Friday, April 03, 2009

Recession Running Out of Steam

When will decision-making freeze start to thaw?

Remember back in late 2007 when you got that disturbing memo from the U.S. Department of Commerce announcing plans to kick-off the next great global recession? Of course not. So what makes you think you’re going to be notified when this painful economic downturn finally ends? Trust me, you’re not.

By the time you get the “all clear” signal and spread the good news to your colleagues, it’ll be too late. Your competitors -- who smartly put new products and services into the pipeline during the depths of the downturn – will have passed you by. Their salespeople will have a leg up on yours, with a much better story to tell potential customers. And since they didn’t can all their experienced (i.e. more expensive) people and slash their marketing budgets as severely as you did during the “panic,” they’re taking away big chunks of your market share and mindshare every day. Good luck getting that back …..It’ll only take a few years.

Granted, we’ve got a long way to go. As I write this, the U.S. Labor Department is announcing 663,000 more U.S. jobs vaporized in March. That’s pushing the official unemployment rate to 8.5 percent, its highest level in 25 years. But, in this hyper-speed global economic climate, you’ve got to have new products, services and people at the ready to support them in advance when pent up demand for your goods is finally unleashed. And this is going to be one heck of a release.

Not convinced we’re on the road to recovery. Read on (or go jump off a ledge).
1. Economists and Wall Street analysts (egged on by the media) have successfully predicted 15 of the last three recessions. They have the same lousy battering average predicting recoveries and no bona fide “expert” has stepped up to give the green light on this recovery yet. So I like our chances.

2. The labor market historically lags the stock market and other economic indicators by six to 12 months. Even today’s depressing news about the job market was largely discounted by investors as the grim job loss numbers, albeit painful, were in line with what analysts and investors expected. The market actually went up again today and continued its four-week rally in which it has gained 21 percent– its best four-week advance since July 1938.

READER NOTE: I recommend Barton Biggs’ tome: “Wealth, War and Wisdom” (Wiley & Sons, 2008) for a great perspective on the stock market’s ability to forecast global economic conditions during the 1930s and 1940s. The parallels are striking between today’s climate and that of the Great Depression and World War II. It’s a scary, but interesting read (Disclosure: we have no financial interest in sales or promotion of Mr. Biggs’ book).

3. Manufacturing. The Institute for Supply Management said its March report index rose 36.3, from 35.8 a month ago. New factory orders increased 8.1 percent and General Motors isn’t going to be allowed to make cars anymore unless it starts making them affordable, reliable and environmentally sound.

4. Housing. The National Association of Realtors reported that sales of pending homes rose a seasonally adjusted 2.1 percent in February from a month earlier, bolstered by double-digit increases in the Northeast and Midwest. The index of pending-home sales — which encompasses deals that have signed contracts but have not closed — bounced off a record low. The group’s index of affordability rose to a record as home prices continued to slide and mortgage rates declined to a microscopic 4.61 percent.

5. Huge cash on the sidelines. The stock market is rallying at a time when four out of five institutions and affluent individual investors are planning to switch advisors. “It’s an amazing time with huge upside potential for everyone, including financial advisors,” notes HB client, John Bowen, founder of CEG Worldwide, LLC the nation’s leading coaching, research and advisory firm for wealth management professionals. “This is not a recession or The Great Depression again. It’s The Great Disruption,” says Bowen. The rules of the game are changing fast and will never go back to where we were before. Despite massive erosion of investor wealth over the past 12 months, John’s firm and his clients are actually having one of their best years ever.

6. Broad-based rally. On most positive trading days the Russell 2000 has outgained the S&P500, which has outpaced the Dow Jones index. Companies of all size, industries and market caps are starting to rebound.

7. The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) might finally change the rules on "mark to market" ccounting so bank assets will be measured by their cash flow, not the last trade. Not only is this a healthy dose of pragmatism but it could dramatically impact bank financial statements, valuations and profitability.

8. Labor shortage. That’s right, we said shortage. Even with unemployment rising, some companies now realize they may have cut back their payrolls too aggressively. Duh! Workers who survived the cuts are doing at least twice the work they did before for the same pay or less. They’re burned-out, paranoid, dispirited, and planning their exit strategies, not thinking about company growth.

A neighbor of mine runs an online lead generation company and customer acquisition service. He said some of his clients’ sales reps are taking days, even weeks, to respond to even high-priority leads. They simply don’t have enough manpower to handle demand. He said one of his clients in the mortgage finance is begging her boss to hire back at least 80 of the loan officers they let go in 2008 to handle the workload.

9. Some of the more innovative and adaptable sectors of the advertising industry are still growing at impressive rates. For instance, Internet advertising rose in 2008, according to a report released earlier this week by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Internet advertising in the United States grew to $23.4 billion in 2008, an increase of 10.6 percent from 2007, according to the Internet Advertising Revenue Report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group representing online advertisers. That was the only category of advertising spending that grew in 2008 other than cable television, which rose 7.8 percent, according to Nielsen figures supplied for the report.

10. Weather. While our hearts go out to those in the flood-ravaged upper Midwest, spring has come to the Northeast, where let’s face it, a great deal of major companies and investment firms reside. There’s always a feeling of accomplishment in these parts that you’ve survived another winter and the onset of spring make everyone feel better and more optimistic. And for many home owners in the northeast, heating oil prices (our biggest worry nine months ago…HA!) ended up being only half as high as what we were dreading as recently as last summer.

11. Hero redemption. Tiger Woods is back on the pro golf tour and Lance Armstrong is cycling again. I don’t play golf, but a great number of corporate decision-makers still do and more than a few are biking and triathloning. After surviving cancer, drug allegations and now a broken collar-bone, Lance will some how manage to get himself into contention for an unprecedented 8th win at the Tour de France, the world’s toughest athletic event. Meanwhile, Tiger won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in typically dramatic last-hole fashion, his first competition after a year-long injury layoff. TV ratings were through the roof and that’s yet another sign for the corner office-set that things may be finally returning to normal in the world.

12. Even lawyers are taking a hit. The days of fat retainers, exorbitant hourly rates and paying first year associates more than the President of the United States makes, may be coming to an end. Law firms may have to start charging clients on a fixed-fee project basis, like every other professional service firm does. Leading law firms have historically avoided mass layoffs, concerned that their reputations would take a hit. But some have been putting those inhibitions aside. The Law Shucks blog now has a “layoff tracker,” and it is pretty telling. Top firms are rapidly thinning their ranks, and several — including Heller Ehrman, a venerable 500-plus-lawyer firm founded in 1890 — have closed. While not a lawyer basher by nature, having law firms align their fees and associate compensation with the rest of us will make everyone’s goods and services a little more affordable.

13. Perspective. Whether or not you believe the worst of this crisis is over, we may finally be taking a healthier approach to work-life balance in this country. “Today’s average business person exists in a perpetual state of exhaustion and stress that is born out of feeling that they are burdened by more responsibilities to meet than they have time and energy to devote to doing so,” said Chuck Peck, CEO of Cape Coral, Florida-based Wealth Intelligence Network. “They work, work, work, yet feel they are merely chasing their own tails. They never seem to be able to meet all the obligations of life without neglecting their commitments to themselves, their relationships, and their families, and vice versa.” The key, says Peck, is to keep moving. “An object at rest stays at rest; an object in motion stays in motion. Always stay in motion.”

Words to live by.

So let’s get back to work. Hire good people to help us and treat them right. Market the heck out of what we have to offer and let’s start making money again.

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