The economy remains a concern for small business owners like me. Growth is slow, unemployment is stubbornly high, deficits and our national debt are at historic levels. This week's fiscal drama, and the enormously complicated Affordable Care Act, are causing all kinds of uncertainty.
None of it fazes Liam McGee, Chairman, President, and CEO of The Hartford. At least not for the long-term. The American economy is "coiled like a spring that could really pop--in a good way. Particularly if we had more clarity and certainty from D.C," McGee says. The Hartford, which deals in property and casualty insurance, group benefits, and mutual funds, just released its third annual Small Business Success Study of 2,000+ small business owners nationwide. (Full disclosure: The Hartford is a client; I'm analyzing the study's findings for their blog.)
If it's not already clear, McGee's an optimist. He's known for helping turn around the company from its low point after the last banking crisis, and putting it back on track for profitability and growth. But interestingly, as an optimist, he thinks the small business owners surveyed reflect the psychological uptick over the economy. From my perspective, they're a minority--48 percent are optimistic that the national economy will strengthen this year. But from his, it's an improvement because that number has swelled from 33 percent a year ago.
Why? What do small business owners really think?
I'm a pessimist, so I'm not sure why people are so positive, if they really are. I root for better times. And I hope McGee is right. But my company's been slow for at least five years. We've been profitable, but we haven't been growing. Demand has been soft. My clients are concerned with their own growth, higher taxes, regulations affecting their industries, and a generally negative business environment in Washington.
Like many others, I haven't hired more staff. We're battling harder for fewer opportunities. Every day is a struggle to find new work and squeeze out a few more dollars. So is McGee just pitching his pipe dream to the rest of us?
It's true that the economy has shown a few bright signs lately. Real estate is recovering. GDP has nudged up. And interest and inflation remain at historic lows. But is that enough, and does it really reflect the big picture?
Read between the lines: pessimism outweighs optimism.
I looked closely at The Hartford's study, and I can easily make the case that people are still overwhelmingly pessimistic about the economy:
- While 48 percent of small businesses are optimistic about the economy strengthening next year, 52 percent are not. For the former, how much "strengthening" is enough? We need more than a little.
- It's true that 69 percent surveyed admit that the number of risks they're taking has remained the same over the past six months. But growth requires risk. It appears that most companies are not willing to take risks in this environment. I'm one of them. I'm sitting on my cash.
- Growth remains our biggest concern: 59 percent of small business owners cite lack of demand (followed by taxes, healthcare costs, and uncertainty about federal regulations) among the top risks to our businesses. These risks have declined, but they're still extremely high.
- The Affordable Care Act continues to loom heavy on small businesses; 42 percent predict that it will force them to reduce employee hours and 38 percent plan to halt future hiring.
McGee doesn't deny any of this. "When I started my banking career in the late seventues and early eighties, the prime rate was close to 20 percent," he recalls not-so-fondly. "There was uncertainty then! The cost of money was too high to achieve any reasonable rate of return. But even as challenging as those times were, I think there's even more conservatism and caution today. Capital is less available from banks because of the recent problems in the banking sector. There's not a clear view for prospects for growth. Most entrepreneurs have seen their taxes go up and are concerned about medical costs. Many are saying: I'm not taking any risk until these things get solved.""
Perhaps the big picture really is the big picture.
McGee believes that our entrepreneurial environment is different now than in the past, and believes that changes things: "In the last 20 years, you've seen an historically unprecedented level of small business creation and success. You have an economy now that's driven by entrepreneurs. There's a tremendous amount of liquidity that could be potentially available. There's a pent-up urge to do something. And there's no better place in the world than this country to succeed."
Sometimes it helps to step back.
"Just connect the dots in the survey," McGee advised. "To me, the message is very clear. Small businesses are saying: I got burned during the financial crisis and there's a lot of dysfunction around me. But just give me some clarity and I'm ready to take some risks. And that's why I think this economy could be ready to pop. It might take another six months or a year. But it will happen."
McGee has a point. Admittedly, there are more startups, more startup communities, and more resources for startups than I've seen in the past. There are more sources of capital than ever before--from community banks to angel investors, venture capitalists, and crowd-funders.
There are also inexpensive technologies that enable entire companies to connect their people from anywhere around the world and to collaborate on projects. There are new forms of web-based communications, powered by social media and inexpensive mobile devices that allow us to find and service customers wherever they are and whenever they need. We can take payments online and with our phones.
We have new resources of oil and natural gas, and have made enormous advances in alternative energies. We've figured out 3D printing. Wearable technologies will create new ways to increase productivity and profits.
Alright, so from a macro perspective, we have created ways to make our economy more resilient. I can give him that.