Tag Archive for 'economy'

An official day for small business owners

Labor Day began as an idea in the mind of a 19th century labor leader — some say Matthew Maguire, others say Peter McGuire — who cared greatly for a very important segment of the marketplace, its workers.

Regardless of paternity, such a day was first celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City, when members of the CLU took an unpaid day off to demonstrate solidarity and, of course, have picnics. And ever since 1884, when President Grover Cleveland’s signature designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day, it’s been an official federal holiday.

In 1898, Samuel Gompers, then head of the American Federation of Labor, called Labor Day, “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed … that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

Alas, entrepreneurs aren’t organized like our union brethren — probably because we’re too busy making payroll. There is no single Small Business Day officially decreed by the U.S. Government. No Entrepreneur’s Day set aside to honor the few who do so much for so many; a day to picnic and party down in honor of the real heroes of the marketplace, small business owners.

There actually is a small business week when the U.S. Small Business Administration recognizes the “creme de la creme” of entrepreneurs in America. But it’s not an official “Day” and it’s not always the same week each year.

Small businesses represent over 98% of all U.S. businesses and produce over half of the U.S. $17 trillion GDP.  Plus, we sign the FRONT of the paychecks of over half (70 million) of all U.S. workers.

Let’s see: Big deal on Labor Day — no Small Business Day. What’s wrong with this picture?

So, what’s the answer? Let’s celebrate Small Business Day in a way no other national holiday has been established: on a Sunday — actually, the second Sunday in August.

Sunday is preferred because that would create the least payroll expense. August is the month-of-choice because that’s when politicians are home on recess. This way they can practice casting their pearls before we small business owners in preparation for eating barbeque and sucking up to unions on Labor Day.

To paraphrase Samuel Gompers, small business owners deserve a day for which these signers-of-the-front-of-paychecks can look forward to when their rights and wrongs would be discussed; that the small employers of our day may not only lay down their challenges for a holiday, but during which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.

Write this on a rock … Entrepreneurs unite!  It’s time we had a day to honor small business owners.

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times

Contemplating the current economic and entrepreneurial conditions out here in Main Street America, I keep thinking about this perfectly paradoxical passage from one of the great literary masterpieces:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Perhaps you recognize the opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities by the immortal Charles Dickens. He was providing analysis of the disruptive state of affairs in 18th century England, as well as across the Channel, in France. If you know about the disruptive state of affairs in the 21st-century marketplace, perhaps you’ll appreciate the allegorical reference of these phrases for small businesses almost two and a half centuries later.

It was the best of times: “The more high tech we have, the more high touch we will want.” The reason John Naisbitt’s 1982 words will always be prophesy is because humans will always be analog beings. There’s never been a time when the high touch leverage of a small business has been more powerful against the high tech of big competitors.

It was the worst of times: Tech behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook are increasing digital leverage to create new customer experiences and expectations. This trend is deadly for those hidebound small businesses that won’t infuse their sublime high touch with incremental high-tech to produce irresistible, Main Street special sauce.

It was the age of wisdom: Unlike the 20th century, today there are few hidden rules or proprietary tools employed by big businesses that aren’t available in some form to small firms. Digital leverage and data are increasingly available in incremental and affordable forms, but you’ll have to risk what you know for what you might learn.

It was the age of foolishness: In the most transparent era of management fundamentals, the keys to sustained success are lower than low-hanging fruit – they’re on the ground. And yet, innumerable small businesses are following Sears and Macy’s into the realm of irrelevance rather than adapting to new customer expectations with high-touch intangibles, relevant 21st-century practices, and affordable – many free – new tools.

It was the epoch of belief:  In many ways, the path to entrepreneurship has never been easier. A sweet byproduct of democratized digital leverage is a lower capital barrier to entry. Plus, the expansion of the universe of niches (read: niches of niches) is creating unprecedented small business opportunities.

It was the epoch of incredulity:  It’s still easy to start a new business, but it’s never been more challenging to sustain one. New and evolving customer expectations must be served with fresh data and effort – every day. And competitive disruptions are emanating from improbable market sectors.

It was the season of light:  The illumination and availability of customer data for small firms is unprecedented. Extensive information about business prospects is opening doors to the now-illusive, face-to-face appointment. And response behavior of retail prospects is available to help design and deliver a high tech/high touch marketing strategy.

It was the season of darkness:  At the same time, qualifying a suspect into a prospect into a customer has been disrupted by a more informed prospect base. As the selling cycle lengthens for those who fail to recognize this shift, diminishing gross profit erodes equity, burns available credit, and then – well, you know.

It was the spring of hope: One of the most amazing forces in the marketplace is the pathological optimism of American entrepreneurs. Against all odds, they navigate their dreams around the wreckage of peers that were sunk by the reef of disruption.

It was the winter of despair: I never thought I’d see conditions that would so restrict the entrepreneurial energy of America. The past decade saw anti-business political policies, unprecedented demographic shifts and behaviors, distressed economic conditions, and restricted capital and disruptive pressures combine to set back entrepreneurship in America for the first time in generations (Kauffman Index Startup Activity).

The human experience is pregnant with paradoxes, and no sector more so than the marketplace. Digital leverage is at once creating the paradox of exciting opportunities and unprecedented disruptions.

You would be correct to point out that humans have lamented change for millennia, but this really is different. Not change itself, but the velocity – the compression of time between changes.

Past changes have occurred at the velocity of analog – the speed of sound (761 miles per hour). Today’s change is powered by digital – at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second).

Are you adapting to new expectations with your high touch/high tech special sauce? Or are you being disrupted on the way to – well, you know?

Write this on a rock … The best of times or the worst of times? The choice is yours.

Wall Street’s sour grapes shouldn’t set Main Street’s teeth on edge

“The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

When Jeremiah and Ezekiel so prophesied 2600 years ago, it was to offer hope for a time when the Children of Israel would stop having the sins of their fathers visited on them. As a student of the evolution of American capitalism over the past half century, recent observations have moved me to paraphrase the ancients with a new marketplace maxim that I pray will not become prophetic:

“Wall Street has eaten sour grapes and Main Street’s teeth are set on edge.”

Alas, my passage is not about hope for a sweeter time, but rather, a lament of concern for the opposite.  My perspective is informed by three periods of time: The Reagan Boom, post 2008 financial crisis, and post 2016 election. I’ll split the latter into bookends around the other two.

Post 2016 Election
When we awoke on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 to the shocking Electoral College tally showing Donald Trump had preempted the anointing of Hillary Clinton as president, the Dow Jones was already in record territory at 18,323.  By closing bell that day, the Index was up 265 points. Since then, the “Trump Bounce” has driven the Dow Jones through the once-mythical 20,000 level on the way to 21,000, the fastest 1,000 point run in history.

Meanwhile, out here on Main Street, the 44-year-old NFIB Index of Small Business Optimism reported its own historic spike in that sentiment since the election. But a small business can’t eat optimism, and my recent online polling indicates less than a third of our respondents are seeing customer enthusiasm actually ringing a cash register. After a tough decade, unlike investors, consumers are more measured than manic, so it’s likely to take months of sustained optimism to manifest as Main Street sales growth.

The Reagan Boom
Once upon a time, small businesses benefited from an exuberant stock market.

Beginning in the third quarter 1982, the Dow Jones caught a rocket to a 52% increase over the next four quarters, to 3071. And with the exception of a correction or two along the way, including the 1987 “Black Monday” crash, Wall Street didn’t look back until the turn of the new millennium when it closed at a record high of 11,722 on January 14, 2000.

Main Street businesses had much to be excited about because in those days it was an article of faith that “the stock market was a leading indicator of the national economy.” During that same period, as it had always done, the rising Wall Street tide raised Main Street boats too. Indeed, in that 18-year economic expansion, plus a shorter one from about 2002 to 2007, the old “leading indicator” dynamic between Wall Street and Main Street was made manifest during what has been called the “Reagan Boom.” As Wall Street reached new records, annual GDP growth, the favored indicator for small firms planted in the ground, averaged a beautiful 3.5%.

Post Financial Crisis
American macro-capitalism changed significantly beginning in 2007 with the Great Recession, which overlapped the financial crisis of 2008. In the process of surviving those two gut-punches, Corporate America and Wall Street shifted their business practices by focusing inward more than ever before. Inward, meaning investing less in the Main Street economy, to the extent that the once-dependable maxim, “Wall Street is a leading indicator of the economy,” morphed into my observation that Wall Street is now merely a leading indicator of itself – Main Street is on its own. Here’s my evidence:

  • While the U.S. economy was experiencing essentially a lost decade (2007-2016), with GDP growth averaging 1.4%, including barely 2% annually for the seven years following the end of the recession, the stock market spent the last five years setting new records.
  • For three years running, in the first quarters of 2014, 2015, and 2016, two things happened simultaneously that had only happened before in Bizarro World:
    • GDP went perilously negative in 2014 (-2.9%), 2015 (-2%), and achieved only .5% growth in 2016 (U.S. Dept. of Commerce).
    • The Dow Jones reached new record highs in all three first quarters.

Again I ask, what’s wrong with this picture?

Back to the future
There’s been no corporate earnings performance since November 8 to justify spikes of 15% for the Dow Jones and 11% for the S&P. Where’s the fundamentals evidence one would expect to cause equities to wander into unicorn territory? It’s true: The hope of a more business-friendly government is raising optimism in all sectors of the marketplace. But unlike Wall Street, a small business can only spend what it takes in by serving customers. Our top line manna falls from customers, not mania or manipulation.

Smarter people than I are forecasting a stock market correction if, for example, there’s no tax reform this year. My “sour grapes” concern is that having already “clipped its coupons” on the post-election exuberance, a correction this year for any reason it will set the economy back abruptly, derailing Main Street’s bounce before it ever happens.

No one on Main Street begrudges the success of Wall Street. But right now the disconnect between the two once-symbiotic sectors is at once illogical and unsustainable. When the irrational exuberance of Wall Street ultimately reconciles with reality, that event should not cause Main Street to become collateral damage before the latter ever gets to play in the game.

Write this on a rock … When Wall Street eats sour grapes, it should not set Main Street’s teeth on edge.

After a Lost Decade, the REAL Economy Is Ready for Expansion

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!

Online Poll: How do you feel about the future of America?

The Question: As you contemplate Independence Day, how do you feel about the future of America?

8% - America’s best days are still ahead.
6% - America’s best days are behind us.
83% - America’s in trouble, but we can still turn it around.
3% - Never mind America, the whole world is going to hell!

Jim’s Comments: As you will see in the results of our recent online poll above, more than eight of ten of our respondents have serious concerns about America’s condition and future, with only 8% who’re optimistic about how things are. By comparison, the national average reported by Real Clear Politics — which homogenizes seven large polls — reports two-thirds of Americans think we’re “on the wrong track.” Perhaps the reason our folks rank their concerns a little higher than other polls is because we’re responsible for making payroll every week or two, which, under the current regulatory and economic conditions, is getting more and more difficult.

The last time I saw this level of concern among Americans was almost 40 years ago, during the Carter Administration. In fact, President Jimmy gave the name to the general national feeling that was pervasive during the last half of his one and only term. In a television address, he actually said there seemed to be a kind of “malaise” in the country. He was right.

Jimmy Carter is a good man, but was a poor leader. Granted, he inherited some challenging issues, but he wasn’t a problem solver and didn’t inspire confidence. Does that sound familiar? Replace the name at the beginning of that sentence with Barack Obama and everything to follow fits, with one exception: Obama has had two terms to make a difference. Sadly, if you converted the polling numbers for our national condition under this president’s watch to letters they would spell: malaise.

And my criticism isn’t political — I worship at the throne of results. Two things cause Americans to have a positive outlook: feeling secure and feeling successful. Unfortunately, looking at the facts — and the polls — in front of our eyes, these two areas are not positive.

Here are four simple traits that I would like to see in our next president, and I don’t care which party the possessor of these comes from:

  • Proven leader who hates mediocrity
  • Passionate about America’s greatness
  • Politically incorrect about defending America
  • Believes economy can grow at more than 2%

    What does your list look like? If you’d like to tell me, leave a comment.

  • Mr. President, a recovery is not an expansion

    Dear President Obama:

    For as long as there have been organized economies there have been economic cycles, of which there are essentially three elements:

    • Beginning at the bottom, a recession (sometimes, but rarely, a depression). Historically, sir, recessions are short – often measured in months.
    • In the middle is a recovery, which has the task of healing the defects that caused the downturn while reversing negative growth. Depending on the severity of the recession, recoveries take a little longer, from months to a year or so.
    • And finally, the tide that floats all boats, the expansion. Expansions can last for years, as they did under two of your predecessors, Reagan and Clinton.

    In America, we expect a recovery to be a means to an end, not a way of life. Alas, that isn’t your standard, because perpetual recovery has been our economic fate since you took office, four months before the Great Recession ended in June 2009.

    Recently, in a speech in Elkhart, Indiana, you said this: “By almost every economic measure, America is better off than when I came here at the beginning of my presidency.” Those of us who have made payroll every month of your tenure see things differently, as, apparently, does your own Department of Labor. Two days after the Elkhart speech, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a measly 38,000 jobs were created in May – the worst jobs month in six years. And labor participation – the number of Americans who work – has languished under your watch at rates not seen since the last president who manufactured malaise, President Carter. You can’t have an expansion, sir, if people aren’t working.

    Let’s review your economic performance, Mr. President, by the numbers. First, we’ll cut you some slack and throw out your first year in office, 2009. The recession ended halfway through, but ’09 was a horrible year you didn’t create, going almost 3 percent negative. But the next six years, through 2015, the economy averaged a pitiful 2.15% GDP growth. Those are not expansion numbers, sir, and they’re the worst for any president since World War II. Any economist will tell you an expansion is annual growth averaging at least 3%. By the way, 2016 is not trending any better than the past six.

    It’s a misnomer to refer to a president as “handling of the economy,” because there are really only two ways you factor directly into its performance: 1) helping by getting government out of the way of job creators; and 2) hurting by putting government in the way. Mr. President, you’ve set a record for the latter as an unprecedented assaulter on job creators. Your weapons are:

    • Anti-business rhetoric – “You didn’t build that” and referring to successful people as “fortunate” who need to pay their “fair share”;
    • Anti-business laws – both the specter and the reality of Obamacare, plus Dodd-Frank, to name the big two;
    • Anti-business regulations, guidance and executive orders from your EPA, NLRB, Labor and FCC.

    All of these are unprecedented for any president in their tone, scope, and damage. Not to mention the palpable fear and uncertainty that manifested among job creators.

    Here’s more evidence: The NFIB Index of Small Business Optimism, the gold standard for such research, reports the longest stretch of pessimism in the Index’s 43 years during your presidency. This from the sector that creates over half of the jobs and half of the U.S. economy. In my own polling of small business owners, only 9% think you have “been good for the economy,” while more than two-thirds think your policies have been “an economic nightmare.”

    Referring to the economy in the Elkhart speech, you said, “We can make it even stronger.” Who are “we,” Mr. President? The Oval Office door will soon hit you in the backside for the last time. With all due respect, sir, if “we” make “it” stronger, that will happen after you leave.

    Write this on a rock … Out here on Main Street, Mr. President, we’re not going to miss you when you’re gone.




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