Economics 101: A Greek Tragedy

20 euro banknote dissolving as a concept of economic crisis in gThe nation of Greece has, for centuries, conjured up a plethora of images and thoughts: the birthplace of democracy, philosophical land of Aristotle and Socrates, the Parthenon, and the natural beauty of Corfu, Mykonos and other Greek resort islands.

Sadly, over the last half decade, for many around the world the word ‘Greece’ has a very different connotation: a bankrupt nation, whose economic and political uncertainty threatens not only the future of its people, but of the entire Eurozone.

In much the same way that—as the old saying goes–Rome wasn’t ‘built in a day’, so too is it true that this modern Greek tragedy evolved over a longer period of time. What’s transpiring now in Greece can be traced back to decades of mistakes, miscalculations, and an unwillingness by many to confront an evolving, and long threatening, economic reality.

There are those who, perhaps with some validity, have argued for years that while the European Economic Union (EU)—and its singular currency, the Euro—made fiscal sense, it ignored a long, convoluted and often confrontational history among the European nations. For while it’s true that yesterday’s enemies can evolve into today’s economic allies—the examples are countless, including America’s close ties with former ‘enemies’ such as Germany and Japan—European history is long, often violent and replete with the nationalism of many nations.

So it came as no surprise to many that, when the recent referendum question was asked of the Greek electorate “do you wish to accept the terms offered by the EU in exchange for another economic bailout”, more than 60 percent of voters said ‘no’.

On a practical level, it may be difficult for some to understand why Greeks—who have repeatedly said en masse that they wish to remain in the EU—would endanger that likelihood by such a vote, it is completely understandable on an emotional level.

The fact that the ‘No’ supporters used the stern countenance of Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on their referendum poster was not by happenstance; those Greeks opposing the EU bailout knew that their best chance for success would be an emotional appeal, and so relied on a poster that none-too-subtly recalled memories of 1941, a time when German forces invaded and occupied Greece.

And what does the economic and political drama unfolding in Greece mean for Americans, and American business?

That all depends on the terms of reference one chooses to use. Economically, a Greek bankruptcy would have little direct  impact on either American business or consumers. The Greek economy is but a fraction of the size of the U.S. economy: the Greek Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was $242 billion (US) in 2013, while the American GDP for the same year was $16.77 trillion (US).

However, the fear among some economists and politicians is of a ‘Greek contagion’, which translates into a possible domino effect of a Greek bankruptcy, wherein other EU countries with weaker economies and higher debt levels—such as Spain and Portugal—could follow Greece’s exit from the EU.

Were that to occur, the impact on America would be far greater than simply a Greek exit from the EU. According to the European Commission, the U.S. and EU economies combined account for about half of the entire world’s GDP.

So the unanswered issue, especially for an American audience, is would a Greek exit from the EU be the end–or just the beginning of a much larger story?

And the overriding question still remains: how did it come to this?

As noted earlier, a combination of several factors are at play in the evolution of this Greek tragedy. Profligate government spending, overly generous pensions (with Greek ‘retirement’ often starting up to 15 years before traditional American retirement), compounded by a worldwide recession, finally brought to the forefront long-simmering questions about the sustainability of Greece’s social spending.

The real tragedy at play here is not so much a philosophical one regarding the policies of the Greek government, or the terms of a European bailout of Greece, as much as it is a human one. As of this week, Greek banks are restricting individual withdrawals to no more than $60 per day, as they fear running out of hard currency; meanwhile, everyone–from the poor and the elderly, to the hardworking businesspeople and merchants in Greece–face an uncertain economic future that, at best, will likely mean difficult times for several years to come.

There are many economic lessons to be learned from what is currently unfolding in Greece.

These would include: a confirmation that ever-increasing debt levels are ultimately unsustainable, and carry with them very real, and very human consequences; that politicians who choose to sugar-coat the economic reality of their country for short-term political expedience should be avoided at all costs; and a recognition that, as I noted in another recent column, those who choose not to learn from history are doomed to relive it.

From the time of Aristotle and Socrates, Greece has taught the world many Life Lessons.

The modern Greek tragedy, and the resulting painful human drama, unfolding in the summer of 2015 is a political and economic lesson the world would do well to learn.

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.

 

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.