Temper Excitement Over Recent Positive Economic Indicators
BY Michael Alter
The recent series of positive economic reports could be misleading. Here's why.
Retail sales growth. Rising home prices. Falling jobless claims. These make for good headlines. But do they tell the whole story? Are these reports as promising as they sound?
At SurePayroll, I work exclusively with small businesses--most of them with 10 employees or fewer--and unfortunately, despite these recent positive signs, I'm still seeing a dark cloud circling overhead. Don't be fooled by arrows pointing up when they still have a long way to go to reach a full recovery.
According to the SurePayroll Small Business Scorecard, hiring has been trending flat to down most of the year. It's down 1.5% among small businesses year over year. We're also finding that optimism among small business owners--key drivers of the economic engine--is unusually low. It has been hovering around 60% since May, before it fell drastically to 45% in September. When things are going well, optimism is typically in the 80%-range; entrepreneurs tend to look at the glass as half full.
While the fact that home prices are finally seeing some movement upward is good, many people are still underwater on their mortgages. Retail sales have grown over the last few months, but that has partly been due to rising gas prices, which don't help us, and the iPhone 5, which doesn't happen every month.
We have an election that's very much up in the air, a fiscal cliff that could mean billions of dollars in tax increases and spending cuts, and an ongoing economic crisis in Europe. You add these up and I would argue there's just too much uncertainty to assume the positive indicators spell robust growth for the future.
Compounding matters is a huge skills deficit, my small business customers tell me. Many of those looking for work in sales and customer service don't have the basic technology know-how to take the jobs that become available. At the same time, though, there's more demand than supply for skilled computer programmers and Web developers; companies can't find the right people to fill these kinds of positions.
I hate to be a downer, but everything I hear from SurePayroll's small business clients is that they're being cautious. Uur economy isn't growing fast enough for any of us. While things may be getting better in some areas, they're not nearly good enough.
What do you think? Do you see similar barriers to a full recovery, or are you more optimistic than I am?
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter