Have Business Leaders Donned Rose-Colored Glasses?

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There’s not much doubt that the election of President Donald Trump put some air under stock prices. Since November 9, the day after the election, both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 have added about 13%. An even greater improvement has come in business optimism for 2017.

According to a recent survey by JPMorgan Chase, among middle market executives, optimism doubled from 39% to 80% year over year for the U.S. economy, and it tripled, from 10% to 30%, on the outlook for the global economy. Interestingly, optimism for the local economy in which a middle market company competes rose just 18 points, from 50% to 68%. Optimism is at its highest — and pessimism at its lowest — measured against the past seven years.

The definition of middle market varies, but the National Center for the Middle Market defines the market as those companies with between $10 million and $1 billion in annual revenues. The Center claims there are nearly 200,000 middle market firms in the United States and that they represent one-third of private sector gross domestic product and employ nearly 45 million people.

Chase considers middle market companies to post revenues between $20 million and $2 billion a year. The bank surveyed more than 1,400 middle market executives for this study.

The election of Republican Donald Trump boosted to 76% the percentage of respondents who expect a positive outcome for their businesses from the new president. Just 12% said the impact would be negative, and another 12% said Trump’s election would be neutral.

The top reasons for the positive impact were listed as pro-business policies, tax reform and reduced regulation. The top reason for those who expect a negative impact was concern about trade policy.

Reducing regulation was the top vote-getter when respondents were asked to say what the government should focus on. Health care is the top regulatory concern, cited by 63% of respondents. Some 30% want to see the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) reduced or eliminated. Concerns about labor regulation rose the most, up five points to 44% year over year, and concerns about international trade policy rose 12 points to 30%.

Among the most commonly noted challenges for 2017 were managing labor costs (up six points to 46%), a limited supply of talented employees (up four points to 44%) and regulatory requirements (up two points to 33%). Sales and revenue growth was the biggest challenge, with 71% of respondents putting in at the top of their lists, but that’s a drop of three points year over year.

There’s good news for workers too. Some 57% of companies (up eight points year over year) expect to increase full-time staff this year and 71% plan to raise compensation packages.

In the fourth quarter of 2016 the velocity of the Fed’s M2 money stock came in at 1.436, the lowest reading ever. That indicates continued slow consumer spending. The tax cuts proposed by President Trump and the Republican Congress are heavily weighted toward the top end of the tax scale, where an extra dollar is either saved or invested instead of being spent on goods and services and traveling through the economy.

These tax cuts could do little to raise consumer confidence and spending, but that’s what business leaders are counting on with their rosy hopes. Stay tuned.