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GE Capital CEO "sympathetic" to Wall Street protests

Michael Neal, vice chairman of General Electric, attends the 2008 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills
Michael Neal, vice chairman of General Electric, attends the 2008 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - The head of General Electric Co's finance arm is "sympathetic" to the protesters who have taken to the streets of U.S. cities to decry the nation's financial system, but is not sure what corporate America could do to assuage them.

"People are really angry, and I get it. If I were unemployed now, I'd be really angry too," said Michael Neal, a vice chairman of the largest U.S. conglomerate, who runs its GE Capital unit.

"I am sympathetic to it," he said on Thursday. "Look, I've got a 21- and 19-year-old son, they might march with them. There are a lot of unhappy people right now, and there's not a lot going on that gives you much reason to be inspired."

Unemployment in the United States has hovered at or near 9 percent for more than two years, and many U.S. companies that slashed large numbers of jobs during the recession have been unwilling to hire in large numbers because of weak demand for their products and services.

"I don't know what you could do differently," Neal said. "You've got to run your business, right? I don't know that you go just start hiring people that you wouldn't do in the ordinary course. I'm not paid to do that."

The protests, which started with the "Occupy Wall Street" movement in New York, have spawned groups in Boston, Philadelphia, Houston and Washington D.C. Much of their ire is directed at banks, which received significant federal support during the recession.

"I'm glad I'm not in lower Manhattan," Neal said.

Worries about the U.S. and European economies made big and mid-sized companies unlikely to take on large numbers of new workers in the near future, he said.

"I think people are in the process of dialing back 2012 expectations and that will bleed into whatever they were planning," Neal said. "It's one of the reasons unemployment is high, it's because people aren't bringing people back. People don't feel good about the planet right now, whether it was the debt ceiling or Greece, pick your poison."

(Reporting by Scott Malone in Columbus, Ohio. Editing by Robert MacMillan)

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