Lessons Learned: Five Ways To Avoid The Next Recession

economicsThose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana

In business, particularly in an entrepreneurial business, taking risks is all in a day’s work. Certainly, a smart businessperson will do what he or she can to mitigate risks—a practice widely referred to as ‘risk management’—but entrepreneurs understand that risk and reward are two sides of the same coin.

In business, as in many aspects of life, you rarely encounter one without the other.

However, smart businesspeople also know better than to repeat the mistakes of the past. That’s one reason why you never saw a second edition of such legendary corporate mistakes such as the Ford Edsel, or Coca-Cola’s disastrous “New Coke”. You will also note that, despite those legendary business errors, both Ford and Coke remain iconic brands that are dominant forces in their respective industries.

Unfortunately, not all businesses—or governments—take heed of Santayana’s wise advice, and learn from the mistakes of their past. And as the Great Recession begins to—thankfully–fade into memory, there is a growing concern that some of the same errors that helped to trigger that economic disaster could be repeated.

Our company, Sackett National Holdings, has subsidiaries that have a national footprint in multiple business sectors that were either directly—or indirectly–impacted by some of the misguided policies that exacerbated the Great Recession. Specifically, our company’s SettlementOne subsidiary works closely with the financial services sector, and is a national provider of credit and data information; in addition, SNH’s National Credit Center subsidiary services more than 4,000 automotive dealerships nationwide with credit information and software solutions.

Therefore, as you might imagine, economic and political decisions that directly impact the financial services and automotive sectors are of great interest and concern to our company.

And so, with the passage of time and the fading of the recession’s legacy, I think it would be beneficial to take a moment and review five of what I consider to be the most important business lessons to be learned from the 2008 Great Recession:

5) The Size Of A Mortgage Should Reflect An Individual’s Fiscal Reality:

Prior to the collapse of the housing sector in 2007/2008, there was a generally accepted notion among some Americans and politicians—including some with enough experience/knowledge to know better—that housing was a universally ‘safe’ investment that would continue to gain in value, in perpetuity, and no matter the location; there was also the active promotion of some mortgages that required very little, or even no, down payment. Both of these misguided ideas were substantial contributors to the eventual collapse of the housing sector.

Common sense—remember that useful business tool?—and Best Practices dictate that consumers, just like businesses, should not financially overextend themselves. Someone earning $40,000 a year should not be purchasing a home valued at 15 or 20 times his annual income—often with little or no down payment–especially when one at half the price meets his needs. And while home equity can, over time, contribute to a family’s net worth, a family home should not be viewed as simply another gambling ‘chip’, with ever-increasing value. This, I believe, is a critical lesson worth remembering from the massive foreclosures that devastated the lives of millions of Americans in the last recession.

4) Politics Should Not Trump Reality:

In a recent post, I examined the question about the future prospects for universal home ownership as an integral part of the American Dream. As a corollary to that question, and in keeping with the previous suggestion, it’s imperative that government policy encourages home ownership (and the subsequent financial obligation) that is in line with Americans’ financial capabilities. To do otherwise, is to risk a replay of the foreclosure debacle of the last recession.

3) Business Growth Should Also Reflect Reality:

As CEO of a rapidly expanding, entrepreneurial company, few if any businesspeople understand or support the notion of corporate growth more than I do. However, just as we should expect consumers not to overextend themselves, so too should businesses ensure that their growth—and related financial liability—reflects their fiscal reality. In business, as in life, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you necessarily should—or at least not until it makes fiscal sense to do so.

2) Be wary of ‘bubbles’:

In the 1990s, it was the infamous ‘tech bubble’—the hyper-inflated growth of new tech companies, far too many of whom had little or no long-term business plans or chance for prosperity (Pet.com anyone?) In the next decade, as discussed, there was the housing ‘bubble’, and the inevitable explosion of a housing market that was largely built on a weak financial foundation. As a general rule of thumb, when pondering a potential business ‘bubble’ opportunity, it’s best to simply remember what your mom probably told you growing up: “if something seems to good to be true, it likely is.” Put another way, the Laws of Nature dictate the almost inevitably, ‘bubbles’–of any kind–eventually burst; best to avoid them whenever possible.

1) Don’t Be Blinded By Greed:

In the movie Wall Street, fictional tycoon Gordon Gekko delivered a famous speech about the business virtues of ‘greed’. And while ambition and drive—along with hard work—are, indeed, fundamental requirements in order to succeed, they differ greatly from greed, which Webster’s defines as “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as in money) than is needed”. I would only add that the road to ruin is littered by businesses and people who allowed greed to cloud their judgment and perspicacity. For businesses and individuals alike, sound financial decisions require a clear mind, and greed often manifests itself into one of the aforementioned business ‘bubbles’ that ultimately burst, and leave millions to suffer in its wake.

So, as we (thankfully) move forward and leave the Great Recession to the history books, let’s also try and keep Santayana’s wise advice in mind.

For while we should not live in the past, we should also not forget the–sometimes painful–business lessons it has taught us.

 

Deregulating Energy: When Less Is More

Jevin Sackett EnergySince the country’s inception, Americans have debated the role of government—and its regulations—in the free market.

There’s little new about the debate, with some arguing that government has a significant role to play in ensuring ‘fair business practices’, and others arguing that ‘unleashed’ entrepreneurial spirit is the engine that drives our economy.

And while that debate rages on, it’s instructive to look at the results of deregulation—or, put another way, the diminution of government oversight—on the nation’s retail energy sector.

A clarification: “deregulation” of the retail energy sector does not mean that there are no laws pertaining to the industry, merely that the government has freed up the sector for competition in an open marketplace; put simply—deregulating the retail energy sector means providing consumers (both commercial and residential) with a choice of which company they’d prefer as their provider of electric power or natural gas.

Of course, this is a topic of considerable interest to our company. Our subsidiary, Sperian Energy, is a fast growing retail energy provider across several states that have deregulated their energy sectors. Sperian’s rapid growth—clearly illustrated by the tens of thousands of new energy customers it has signed up in recent months—is a reflection of the broader consumer acceptance of a deregulated energy industry, wherever that choice is made available.

This change in the energy industry is occurring at a most interesting point in time. In the Information Age, Americans consume more electricity than ever; in fact, the total business generated by the U.S. electric energy sector is estimated to be well in excess of $200 billion.

Most agree that the modern era of the deregulated American energy market began in California in 1996. In the almost two decades since then, several additional states have chosen to deregulate their electric markets; for consumers of power—both residential and commercial—deregulation has meant that they are no longer forced to accept the utilities tariff rate, which may or may not reflect market conditions; the end result of the regulated system often being price uncertainty going forward.

Deregulation provides consumers a choice: they can choose to lock in an electrical rate that meets their budgetary needs, or they can decide to go with a variable market rate that could result in lower costs depending upon the commodity price. As an added ‘bonus’, retail energy suppliers often offer additional add-ons such as rebates, demand response programs and other customer incentives.

Of course, as with any new business opportunity, there are some challenges when entering the deregulated energy business.
When an energy market first opens up for competition, one of the biggest business challenges is educating the state’s consumers. Often, energy customers may not, at least initially, be aware that they now have a choice as to their energy supplier. However, sometimes the state can play a role in educating energy consumers, as was the case in Pennsylvania. Through its ‘Choice Program’, that state proactively informed consumers about the deregulation; utilizing bill inserts, as well as television and radio ads, the state played an important role in creating an educated energy consumer.

The adage that ‘old habits die hard’ is also true in this case, and sometimes convincing consumers to switch to an alternative energy supplier can take time; the fact is, however, that in deregulated markets consumers are really only switching the supply portion of their energy consumption, and the delivery of energy to their home or business is still conducted by the local utility company.

Despite the obstacles, there can be little doubt that the move to deregulate energy markets continues to grow nationwide. Some states are moving slower than others: in Michigan, for example, only 10 percent of consumers can choose their supplier, while earlier this year Massachusetts completed their full deregulation of the energy market. Ohio is yet another state that is currently considering full deregulation of its energy market.

In addition, renewable energy—primarily solar—is providing even more possible choices for consumers. Alternate energy retailers do not have to wait for deregulation to partner with established solar companies; such partnerships enable suppliers to utilize their sales force to market solar installations, even in fully regulated energy markets.

Of course, the larger debate over government’s regulatory role in the business marketplace rages on. However, few on either side of that discussion can deny that deregulated energy–and the resulting added choices that it provides–ultimately benefits the American consumer.

The Year Ahead – I’m Feeling Bullish

Jevin Sackett market newsAs a new year beckons, American businesses find themselves on the precipice of what most economists are predicting will be the healthiest economic growth since before the Great Recession began seven years ago.

After several years of sluggish economic growth, that’s welcome news for American businesses large and small. Still, in the wake of previous predictions of strong economic recovery that ultimately proved overly optimistic, some U.S. business owners would be forgiven for being skeptical about the painting of an economically rosy 2015.

However, this may well be the year that economists are finally correct in predicting solid economic growth. Putting all the rhetoric aside, the recent economic ‘arrows’ point convincingly towards a strong economy in 2015.

A few economic signposts worthy of consideration:

  • According to the federal Bureau of Economic Indicators, real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the U.S. grew by an impressive 5 percent in the third quarter of 2014; that is on the heals of the previous quarter’s solid 4.6 percent growth
  • Personal income, another strong measure of consumer confidence and economic growth, was also up by .4 percent in November
  • Gas prices are down—way down—from where they were last year. A barrel of crude oil has declined from over $100 a barrel in the first half of 2014, to below $50 a barrel at the beginning of this year. That savings translates into hundreds of dollars more in the pockets of the average American consumer
  • The stock market has, repeatedly, set new record highs over the last several months, and corporate profits are healthier than at any time in recent years
  • And perhaps most importantly, unemployment has been steadily declining, with the most recent unemployment rate in the U.S. down to 5.6 percent

While a healthier job market is good news for American workers, and signals overall strength in the economy, it also presents the prospect of a more challenging recruiting environment for American businesses. As more companies look to hire new employees, businesses will have to hustle to ensure they can recruit their first choice of new hires.

At Sackett National Holdings, we are on the front lines of the recruiting efforts of American businesses, as our SettlementOne Screening employment screening products play a key role in helping companies ensure they’re hiring the best available candidates.

And when one considers that U.S. businesses hired 252,000 employees in December—after hiring an impressive 353,000 the previous month—the laws of supply and demand dictate that 2015 is likely to be a far more challenging year for companies looking to hire new employees.

In addition to our company’s employment screening experience, as CEO of a rapidly expanding business, I also have first hand experience with the many challenges of ensuring the quality of new employees.

And so while I–like all American business leaders–welcome the long-awaited arrival of good economic news, I also recognize that with that positive news comes added business responsibilities.

If American businesses hope to ensure that economic predictions for a strong 2015 are reflected in their own corporate performance, they must also ensure that their company’s business—and hiring—plans are reflective of, and responsive to, the nation’s dynamic economic environment.