We talk a great deal about the economy on FloorRadio and have had John McDevitt on the program for nearly 20 years. John had been the corporate economist at 3M for the better part of his career and is now semi-retired and still explaining how the economy works in presentations around the U.S. and the world.
The economy and specifically the state of the recovery seem to be a favorite topic for many of us. Sometimes, with so many versions of the same economy being bantered about by so many talking heads, it’s tough getting a reading on a version that’s credible and convincing. My method of reaching believability has been to interview the guy year after year and basically keep score. The fact that John has been on the FloorRadio program for as long as he has bears witness to his track record.
So the questions everybody is speculating about are: How long with the recovery last, and when will we get back to something that reasonably resembles a pre-recession, pre-Lehman-Brothers-bankruptcy economy?
The recovery in 2012, according to John, appears to be a quite modest one, with the growth rate coming in at about the same as last year (1.7%), and with the first quarter slowing to about half the rate of 2011’s fourth quarter. And 2013? Well, it doesn’t promise to be a whole lot better. Its growth rate looks likely to bump up to an estimated 2%; a rate that doesn’t look like it will be creating a bumper crop of jobs.
Of course all eyes are on jobs and the jobs market, and even with the most recent jobs report being a positive one with the addition of 243,000 jobs in January, John points out that the bulk of those jobs were temps which is not necessary a precursor for the creation of permanent jobs. He also reminds us that in the most recent report when the unemployed and underemployed rates are combined, they equal 16%. Not a healthy statistic. Without jobs and lots of them, consumer spending won’t see the increases we’d all like to see. When I asked John if January’s report was good news, after a brief pause he said, “It’s starting to look like good news.”
Now, the elements in the economic news that mean increases in consumer confidence and spending don’t appear to have reached the “starting to look like good news” level yet. Consumer confidence and wage increases are both down, and on top of that much of the money people have been able to amass they’re sitting on waiting for better times.
One piece of news that doesn’t bode particularly well for people in the floor covering business and will be responsible for pulling a hefty amount of consumer dollars away from our industry: The average age of cars on the street in the U.S. is 11 years. Carmakers are estimating sales in 2012 to hit 13.8 million cars, up from 12.8 million in the prior year and far below the 17 million sold in 2000. By the way, John reminds us that parts retailers like Pep Boys and Advanced Auto have been enjoying record sales as do-it-yourselfers elect to change their own oil and spark plugs. I’m sure that same DIY trend is giving a hand to the cash-and-carry and big-box players in our industry.
It was noted in our conversation with John that yes, it is possible for the economy to experience growth with the housing market in the basement and with the jobless rate hovering in the 8% range. It’s just not economic growth to write home about.
Of course housing is spotty depending on where you’re standing, but John sees the housing industry producing about 200,000 more existing homes and about 20,000 to 25,000 more new home sales in 2012 than it did in 2011. This is good news. The long-term trend, however, has some factors that are not necessary positive. The Census Bureau recently released a report that the rate of home ownership in the U.S. has slimmed down to 66% from 69.2% with the trend expected to continue. At the same time, home prices continue to fall, albeit at a slower pace.
So what about the consumer? Well, John reminds us that the Treasury Department will be taking away the punch bowl just as the economy is beginning to visualize a healthier recovery. He notes a major factor will be siphoning dollars out of consumer’s pockets, away from floor covering retailer’s cash registers and into government coffers. Federal tax revenue last year was 15% of GDP. This year it will be 16%. Next year it will be almost 19%, and by 2014 it will reach 20%.
As for getting back to pre-recession levels, forget about it. The factors point to a 2012 and 2013 that for most retailers will be better, but only marginally better, than what they saw in 2011. It points to an environment that will keep most retailers to the same discipline they’ve been practicing for the past five years: Basic blocking and tackling, cutting costs, making those tough showroom decisions, embracing productivity-enhancing technology, exploring new ways to communicate with customers in more constructive ways, embracing sales pro training, and exploring other initiatives to get more customers in the showroom then ever before and sell them more than ever before, before they leave.
This year will be better, but it’s no time to take your eyes off the ball – look what happened to the New England Patriots.