Business has picked up for most manufacturers and dealers this year and there is much optimism that we will enjoy a steady economic rebound. But this isn’t the time for chest bumps and high fives. We may have emerged from the pit, but we’re not out of the woods. There is too much economic road kill lingering on the path to full recovery, and much of it suggests a possible reversal — a big one — some time next year. This also means there will be significant growth opportunities for those who are prepared to lead proactively.
The following facts are too significant to brush aside, minimize or ignore. By the time you read this the figures listed may have changed, but not drastically.
Here are the points that concern me the most:
1. Debt. Without a doubt, the next economic meltdown we suffer will be debt-induced. Our national deficit of $1.56 trillion is suffocating and threatens to boil over and bury us as it gets worse. Debt is threatening to send Europe into crisis, first, starting with Greece. Portugal and Italy may not be far behind. Britain has an unnerving debt load as well. With excessive debt, there comes a day of reckoning, for individuals, companies and countries. Perhaps this is why the Bible states that debt is a curse and the Proverb warns, “The borrower is servant to the lender.” Incidentally, America’s biggest lender is Communist China. Debt levels affect and will be affected by every other factor I’ve listed, either directly or indirectly.
2. Foreclosures. A record number of US homes were lost to foreclosure in the first quarter of this year. More homes were taken back by banks and scheduled for foreclosure sale than in any quarter going back to at least January 2005, when RealtyTrac began reporting the data. America is on schedule for more than 1 million bank repossessions in 2010. More than 900,000 households, or one in every 138 homes, received a foreclosure-related notice. This puts the banks and credit markets back in grave danger.
3. Negative equity. US News & World Report recently compiled data that details the percentage of mortgage borrowers who are underwater in 142 distinct markets throughout America. Following is a sampling of the most underwater housing markets. They chose no more than one city per state for illustrative purposes.1. Las Vegas: 81% of single family homes in Vegas have negative equity. 2. Merced, CA: 64% of homes here are underwater. 3. Phoenix: 62% of homes in this market are upside down. 4. Orlando is at 58%. 5. Greely, CO: 45%. 6. Bend, OR: 41%. 7. Minneapolis-St. Paul: 39%. 8. Memphis: 32%. 9. Cleveland: 32%. 10. Grand Rapids: 29%.
A high level of negative equity makes it more likely a home will wind up in foreclosure, restricts a borrower’s ability to refinance or buy another home, which in turn stifles demand for housing. It also reduces the flexibility of the labor market, since underwater home owners are less willing to leave town to take a different job. These factors could cause the foreclosure figures listed above to swell.
4. Unemployment. We’ve had a somewhat “jobless” recovery. There are still 11 million people drawing unemployment benefits and the jobless rate of 9.7% understates the true level of economic misery because many people who give up looking for work are no longer in the official count. While you may see occasional blips of improvement, unemployment is going to stay high all year.
5. Rising credit costs. Because of our excessive debt, US Treasury auctions for the past year have been characterized by Wall Street analysts as “terrible.”
The yield on 10-year Treasuries, which determines borrowing costs for homeowners, companies and other governments around the world, recently climbed 0.03 percentage points to 3.88%, the highest in months. In addition, the Federal Reserve recently reported that the average interest rates on credit cards reached, 14.26%, the highest since 2001. This is up from 12.03% in 2008, when rates bottomed out in the fourth quarter. With losses from credit card defaults rising and with capital to back credit cards harder to come by, issuers are likely to increase rates another 20% by the fall. Similarly, many car loans have already become significantly more expensive, and are likely to continue doing so.
6. Increased taxes. There couldn’t be a worse time for taxes to increase, but they are. The Bush Tax Cuts expire this year, raising taxes for many Americans, and states across the country are coming up with creative ways to raise revenue — mostly through taxes. There are plans to tax everything from haircuts to magazines to various entertainment services. In addition, at least 10 states are considering some kind of major increase in sales or income taxes: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin. California and New York lawmakers already have agreed on multibillion-dollar tax increases that went into effect earlier this year. Fiscal experts say more states are likely to try to raise tax revenue in coming months, especially once they tally the latest shortfalls from April 15 income-tax filings, often the biggest single source of funds for the 43 states that levy them.
Barring any seismic shift in national or world affairs, the economy should continue to look artificially good through the rest of this year, maybe even into early next year. But before next year this time we may all be familiar with the term, “double dip.” This is an economic term that indicates a recession, followed by an economic rebound rooted in government spending, followed by another recession. Sadly, the factors listed, coupled with others I did not have the space to share, have the potential to converge, over time, and create an economic “perfect storm.’ Needless to say, a terror attack or the collapse of a major company or country could accelerate the timetable.
All that being said, here’s the opportunity. In order to prosper from a reversal of economic fortunes, consider implementing these recommendations:
1. Don’t let the costs you cut during the worst of the downturn get out of hand again. You may not need to cut more, but don’t lose your newly found cost-discipline religion.
2. Don’t enter into long-term contracts that you regret and can’t get out of during a downturn. Anything over twelve months is asking for trouble.
3. Start initiatives now to increase the time you spend training your staff in all positions. Make it your goal to have fewer, highly skilled people on your team, rather than too many heads with mediocre outputs.
4. Pay down debt. Take your profits and consider putting 10% back into infrastructure, 10% into increased training and people-development initiatives, 20% in cash reserves and 60% on debt reduction.
5. Begin an owner loyalty program that includes perks and special marketing promotions to current owners. Make it insane for them to even think about buying elsewhere.
6. Don’t lose the new appreciation you gained for fixed operations during the downturn. Take better care of your people and customers in this crucial area.
7. Don’t upgrade your lifestyle. Put off the new jet purchase and practice buying more of what you need and less of what you want.
8. Upgrade your team. Take advantage of the bloated available labor pool to continue to improve the quality of your people and replace non performers. By building a stronger pipeline of people, augmenting a cash stash, and eliminating debt, you’ll be well-positioned to acquire new opportunities as they become available once the double dip takes hold and hammers the final nail into the dealerships who barely escaped round one of the double dip.
9. Go smart and easy on the advertising. Keep costs in line and don’t try to buy market share with ad space. Earn more share by harvesting your current customer base for repeat purchases, referrals and by providing a level of service that shames your competition.
10. Stay involved in your business. Spend more time with people-work than with paperwork. Don’t let the upswing serve as a permission slip to work part time. Don’t just watch the scoreboard, stay in the game. Do a personal audit and make sure you’re investing more time charting the course than you do charting results.
11. Don’t be seduced by occasional adrenaline bursts of good news. You can expect plenty of well-spun data in the upcoming months, especially up until the November election. The stock market will probably also cooperate for a while, so pick a good time to lock in your gains. But don’t play best-case scenario. On the other hand, don’t panic. Play middle case scenario by hedging your bets. Following the recommended steps are designed to do just that.
Ask ten different people — even experts — where the economy is headed and you’re likely to get ten different answers. Thus, if you take these steps to heart and discover that next year this time I am totally wrong about our country’s economic direction, you will still be in far better shape than had you ignored this column. This is because you’ll have a higher quality, more intensively trained people; a supporting culture that has the people and processes in place to maximize new customers while retaining current ones; you will have developed valuable training disciplines, and reduced interest costs. That’s the beauty of engaging in smart, sound, disciplined business practices. Regardless of the economy, you win.
Bonus thought: If you diligently follow these steps you should pray for economic turbulence. This is because your less intense, unfocused and undisciplined competitors will fall so far behind you that they will never catch up — if they survive at all.