There’s an old joke about a person paying last respects to an atheist friend. Looking into the casket, the friend lamented, “All dressed up, nowhere to go.”
Thinking about the U.S. economy makes that joke come to mind. Almost a decade since getting really sick, but not dying, America’s businesses – especially the small ones – spent the last nine years all dressed up, nowhere to go.
Since the 2008 financial crisis and associated Great Recession, which actually began Q4 2007 (a year before Barack Obama was elected), the economy has recovered at less than 2% GDP growth – never reaching expansion altitude. Because of the aggregate contribution of America’s small businesses, we know that at least half the missing growth, and millions of new jobs, didn’t come from Main Street. Here why:
One of the historic markers of the small business sector is an optimistic pathology that makes Pollyanna look like Negative Nellie. I never thought I’d see a political/economic environment so demoralizing as to effectively dim the American entrepreneurial floodlight into a glimmer. If you think this characterization is hyperbole, study the NFIB Index of Small Business Optimism – as I have. Alas, that proof in the Main Street pudd’n has been almost a decade of consistent and unprecedented pessimism.
Why so much dourness? Since 2009 the rhetoric and policies of the Obama administration made small businesses feel inconsequential at best, and the enemy at worst. Rhetoric like “You didn’t build that!” doesn’t make business owners feel froggy about capital investments or new hires. Nor do policies like tax increases, Obamacare, piercing the franchise industry’s employer/employee status, the Overtime Exemption rule, and an unprecedented regulatory assault, just to name a few. But wait! There’s more.
Whether through ignorance or ideology, too many talking heads perpetuated the fake news that the economy languished because banks wouldn’t make loans to America’s small firms. But anyone who cared to check heard small businesses calling out these false prophets by reporting, month after month, that they could borrow if they wanted – but didn’t (NFIB). In fact, they’ve spent a decade deleveraging. Which brings me to the single silver lining in all of this: By deleveraging and belt-tightening, small business balance sheets and cash accounts became stronger than ever. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
You’re no doubt wondering how I’ll reconcile my story with the record-setting stock market. First, for generations it was an article of faith that whether stocks were trending up or down, that trajectory was a leading indicator of the economy six months hence. But today, the stock market is merely a leading indicator of itself, and the real economy is on its own. Two prime reasons include:
1) the crossing of the moral hazard Rubicon by the government with bailouts of too-big-to-fail corporations and banks,
2) the Fed’s counterfeiting policies ($3.7 Trillion in QE). Both spawned empty-calorie financial capitalism at the expense of muscle-building market-based capitalism.
Help me reconcile how GDP went negative during Q1 in both 2014/15, and almost did again in 2016, but the Dow reached new record highs in all three quarters. Only in Bizarro World is that a sustainable reality.
And then we had an election. Out here on Main Street, you’d think the phone rang and the warden said it was the governor with good news. Most people don’t need me to catalog the good, bad and troublesome about President Trump. But, warts and all, small business owners are attracted to at least four of his credentials: 1) he knows how to make a payroll; 2) he knows what it’s like when the government gets in your grill; 3) he understands the incongruity of over-taxing and over-regulating a group sorely needed in America today – job creators; and 4) he hates Obamacare.
For the first time in a decade, there is simultaneous, almost giddy optimism on both Main Street and Wall Street. The NFIB Index just reported the highest one-month jump in small business optimism in the survey’s 43-year history. They know those squeaky balance sheets will deliver unprecedented profits in the hoped-for expansion. Meanwhile, incredibly, the Dow-Jones has added 2,000 points since election day, to push through the 20,000-point milestone/firewall.
With all of this pent-up energy, investors and job creators of all shapes and sizes are all dressed up, looking for a place to go. We’re thinking economic expansion, but unfortunately, what happens next is not up to us.
Write this on a rock … Note to President Trump & the Political Class: Don’t screw this up!