Tightening Ahead by the Fed–What Past Says About Future

By Charles H. Green

According to economist Kevin Kliesen, there’s a high likelihood that the Federal Reserve will begin its interest rate normalization process sometime in 2015, but to be certain, that decision will ultimately depend on the data and resulting economic forecasts. As a means of trying to understand what to expect, he suggested reviewing previous tightening cycles employed by the Fed may reveal evidence about what effects lie ahead.

Kliesen is Business Economist and Research Officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Treasury Yield Curve After NormalizationLouis, and spoke before an audience gathered for the second quarter economic forecast presented by the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University recently.

Is each “tightening” cycle different in terms of its effect on the economy and the market, or are the effects broadly similar?

It’s widely known that the Fed removed the word ‘patience’ in it’s March statement concluding the FOMC meeting, which had been used at end of QE3 program as an expression of the pace they expected to proceed. However in March, Fed Chair Janet Yellen remarked that conditions “may warrant and increase in the fed funds rate target sometime this year.”

Historically the Fed’s decision to raise rates has always been more difficult than lowering rates and is always debated intensively. Former Fed Chair Arthur Burns described it as the anguish of the central banking, how rasing rates evoked violent criticism. Yet more often, the Feds are accused of favoring the financial markets at the expense of the public and savers.

The Fed’s debate usually plays out through speeches offering various viewpoints of the twelve district presidents, all of which are monitored intensively. In their April survey, the majority (74%) of Blue Chip forecasters, a major revision from the January  survey when 65% believed that rates would rise in June.

Why all the uncertainty? It seems as though the data is not cooperating. As more data is collected, any decision to raise the Fed funds rate seems to be pushed farther out, indicating that both the Fed’s and private forecasters have been too optimistic. Inflation has continued to be much weaker than expected. But recall Chair Yellen’s remark earlier this year: “Don’t wait for 2% inflation target.”

History suggests that monetary policy makers have stayed ‘too easy’ too long in the past. With as many economic factors affected by monetary policy, such as spending on interest-sentisitve goods, bank lending, corporate balance sheets, household net worth and asset prices, it’s easy to understand how the macro economy can be heating up faster than traditional economic factors can track.

In previous cycles, rate tightening always exceeded the market’s expectations, particularly during 2004-2006 (+4.25%), which carries its own risks and exposure. Normally, credit risk spreads and stock prices fall early in the cycle, with risk spreads rising later. But it takes about a year for industrial production and consumer spending to fall off. And in three of the four last cycles, it took about a year for the Treasury rate yield curve to to invert.

Net effect: the year following liftoff of the normalization, the economy generally improves, followed by slower growth later.

And it’s worth noting that Kliesen related that “history suggests that long expansions with low inflation tend to have smaller increases in the Fed’s policy rate, so keeping inflation low and stable is key. But history also suggests that each tightening cycle depends significantly on underlying economic conditions, and oil shocks have been important in the past.”

What do you think? Comment on this page or write me at Director@SBFI.org.

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Economy Will Grow in 2nd Quarter: Dhawan

By Charles H. Green

Real GDP grew at a paltry 0.2% for the first quarter of 2015, but economist Rajeev Dhawan doesn’t think the factors that drove this stagnation are here to stay. “After I read the GDP report, the word WOW escaped my lips,” Dhawan said. “WOW here stands for weather, oil and the world economy. The report showed clear damage from these three factors.”

Dhawan heads the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Rajeev Dhawanand spoke before an audience gathered for the second quarter economic forecast presented by the Robinson College of Business on Wednesday.

It was unusually cold Northwest weather that drove nondurable goods consumption growth down to negative 0.3% (especially grocery purchases) in the first quarter, but on the flip side, spending on utilities (heating) rose. Conversely, overall gasoline savings were socked away into savings accounts, denying the previously forecasted upswing in consumer spending.

Dhawan predicted that the weather factor is temporary, except for the drought being experienced in the West, but in any case, the low oil prices will start to creep upward again as U.S. fracking production declines. “We’ve almost reached the bottom, with oil rig counts having dropped sharply with only a little bit to go,” said Dhawan. “But prices will not reach the heights of $120 a barrel anytime soon. I expect oil to start creeping up to $70/barrel by year’s end and stay in that range for the coming year.”

Dhawan Expects Economy to Bounce Back in Second Quarter

The world economy is facing problems on two fronts: First, China’s economy has failed to recover after a planned slowdown to curb inflation, affecting many emerging economies because of their supply chain connections. Second, the Eurozone is strangely experiencing negative government bond yields, due to the repeated threats of Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, during the trillion dollar bond-buying program (quantitative easing) of the European Central Bank.

Overall, these issues played out with a 7.2% decline in early 2015 exports. “The three WOW components shaved off close to 2.5% of U.S. growth in the first quarter,” Dhawan said. But, he asserted that these negative effects can be offset as the country rebounds in the second quarter.

“Weather is a temporary factor. As the seasons progress, it will soon reverse course and add to nondurable consumption. Most of the numerical damage to the GDP is now behind us,” said Dhawan.

Another side effect of the stagnant first quarter GDP results is the delay in a potential Federal Reserve interest rate hike.  “Oil, the global economy and investment should have stabilized by the end of October,” Dhawan reported. “This means that December is the earliest the Fed can raise rates.”

Highlights from the Economic Forecasting Center’s National Report

  • Following a gain of 2.4% in 2014, real GDP grew at a stagnant 0.2% in the first quarter of 2015. Growth of 3.3% is expected for the second quarter, bringing the overall rate to 2.5% for 2015. It will expand at a better rate of 2.8% in 2016 and grow 2.7% in 2017.
  • Business investment will grow a weak 3.2% in 2015, recover to 5.8% in 2016 and 6.4% in 2017. Expect jobs to grow by a monthly rate of 254,000 in 2015, 240,000 in 2016 and 232,000 in 2016.
  • Housing starts will average 1.107 million units in 2015, rise to 1.194 in 2016 and 1.253 in 2017. Expect auto sales of 16.8 million units in 2015, 16.9 in 2016 and 17.1 in 2017.
  • The 10-year bond rate will average 2.1% in 2015, and should rise to 3.3% before the end of 2017.

What do you think? Comment on this page or write me at Director@SBFI.org.

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It’s All About Incentives, the Rest is Just Commentary

By Amaresh Gautam

That people respond to incentives is one of the most fundamental economic principles. A correct incentive system for employees can be the difference between a successful and a failed business enterprise. An incorrect incentive plan for the C-Suite, can lead to fraud by the management of a large corporation. And tDollar

Incentives in a financial system as complicated as that of United States can get distorted at multiple levels. The incentive of a lending manager can be to motivate them to distribute as many loans as they can within their territory, and they may not be getting penalized for making bad loans. But one potential result will be that they won’t be bothered about credit quality, and will become too aggressive in meeting the target numbers.

Likewise, the CFO of a large financial organization may know that the risk of going bankrupt is minimal, since the institution will be presumably be rescued by the federal government, but the reward of making a successful risky bet has no limits. Thus they may be incentivized to take excessive risks.

According to remarks in a recent speech by Janet Yellen, Chair of Federal Reserve Board of Governors, a combination of responses to distorted incentives throughout the financial system created an environment conducive to a crisis.

It’s not possible for a single small business lender (or borrower) to do anything about perverse financial incentives corroding the system, even if they become aware of them. Correcting them lies within the job of the financial regulators. However, it’s still within the realm of self-preservation that one should maintain some degree of rationality when encountering perverse incentives.

Meaning? If another financial instituion reaches out to hire you, and offers compensation with incentives that sound unrealistically too good to be true, do a sanity check in your head before responding. Are you really worth that much more than what you are currently compensated, or are there some perverse incentives at play?

Remember the old adage: if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

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Intuit Invests in $100M Fund for Small Business Lending

By Ravinder Kapur

The ‘QuickBooks Financing’ platform will now have access to the proceeds of a new fund totaling $100 million, in which Intuit is one the investors, aimed at lending to small business loan applicants that allow lenders to access their QuickBooks online accounting data. This platform enables financial partners, vetted by Intuit, to lend to small business borrowers quickly and seamlessly.

The financing platform, which gives small businesses the option of taking loans from QuickBooks Financingseveral lenders who approve the applicant’s credit by analyzing real-time data, has already provided over $150 million in loans to QuickBooks customers, reports MarketWatch. This facility has the unique advantage of simultaneously allowing multiple lenders to analyse a potential borrower’s current data while also giving the small business borrower the option of choosing the lowest finance cost.

Dan Wernikoff, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit’s Small Business Group says that, “This fund solves the short-term credit crunch by giving small business faster access to lower-rate loans. QuickBooks Financing makes it easy for small businesses to access tailor-made solutions without having to complete paperwork or negotiate with lenders.”

Small businesses often have an urgent need for funds to enable them to benefit from a business opportunity that requires an immediate response. In such circumstances approaching a traditional lender may not work because of the time and effort required for completing the required forms and compiling data to support the application. Additionally, the processing time by the lender, even if the decision is positive, may be such that the business opportunity for which the funds were required has already slipped by.

To overcome the rigidity of traditional lenders many small businesses resort to using their personal credit cards for borrowing money to purchase inventory or pay wages. The QuickBooks Financing platform, with its access to borrowers real-time accounting data and online lenders, provides an ideal solution to this problem and facilitates the functioning and growth of small businesses.

Data compiled by Intuit indicates that 60% of QuickBooks customers have their loan requests refused by lenders as applications do not meet the financier’s credit approval criteria. On the other hand targeted campaigns on the QuickBooks Financing platform have resulted in an acceptance rate of 70%. This could be attributed to lenders having access to the current data of potential borrowers in a pre-determined format compiled automatically.

While the QuickBooks Financing platform has met with some success the moot point is whether many borrowers are ready to part with their online accounting data for the purpose of raising funds. However, the continued interest of investors in the program indicates that it has found acceptance with a large number of QuickBooks customers.

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Hot Air: Politicians Eschew SMEs for Big Business

By Charles H. Green

The Advocates for Independent Business, a consortium of fifteen trade associations that represent small business industries ranging from booksellers to florists, offered a sobering picture of the pandering nature of politicians, who hail small businesses as the bedrock of America, but throw billions of dollars to subsidize big business. Representing the advocates, Stacy Mitchell and Fred Clements penned a recent Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal to make their case.

Said Mitchell and Clements, “A report by the research organization ‘Good Jobs First,’ Hot Airfound that two-thirds of the $68 billion in business grants and special tax credits awarded by the federal government over the past 15 years went to big corporations. State and local economic development incentives are similarly skewed. While the members our business associations—mostly independent retailers—must finance their own growth, one of their biggest competitors, Amazon, has received $330 million in tax breaks and other subsidies to fund its new warehouses.”

They continued, “Multinational companies also benefit from a host of tax loopholes. A local pharmacy or bike shop cannot stash profits in a Bermuda shell company or undertake a foreign “inversion.” The result is that small businesses pay an effective federal tax rate that is several points higher on average than that paid by big companies, according to a Small Business Administration study from 2009.”

To skew the lines of this argument further, it’s illuminating to recognize that many politicians demonstrate selective inconsistency in how they apply their own political ideology. In the face of smaller industries–such as independent businesses–who have little to offer other than simple votes, most politicians offer nothing in return.

While many wax on platitudes and rhetoric about the importance of apple pie and small business, after the election, many begin stammering about the “moral hazards” presented by government programs that incentivize small business resources, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration or U.S. Export-Import Bank.

But that’s in sharp contrast with how they view industries that can financially support their election campaigns. Ironically, it’s some of these same politicians who support government subsidies for agri-business giants like Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland; who fight the imposition of sales tax collection on internet sales; who won’t address a broken corporate tax code that allows billions of U.S.-manufactured good sales to have profits rerouted to Ireland or another tax haven, to circumvent native tax coffers.

It’s the very definition of “crony capitalism.” And that is the real moral hazard we contend with.

Read more at IndieBizAdvocates.org.

What do you think? Comment on this page or write me at Director@SBFI.org.

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U.S. Ranked Highly for Credit Facilities to Business

Part 3 in Series

By Ravinder Kapur

The World Bank‘s ‘Doing Business 2015′ survey, ranks the U.S. highly for getting credit (2nd position amongst 189 countries surveyed, down from 1st in 2014) and resolving insolvency (stable at 4th position). Other financial related criteria like paying taxes (47th in 2015 and 44th in the last year) and protecting minority investors (25th and 21st) result in a much lower position for the country.

The U.S has achieved a high ranking in the getting credit criteria due to the robust nature U.S. Dollar signof its collateral and bankruptcy laws which play a pivotal role in facilitating lending here. Similarly, the comprehensive coverage by credit bureaus and their systems for collection and distribution of information have contributed to the country’s high score.

The paying taxes criteria is an area of weakness. The administrative inconvenience which businesses in the U.S. face is analysed by calculating the average number of hours required to compute and file taxes and the number of times in a year when payment is required. The countries which set the benchmark are Singapore (49 hours of administrative work in a year as compared to 175 hours in the U.S.) and Hong Kong and Saudi Arabia (3 payments per year as against 10.6 in the U.S.).

The tax rates in the U.S. are also a reason for the country’s below par performance in this area. The total tax on a company’s net profit is 45.8% as compared to the benchmark set by Singapore where the rate is 26.1%. It is important to note that the survey does not take the simplistic route of giving a higher score to a country with a lower tax rate.

The score for protecting minority investors is calculated by examining the extent of conflict of interest regulation and the laws regarding shareholder governance. The U.S. which occupies 25th rank for this criteria, compares poorly with New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore which occupy the first three positions.

While the survey addresses many areas relevant to business and to the regulatory framework necessary for its success, there are other factors critical to a commercial enterprise’s functioning which are not examined at all.

In the words of the World Bank, “Doing Business looks at how business regulations determine whether good ideas can get started and thrive or will falter and whither away. Many other dimensions of the business environment also matter but are outside the scope of Doing Business. For example Doing Business does not capture such aspects as security, market size, macroeconomic stability and the prevalence of bribery and corruption”.

Hence the survey, while serving a useful purpose, is not a complete indicator of the framework required to foster an environment in which private enterprise can flourish. Nevertheless, it highlights areas that need attention and can point governments in the correct direction.

See Part 1 of this series,”U.S. Ranking Slips for ‘Best Place to do Business.”

See Part 2 of this series, “U.S. Lags in Economic Development Comparison.”

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Lendit: Conference Highlights Rise of Innovative Lending

By Charles H. Green

Based on conversations I have with bankers around the country, it’s apparent that many commercial lenders are slow to learn about the stealth, growing competitor represented by the rise in the innovative lending sector. Referred by a number labels, such as ‘alternative lenders,’ ‘marketplace,’ or even ‘peer-to-peer,’ this sector is adding a new company it seems like monthly, and is being organized and studied by a number of conferences popping up to assemble the participants with interested investors, banks and even representatives of financial regulating agencies.

One such conference held recently was Lendit, And since you missed it, here’s some good Marketplace Lending Comparisoninformation that provides a good update on where this market is and where it seems to be heading.

Former SBA Administrator Karen Mills offered some good analysis as to the comparative strengths and weaknesses of traditional banks vs. the new innovative lenders. For example, bank advantages included their access to cheap capital, gathered through federally-insured deposits, while the innovative lenders have to pay high rates for lender finance and investor funding. Banks also have access to more lending prospects for a relatively low cost, since a significant majority of the population uses a bank account, while online lenders pay upwards to 15 percent client acquisition costs.

But online lenders operate on technology-powered underwriting platforms that require less human intervention and provide consistent decisions in minutes, while banks require expensive underwriting labor, who spend an average 26 hours each week on loan paperwork. Online lenders also are largely unregulated and don’t have the compliance burden that affects bank performance.

President Ron Suber, of peer-to-peer lender Prosper, offered insight into the rapid growth of the innovative lending marketplace over the past two years, outpacing expansion both the S&P index and the sale of smartphones. This growth has resulted in U.S. online consumer and small business lenders forking over an estimated $14 billion of loans in the year 2014 alone, with projected growth in 2015 up to $32 billion.

Finally, Renaud Laplanche, CEO of Lending Club–the first online lender to successfully go public–illustrated how relatively small the lending activity of the two largest online lenders is compared to the overall U.S. consumer and small business lending market (see graphic above).

Some may interpret Laplanche’s data as a demonstration of how traditional lenders have nothing to worry about, while others might recognize that there is plenty of growth available by pushing for a larger market share through a targeted innovative lending platform.

What do you think? Comment on this page or write me at Director@SBFI.org.

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2015 Records Surge in Net Profit at Privately-Held Companies

By Ravinder Kapur

A study produced by accounting software publisher Sageworks finds that net profit margins achieved a level of 8.1% year to date ending March, 2015, a record which was last seen prior to the global financial crisis, and which reflects a growth of 24.5% over last year’s profit margins. The vast majority of American enterprises are small privately-owned businesses that drive more than half of job creation in the country and their growing financial health is already reflected in decreasing unemployment numbers.

However, not all industries have seen a uniform rise in profits and certain sectors have not Regulator Scrutinyperformed as well as others. But the momentum of the profit growth has been so strong that even the industries with the worst performance have shown a growth in profits, with the list of the bottom 15 including printing and related support activities (profit growth of 18.3%), grocery wholesalers (17.5%) and grocery stores (16%).

According to James Noe, an analyst at Sageworks, “These industries are a little behind the pack, but they’re still profitable and growing profits in the past year. That an industry with nearly 20% net profit margin growth is considered to be ‘lagging behind’ is an indicator of what sound shape private companies are currently in.”

The study also identified the levels of profitability for the 12 months ending March, 2015, for industries which historically have low profit margins. They observed that the list of 15 least profitable industries includes beverage manufacturing (net profit margin of 0.3%), oilseed and grain farming (0.8%), gas stations (3%) and auto dealers (3.1%).

Commenting on these low margin levels, Noe remarked, “Some of these companies, like auto dealers and gas stations, typically have thin margins by the nature of the industry that they are operating in.”

In calculating the net profit margin of 8.1% for all industries, the profit considered has been arrived at by excluding taxes and including that portion of owner remuneration which exceeds a market-rate salary.

The financial soundness and increasing profits of the small business sector and privately owned companies is a reassuring sign for the economy and it also bodes well for employment growth.

Noe further explained the importance of profitability for the small business sector, “The vast majority of private firms in the U.S. are small businesses, mom-and-pop stores and sole proprietorships. They don’t have venture funding or private capital helping them perform their day-to-day operations. Profit is how these business owners put food on the table and keep their companies afloat.”

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Deutsche Bank Pleads Guilty to LIBOR Manipulation

By Charles H. Green

Ending a seven-year investigation of at least one bank, Deutsche Bank pleaded guilty to criminal charges of purposely manipulating the London interbank offering rate (LIBOR) in collusion with several other banks, and has agreed to pay an eye-popping $2.5 billion fine. In addition to the cash penalty, the bank accepted the conviction on criminal charges and discharged several employees. Barclays and USB have already settled cases against them, while prosecutors are still in discussions with other banks being scrutinized.

By arbitrarily manipulating interest rates these banks harmed millions of transactions Deutsche Bankparticipants globally, in that the LIBOR rate underpins trillions of dollars in mortgages, student loans and other commercial debt.

As reported by the New York Times, Leslie R Caldwell, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said “Today’s resolution of the Libor investigation with Deutsche Bank is in some respects the most significant one yet,” The Justice Department coordinated the investigation along with authorities in Washington, London and New York.

The case spotlighted the collusive elements of Wall Street trading desks, where rival banks have occasionally joined forces to manipulate financial benchmarks. It also foreshadows looming actions against banks suspected of teaming up to manipulate the price of foreign currencies, people briefed on the matter said, with the Justice Department planning to announce guilty pleas from at least four banks — Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and the Royal Bank of Scotland — by next month.

“Financial markets function properly only if customers and competing banks have confidence that they are untainted by fraud and collusion,” said William J. Baer, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust unit, adding that “the unprecedented size of the penalty” demonstrates just “how far from that bedrock principle Deutsche Bank and its traders strayed.”

The investigation into whether the LIBOR was rigged started in 2008 with a single investigator at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and later spread to criminal and regulatory agencies around the globe. Deutsche Bank’s settlement is jointly with the Justice Department’s criminal and antitrust divisions, New York Financial Supervisor, CFTC and the Financial Conduct Authority of Britain.

As part of the deals, the bank will install an independent monitor, the first such requirement in a Libor case. More broadly, the authorities ordered the bank to dismiss seven managers suspected of involvement in the wrongdoing, all but one of whom are in London. They were among 29 employees suspected of playing a role, most of whom have already left the bank.

“We deeply regret this matter but are pleased to have resolved it,” said Jürgen Fitschen and Anshu Jain, the co-chief executives of Deutsche Bank. “The bank accepts the findings of the regulators.” The bank had hoped to pay less than $2 billion, and while the deal will provide some closure to this investigation, they will not end the bank’s legal problems. Deutsche Bank is also ensnared in the foreign exchange investigation. And it is suspected of violating United States sanctions against countries like Iran.

The size of the fine and other penalties reflected the breadth of wrongdoing that authorities uncovered, while regulators denounced the bank’s lax oversight of traders and failure to respond to warning signs of misconduct. In addition, Deutsche Bank intentionally dragged its feet in responding to demands for information for more than two years and accidentally destroying some evidence.

The manipulation was conducted between 2005 and 2011 and involved employees in London, Frankfurt, New York and Tokyo. “Markets do not just manipulate themselves,” said New York’s state financial regulator Benjamin Lawsky. “It takes deliberate wrongdoing by individuals.”

Manipulation of LIBOR, an average of how much banks say they would pay to borrow from one another, struck a nerve with government authorities. As a benchmark for trillions of dollars in credit-card loans and other financial instruments, LIBOR is a cornerstone of the financial marketplace. Read more at NYTimes.com.

What do you think? Comment on this page or write me at Director@SBFI.org.

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Strong Dollar Negates the Benefits of Cheap Oil

by Ravinder Kapur

Two significant developments in the world economy in 2014, the fall in oil prices and the rise in the dollar, were expected to greatly influence consumer spending and corporate performance in the current year. As reported recently by the New York Times, lower oil prices, which were expected to boost the economy by lowering gas costs and thereby increasing disposable income in the hands of consumers, have not yielded anticipated results as yet.

However, the strengthening of the dollar has negatively impacted the financial Dripperformance of many exporters and resulted in several major corporations announcing a fall in profits from overseas operations. Hence, while the gains expected from lower gas prices have not materialized, the negative impact of a robust dollar is already apparent.

Consumer spending, excluding gas station sales, in March was up 4% from a year earlier. While this may seem to be a direct result of the higher disposable income due to depressed oil prices, a comparison with increases in consumer spending in the year ended December 2014 at 5.5% and 4.7% for the year ended July 2014, the month when oil prices started declining, indicates that consumer spending is yet to reflect the impact of lower gas prices.

In fact consumers seem to have diverted their surplus due to lower gas prices into savings which have increased from 4.7% of income in the July – December, 2014 period to 5.7% in January and February. While this is beneficial in the long term, the immediate result is reduced spending which is depriving the economy of the boost that it could have received.

Companies with extensive overseas operations and export earnings have borne the brunt of the negative impact caused by the rising dollar. Proctor & Gamble, 3M and General Electric recently announced that their earnings have been significantly hit due to the dollar’s rise. The first quarter’s profits of publicly traded companies are expected to decline by 3.3% over the last year, the greatest fall since the global financial crisis. The rising dollar could also have other negative consequences including a reduction in exports, increased imports and a consequent drop in manufacturing and jobs. Exports are already down 1.4% in the months of January and February as against the same period last year.

While an increase in consumer spending as a result of lower oil prices and the consequent increase in purchasing power may yet come about, reduced company profits due to a strong dollar are already a reality. It remains to be seen whether the impetus the economy receives from the anticipated jump in consumer spending can overcome the negative impact of the rise in the dollar rate.

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