Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bad News, Recession Over. Risk Taking, Personal Savings Up

Are companies ready for pent up spike in demand? M&A, IPOs, SPACs return. Fasten seatbelts as ides of October approach on anniversary of financial crisis. Have we learned anything?

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average knocking on the door of 10,000 – a benchmark seemingly out of reach six months ago – and nationwide home prices up for the second straight month, both leading and trailing indicators of the economic rebound we first called in this blog in April are all around us. From a technical perspective, the "recession is very likely over at this point," U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke said in a mid-month Q&A session at the Brookings Institution. So why aren’t homeowners and job seekers rejoicing, let alone the marketers who target them?

The Dow 10,000 barrier is mostly psychological, but as Stuart Freeman, senior equity analyst at Wells Fargo Advisors told the New York Times this week: “It’s psychological, but if enough people act on it it’s meaningful. The higher the market goes, the more those on the sidelines sit there and are concerned they’re missing something.”

Why we’re still worried

Home prices nationwide are still 13.3 percent lower than a year earlier, according to the widely followed S&P/Case Schiller Index, but recent monthly gains show that the pace of decline has slowed. Housing aside, several trends concern us at this juncture. First, the Government, including the Fed, is not in the forecasting business. It’s in the restating-the-obvious-but-making-it-official business. Second, we’re not convinced the fundamentals are there to support a sustained rally in the economy. More on that in a minute. Third, and perhaps most frightening, is this economic turnaround might be for real.

What’s wrong with that you say? Plenty. For starters, most companies are not be prepared to handle the surge in pent up demand, as they trimmed their workforces, production capabilities, customer service departments and marketing budgets so severely during the downturn. Cost-cutting occurs faster and deeper, than re-hiring and re-investing. The only thing worse than having customers bail on you when times are lousy is having them bail on you because you can’t handle their orders when times are better.

And here’s where it gets tricky. Even if the Fed and the financial markets are correctly signaling the end of the Great Recession of 2008-09, 15 million able-bodied workers – about 10 percent of the full-time work force -- are out of work. Combine that with stagnant incomes for all workers and higher rates of personal saving (due to fear, not financial discipline) and this could reduce corporate revenue for years to come. We’re also dealing with massive consumer defaults on credit cards, record numbers of mortgage defaults, delinquent student loans and stagnant incomes for those lucky enough to be working. Oh, and housing unit sales (not prices) went down another 2.7 percent in August, we learned last week.

Where is the money going to come from, to purchase those goods and services we need to keep the economy humming? More than 70 percent of Americans still rate the job market “bad” according to a recent Harris Poll. Paychecks have been stagnant for about a decade and using one’s home equity as an ATM machine – essentially what kept the Great Recession at bay for about three years – isn’t a viable fallback this time around.

Cautious Optimism for The Economy Ahead

Results of the latest Harris Poll of 2,498 U.S. adults surveyed online show that there is a slight sense of optimism regarding the economy. Nearly half (46%) of Americans believe the economy will improve in the coming year, while a third (32%) say it will stay the same and 22 percent believe it will get worse. In May, just under two in five believed the economy would improve in the coming year while over one-quarter said they thought it would get worse. But overall, they’re not so confident about their own situation, which is a great departure from most economic climates in which survey respondents tend to say they’re better off – not worse off -- than their neighbors.

One-quarter of Americans believe that their household financial condition will be better in six months while half say it will remain the same and 28 percent believe it will get worse. If there’s a silver lining to this cloud, consider that the 28 percent who say their household's financial condition will get worse in the next six months is the lowest reading for this question since Harris pollsters first asked in February of 2008.
Greed and irrational exuberance

Twitter –- a 60-person online social networking company with a catchy name and no revenue to speak of, was recently valued at $1 billion as it announced plans to raise $100 million to salivating venture capitalists. The markets also bounded higher on signs that companies once again had enough cash, credit and confidence to enter into big M&A deals. Xerox, Abbot Labs, Dell, Disney and Kraft Foods have announced takeover plans. Could credit really be flowing again between banks and corporate giants? At least the lawyers are happy.
What’s more, last week was the busiest for companies completing IPOs since December 2007. The Wall Street Journal reports some two dozen firms have filed plans to go public in the past two months, which is twice the number who filed to go public in the first seven months of this year. Has the IPO pendulum swung back to “Initial Public Offering” from two years of “It’s Pretty-Much Over”?

If that’s not enough to convince you investors are regaining their appetite for risk, more than one billion dollars in acquisitions took place last week through special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs). What’s a SPAC? It’s basically a “blank check offering” that allows investors to raise money through an initial public offering, and then gives them up to two years to buy a business as long as the sale receives shareholder approval. Sounds pretty spaculative.

Media spending still lagging

More than one-third of marketers plan to cut their advertising budgets over the next six months, according to he latest Association of National Advertisers (ANA) study. While an improvement from the 50-percent budget cutting threshold ANA reported earlier this year, the times ain’t exactly flush for marketers or media owners. As even ANA will admit, budget cutting tends to get under-reported in forward looking surveys (turns out 61% of marketers, not 50% cut their budgets over the past six month, according to ANA research).

If you’re a media buyer, now might be the time to pounce, as traditional media owners will do just about anything to get your business. The top 100 advertisers spent 10.2 percent less than they did in the previous year, according to the latest data from TNS media Intelligence and magazine ad pages are down 22 percent through October according to the latest Publishers Information Bureau. Network TV spending was down six percent, and newspaper advertising was down nearly 11 percent over the same period, TNS reports.

Another disturbing data point for media owners is that new research indicates lead generation is what advertisers want these days, not building brands or customer “buzz.” That means every dollar counts and will be measured and held accountable. Nearly 70 percent of marketers surveyed by MarketingSherpa last month said “Generating High Quality Leads” was their biggest challenge, more than twice the number who pointed to brand building, public relations buzz and nearly twice the number who pointed to creating perceived value in “cutting edge” product benefits.

The one bright spot, not surprisingly, was Internet display advertising – up 10.8 percent -- as more marketers shifted funds online. “Perpetual movement is the essence of survival and prosperity online,” quipped Michael Moritz, the Sequoia Capital investor who backed Google, Yahoo and Sugar a fast growing consumer blog network in a New York Times interview last week. “If online media and entertainment companies don’t improve every day, they will just wind up as the newfangled version of Reader’s Digest — bankrupt.”

Welcome to Q4, the last fiscal quarter of this topsy turvey decade. Fasten your seat belts.

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