Some Good News for Managing a Small Business

IMGCAP(1)]In 410 AD the Visigoths laid siege on Rome, eventually sacking the city and raping and killing thousands of its inhabitants.

In the 14th century the bubonic plague was responsible for an estimated hundred million deaths across Europe, or 30 percent of the world’s population. Over the course of a hundred days in 1994 an estimated 800,000 citizens were murdered in Rwanda as a result of political infighting. And over the past four months Pittsburgh Pirates fans have watched their team lose more games than any other team in baseball.

Sure, business owners are deeply concerned about rising deficits and the prospect of higher taxes. Yes, we’re uncomfortable with the future effects of health care reform. Of course, we’re struggling to manage and generate profits in an environment of flat demand. But we’re not fleeing the Nazis or hoarding bread while an army of Normans lay siege to our city. We’re not under occupation by a foreign army or being forced to convert religions.

And most of us are lucky enough to not be living in Pittsburgh either.

Things aren’t great. But they’re not terrible. In fact, there’s actually some good news for managers of small businesses.

For starters, there’s a change in the political winds. I don’t question our President’s motives or good intentions. But over the past two years his administration, with Congress’s backing, has spent an unprecedented amount of money and created massive deficits. Most Pirates fans won’t find this as bad as the Aramis Ramirez trade. But these policies have unnerved the small business owners I know and have caused many of us to hold back on hiring more people or making capital investments.

Two things will happen for sure this fall: The Pirates players will be watching postseason games from their homes, and the Republicans will gain back significant seats in both the House and Senate. Our forefathers created a system of checks and balances for a reason. One political party running roughshod can only result in mischief. This should slow down legislation and hold back the spending.

Speaking of spending, did you know that the Pirates only pay $400K to Charlie Morton, arguably one of the league’s worst pitchers (1-10, 10.03 ERA – at the time of this writing Morton has thrown 46 2/3 innings and allowed a whopping 75 hits, 52 earned runs and 13 homers). That’s peanuts compared to others.

I wish I could say the same for our government. A trillion dollars has been spent on (arguably) one of the world’s worst stimulus plans. That ain’t peanuts. Even so — somehow, someway, the Federal Reserve has managed to keep interest rates and inflation at historical lows. This is good news too. For those of us able to borrow, money is cheap.

We can lock in at low, low rates. And although we’re not earning much in our savings accounts, we can take comfort that the value of our cash is barely declining. We can hold back on significant raises. We can keep our prices in check. Unlike our counterparts trying to make a buck in hyperinflationary places, we don’t have to consider inflation and interest in our business dealings right now. Which means we have a little less to complain about.

But, like Pirates fans, small business owners like to complain. Some still like to complain that they’re unable to get financing as they could a few years ago. That’s not something to complain about. Having a losing record for 18 seasons in a row is something to complain about. I say it was too easy to get financing a few years ago. Due to recent reforms and the overall public mood, today’s banks are lending less frequently and putting their potential customers through the kind of due diligence that they should have been doing in the first place.

They’re asking for financial statements, checking up on credit history and getting more involved in their customers’ affairs. And this is a good thing. Bankers are making more responsible loans. They’re not allowed to make as many risky investments. They’re back to … banking. And small business owners who qualify are only getting the financing that makes sense and not overextending themselves. Too many business owners in the past 10 years were given too much free money … and found themselves in dire straits when they realized they couldn’t pay it all back.

High unemployment creates pressure on the government and reduces consumer demand. But it also creates a buyer’s market for business owners looking to hire new people. I recently advertised for a part-time marketing assistant on Craig’s List and got over 200 applicants. Why, even a few players from the Pirates applied. So that’s good news for a business owner.

There are plenty of smart people out there looking for jobs. I haven’t heard a business owner complain about a tight job market in years. Now, if you need an experienced worker, you just go out and find one. And if you’re spooked by health care reform or the government’s spending and don’t want to bring on another employee, you can just have your existing employees work more. They’re terrified of losing their jobs and are happy to take on the extra responsibilities.

Even the things that we can’t control seem to have stabilized too. The stock market continues to hover around 10,000. That’s still almost 30 percent below its historical high, but at least we’re not hearing about huge lopsided losses … unless the Pirates are playing the Brewers. Judging by corporate profits, which have been strong this past quarter across most industries, the stock market will most likely continue to rise. And now that our economy has cooled down, so have energy prices. Rising gas and oil prices are no longer in the headlines and probably won’t be for a while. At least until demand starts heating up again.

And demand is definitely heating up. Certain economic barometers are telling us this for certain. Rail traffic is much higher than it was a year ago. The Baltic Dry Index, which measures shipping activity, has also significantly risen. Key commodities are higher. Retail sales are on the upswing. Consumer confidence, at least for those consumers who have money to spend, is up. Savings rates are higher. Big companies like General Motors and AIG are paying back the money that the government lent them as demand has returned.

Why, the economy’s so much better that Pirates management may even consider raising ticket prices … again!

And no matter who’s bashing the U.S.A. this minute, let’s all face reality: There are too many investors in this world who would much rather sink their money into the American economic system rather than risk their funds in countries run by dictators, Communist regimes or corrupt bureaucrats. And when that next big idea hits (energy? health technology? mobile?), new industries will be created, new markets will rise, and thousands of business owners will benefit. The Pirates will still suck of course. That goes without saying.

See? Things aren’t great. But there’s plenty of good news out there. And business owners know it. That doesn’t mean we can’t complain. But at least most of us can be grateful our baseball teams aren’t as bad as the Pirates.

Gene Marks, CPA, runs a 10-person technology consulting firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pa. His latest book is In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash: Simple Lessons from Smart Business People.

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