Uncertainty … or doubt?

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President Harry Truman supposedly joked that he wanted to find a one-handed economist, because “All my economists say, ‘On the one hand,’ then ‘but on the other.’” People looking for clear economic signals from the middle market are likely to be as frustrated as Truman was.

On the one hand: American middle market companies have reported back-to-back quarters of bang-up revenue growth: 8.5% (annualized) this quarter following 8.7% in the one before. Of the four highest-growth quarters in the MMI’s seven-and-a-half-year history, three have come in the last 12 months. Nearly four out of 10 companies grew more than 10%. Similarly, the employment growth rate, 6.4%, is tied for the third-highest in MMI history. Even manufacturing—a soft spot in the overall economy—is strong in the middle market, with revenue up 10.1% year-over-year. If you look at hard numbers, this long economic expansion still shows plenty of life, at least among middle market companies.

On the other: The short-term index, a predictor of performance in the next three months, has fallen 10 points in the last year. The percentage of executives who foresee a less favorable business climate has doubled in the last 18 months. While just one in 12 sees weaker sales, that’s up from one in 20 a year ago. And while 77% saw their revenue growth rate increase compared to a year ago, just 52% foresee faster growth in the year ahead. Increasingly, middle market leaders say they want to sock extra cash into a rainy-day fund, rather than use it to fill a war chest for future expansion.

Watch what they do, not what they say

Overall, the middle market is financially conservative. Family businesses, sole proprietorships, and partnerships—more than half the middle market—like to pay as they go. Generally leery of debt and reluctant to dilute equity, they prefer to fund their own growth. Consequently, the flux of the capital markets and the overall economy has less impact on their investment decisions compared to public companies, which need to hit the numbers Wall Street wants to see.

With that in mind, consider these data points:

  • Last year, 47% of middle market companies introduced a new product or service; in the year ahead, 48% plan to do the same
  • Last year, 22% acquired another company; in the year ahead, 27% expect to acquire one
  • Last year, 19% added a new plant or facility; looking forward, 28% plan to add one
  • Last year, 36% opened new domestic markets; 44% expect to do so in the next year
  • Last year, 15% moved into new international markets; looking forward, 25% plan to do so

That is, asked about their own company’s specific investment plans, executives are much more bullish than they are when asked about the state of the economy or what they would do with a hypothetical extra dollar. Now, these plans might not be baked into budgets. They might take more than a year to come to fruition. They might be put on hold. They might be scrapped. But all of these predictions and past actions are almost exactly in line with the numbers we saw in the second quarter of 2018. Judging by deeds, in other words, the middle market is forging ahead.