Survey of businesses shows expectations of growth

Mid-Atlantic job-seekers down on their luck may see a rise in opportunity over the next half year if a study from the M&T Commercial Banking Division proves correct.

The semi-annual study, by M&T regional economist Gary Keith, showed increased optimism about the economy among mid-size companies and real estate investors across the mid-Atlantic region, New York and Pennsylvania.

Of the mid-size companies surveyed, 45 percent said they think the economy has improved in the last six months, up from 18 percent a year ago and the highest percentage since 2009.

Commercial real estate firms surveyed were even more optimistic — 58 percent said the economy was better in the last half-year, while only 4 percent said it was worse. That’s a big change from this time last year, when those numbers were 25 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

Overall, significantly more of the companies surveyed expect the national economy to improve in the coming months, representing a drastic change from their outlook in 2012.

When it came to hiring, one-third of the mid-size businesses said that they expect to add workers in the next six months, up six percentage points from one year ago and the highest percentage in the four-year history of this survey. Almost half of the businesses also expect to increase their capital spending modestly.

A majority of both the mid-market and commercial real estate firms surveyed tend to expect a slight increase in demand over the next six months.

Any number of factors could change the realities as those months play out, but the study refers to these responses as the start of a “modest momentum” and a more positive outlook on recovery from the Great Recession.

Inside the national foreclosure crisis

It’s not often that a Daily Record alum appears on cable television talking up one of the biggest ongoing business stories of the last couple of years, so we thought it was worth sharing.

Robbie Whelan appeared on “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren” on the Fox News Channel last week discussing “Faces of the Home-Foreclosure Crisis.”

The project took Whelan and three other Wall Street Journal reporters across the country to tell the story of the crisis through the experiences of homeowners caught in its grip. It’s a sobering look at a problem that shows few signs of going away.

Whelan covered real estate and development for The Daily Record from November 2007 to March 2010. His five-part series on Baltimore’s use of eminent domain won multiple awards.

You can read the story here. And click here to see the video.

Audi dealership expansion all about experience

As many car dealerships downsize and close in the Great Recession, a local Audi dealership is unveiling a $3 million renovation in Baltimore County.

Audi Hunt Valley reopened its doors at 9800 York Rd. in Cockeysville. The 18,000 square-foot dealership for the German luxury vehicles has a showroom large enough to hold eight cars, including the sleek A4, A5 and Q5 brands.

Charles Fenwick Jr., president of the dealership, said the re-do was part of an effort to use a new terminal design by Audi’s planners to create a recognizable look for U.S. sales ports for the cars.

“Following the complete renovation, we are excited that the Audi Hunt Valley customer experience is fully aligned with the caliber of its vehicles,” Fenwick says.

‘People don’t trust the housing market’

With today’s drab news about U.S. housing sales falling to their lowest levels in 15 years, analysts are looking at all angles of the crisis to try and figure out where to go from here.

Enter psychology. Let’s take a trip to the couch.

Tony Sanders, a professor of real estate and finance at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.,  said this morning that wary homeowners seem to be holding on to what they’ve got as the recession continues to whipsaw  their confidence.

“They are terrified,” Sanders said. “They are fearful of the market, of pending tax increases, the perpetuation of the recession, not being able to get a job. This is the big moving season for most people and there is not much movement. It’s really out of the ordinary.”

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Is American consumerism dead?

I got an e-mail this week that started out with this:

Dear Liz,

According to a new study, 78% of respondents said the American Dream has died.

Wow, that’s depressing.

The statistic is from a recently released report called Coming of Age in the Great Recession, compiled by the consulting firm, Context-Based Research Group, and Baltimore ad agency, Carton Donofrio Partners. The report explores consumer attitudes about the post-recession era.

The study is a follow up to the firms’ “Grounding the American Dream” released in 2008.

The 2009 study found that some believe the American dream has died because “the dream” had become defined in terms of material possessions rather than freedom and ideals. It found that 83 percent of respondents made permanent changes in spending and saving behavior, and the same percentage planned to spend more time with family and friends over the holidays then they had previously.

“Our studies portray a society moving into an era where we measure the quality of our lives in social terms before economic ones,” Cleve Corlett, Context-Based Research Group’s director of quantitative research, said in a statement. “Forty-three percent of Americans believe the recession has positively affected their lives. With this kind of positive reinforcement, we now see the potential to maintain a healthy balance between our consumer and non-consumer sense of selves.”

So maybe these findings aren’t as depressing as the e-mail started out (unless you’re a retailer and dependent on people buying expensive items they don’t need).

Do you agree with these findings? I personally think they might be a little optimistic in terms of people’s permanent willingness to place inner happiness over having outside things. But maybe I’m a cynic. I am a journalist, after all…

It’s lunchtime. Buy it or bag it?

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I was pondering the sad state of the 300 block of N. Charles Street as I walked to work this morning. True, Maisy’s restaurant has newly opened where Copra once stood, but the Starbucks is gone, and a cyber cafe that’s been there for at least 2.5 years – the length of my tenure here – is recently shuttered. Other empty storefronts dot the landscape.

I’m probably (in part) to blame; I began regularly bringing my lunch to work last year in an effort to save some dough, and I’ve kept up the habit.

Often I’ll still wander up to Charles Center for a fountain soda (carbonated sugar is my one, true vice) and today the cafeteria was absolutely teeming with customers. At Pizzeria Speranza, the cashier told me that they had five delivery orders – all for 4-5 pizzas – and a crush of customers descend at once. Yesterday was crazy, too, she said.

Is it the post-vacation, empty-fridge syndrome? (Probably). Or are people opening their wallets a bit more often, now that things are starting to slowly look up?

Fleming’s pulling out all the stops

In an attempt to breathe some life into its business/group event business, Fleming’s Steakhouse and Wine Bar is giving $150 gift certificates to anyone who books a private dinner for 10 or more guests.

“Use your certificate on a future visit to Fleming’s and treat yourself as well as you’ve treated your guests,” the promotional e-mail says.

Many fine dining restaurants have been hit hard by the recession, especially in the group sales business which in the past has accounted for up to 30 percent of total business. With companies stripping down budgets to necessities-only and with the critical view taken by the media and public on seemingly lavish spending, those who were supported by that spending are feeling the pain.

The $150 gift certificate is enticing…but is it enough to get folks to drop at least $1,000 on a nice private dinner?

The glass is half empty…

…and the other half is filled with sour milk. The Conference Board‘s latest consumer confidence ratings were released Tuesday, and the future for many Americans is far from bright.

The index remained relatively flat in March at 26, up from 25.3 in February. (In 1985, the rating was 100.) The Present Situation Index declined to 21.5 from 22.3 last month while the Expectations Index increased to 28.9 from 27.3 in February.

“The Present Situation Index suggests that the overall state of the economy remains weak and that more job losses are on the horizon,” said Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center. “Apprehension about the outlook for the economy, the labor market and earnings continues to weigh heavily on consumers’ attitudes. Looking ahead, consumers remain extremely pessimistic about the short-term future and do not foresee a turnaround in economic conditions over the coming six months.”

I’ve been wondering if these super-pessimistic numbers and indicators are somewhat inflated from the era of over-consumption we enjoyed before 2008. Compared to a time of surplus, of course people are staying pessimistic now. I liken it to when I start complaining about a 55-degree day in April when I would have been ecstatic with that weather three months before.

And another thing to note is that while people still have a negative outlook about the economy, it hasn’t seemed to gotten any worse in recent months. Have we hit our bottom?

Retail Groundhog Day

You ever get the feeling you’re being fed the same thing just on a different plate? E-mails from the folks at the National Retail Federation have had that vibe lately.

Since the economy started free-falling last fall, virtually every news release about holiday spending has been the same thing: people aren’t spending as much as they did before. The concept is barely news to anyone at this point, but you’ve got to hand it to the NRF: they keep trying for creative ways to tell us.

For example:

  •  (the latest release) Easter: “The Easter bunny will be handing out fewer jelly beans, chocolates and other gifts this year, as even he is cutting back.”
  • St. Patrick’s Day: “Americans are more likely to stash any ‘pot o’ gold’ they find rather than spend it.”
  • Valentine’s Day: “There’s one thing that love may not conquer this year: the economy.”

Can anyone think of the next clever tag line for our next major holiday, Mother’s Day?

Lose your job — but not the shirt off your back

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Good idea or bad idea? Jos. A Bank announced a program Monday that will refund the price of a suit if the purchaser loses his job — and allows him to keep the suit.

“At Jos. A. Bank we understand the uncertainty everyone is facing,” said CEO R. Neal Black, in a statement. “We want to help the customer look good at work, and if he loses his job, to be dressed appropriately as he meets with his next employer. It’s like giving all of our customers a bit of unemployment insurance.”

There are some catches though: the full rebate applies to suits purchased during the company’s $199 sale from March 16 through April 9 and only to customers who lose their jobs during those weeks. If the customer is laid off April 16 through July 1, the company will refund up to $199 or the cost of the suit if it is less, and the customer can still keep the purchase. For more details, visit the Web site.

The 651,000 jobs lost in February wasn’t quite as bad as January’s loss — 655,000 jobs — but if the trend continues, a total of 1.5 million to nearly 2 million more jobs could be lost by July 1. If even a small percentage of those jobs are people who ran out to buy a Jos. A. Bank suit, the Hampstead-based clothier could have a lot of refunds on its hands in the coming months.

However, if a greater number of people run out to buy suits and don’t get laid off, then the promotion is a win for the company.

Either way, the idea could drive traffic to the stores but is this a gamble you would take as a business owner?