovery, we create 175,000 and call it a victory. Older machinery and a lack of investment pull down productivity, which in the end results in less-efficient workers.

We've seen the weakest post-war recovery on record. Some of this is due to the hangover from a credit binge and result of an asset bubble bursting. Some of it due to forced budget cuts after years of freewheeling spending out of Washington.

But a key linchpin has been a lack of capital spending by CEOs, who are sitting on massive cash reserves and enjoying massive free cash flows – and increasing paychecks. They have been more interested in low-risk strategies such as funneling cash back to shareholders via debt raisings, dividend hikes and share repurchase plans than in growing their companies.

Consider that corporate profits as a share of GDP recently surged to more than 11%, above the 10% peak reached in the last bull market and the near 7% peak seen in the late 1990s. For the 50 years through 2001, the average was 5.5%.

Or consider their cash reserves. As the average American watches savings dwindle and as the overall savings rate falls to just 2.4%, the ratio of cash to assets for nonfinancial companies in the S&P 500 ($INX) has hit a peak of 11.2%, above the near 8% seen during the recession and an average of 6.6% since 1978.

If the average family was collecting more profits and had more money in the bank, we'd feel much better about the business climate than CEOs apparently do. We'd put that money to work.

CEOs not doing business

Despite all this, the chart below shows the crux of the problem: Gross fixed capital formation – which, again, means investment in things such as machinery, workstations and equipment – has been underwhelming. CEOs have barely exceeded their 2000 high and are running 12% below the peak quarterly investment rate reached in 2006.

Gross fixed capital formation

Spending is so inadequate that the economy is "consuming" fixed assets at nearly the rate businesses are investing in new equipment. As a result, the country's base of productive capital is only 1% larger than it was in the depths of the recession – even though the economy is 8% larger and corporate profits are a whopping 60% higher.

So what? Stocks are strong. That makes stockholders happy. The economy is growing, so the numbers look good. Why should a CEO worry?

The problem is that this is akin to eating your seed crop. Underinvestment damages the future ability of any company to grow. It also keeps the economy from growing, which is why we all need to worry.