Industry Economists Forecast How the Economy May Impact Commercial Printing
It has now been six years, most economic observers agree, since the Great Recession in the United States came to an end. The return to milk and honey has been less pronounced, as anticipated; those six years have offered little more than baby steps in GDP growth (even less so for the printing industry). It’s interesting from a historical perspective...a growth phenomenon not seen since pre-World War II.
The commercial printing industry’s fortunes are closely tied to the U.S. economy, following slowly behind, as has been its historic trail. The $100,000 question is, what do we expect it to do moving forward? Well, one of the best measures can be taken by looking backward.
The economy, like a 35-year-old son living in his parents’ basement, doesn’t seem to be in a particular hurry to go anywhere or do anything. So, we celebrate the small victories, which in this case will probably be approximately 2 percent GDP economic growth when 2015 is totaled out. The printing industry itself will likely post growth in the 1 percent range. The performance is somewhat indistinguishable from its last few predecessors, according to Ronnie Davis, senior vice president and chief economist for Printing Industries of America.
“We’ll probably end up in the so-so range,” Davis predicts. “In the second quarter, we saw some signs of really coming out of this thing. But then we encountered the problems with what’s going on in China and Europe. And, while it’s been just a bunch of so-so years, it is positive growth.”
The truth of the matter is, the country is caught in its worst post-recessional recovery period since the end of World War II. The traditional cycle for a recovery period is six to seven years, according to Davis, and the thought of another recession—sans a healthy period of economic growth—is downright frightening.
That may also be the good news. There are elements of a healthy U.S. economy that are table setters for the next recession around the corner, Davis notes. Since the economy is sputtering, these variables are not precipitating change. The result? A carbon copy performance of the previous year.
“Usually economic recovery comes roaring back, with a 3 percent to 7 percent increase,” he says. “That hasn’t been the case now, though. When you have rapid recovery in an economy, you tend to get a little overexuberant in terms of consumers spending too much and businesses investing too much. Consumers end up pushed against their credit limits and businesses find themselves with too much capacity.
“In this case, consumers are still continuing to pay off debt. That says to me that it will lead to the recovery lasting longer.”
Andy Paparozzi, chief economist for Epicomm, the Association for Leaders in Print, Mail, Fulfillment and Marketing Services, is in concert with Davis in terms of printing industry growth coming in at 0.5 percent to 1 percent for 2015. He cites the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia’s Survey of Professional Forecasters (SPF) median forecast, which projects GDP growth at 2.3 percent.
Looking ahead at 2016, Epicomm expects commercial printing industry sales to grow between 2-3 percent, with the economy and pricing power playing the wildcard roles. Despite continued consolidation, Paparozzi notes that 25.4 percent of Epicomm’s “State of the Industry” participants were able to raise prices in 2015.
“If the economy strengthens and we regain some pricing power…we can hit the upper half of that [2-3 percent] range,” he says. “If not, we’ll end up close to this year’s results.”
So while economic recovery spins its own version of “Waiting for Godot” in the short term, another interesting scenario is playing itself out as we look toward the future of the U.S. economy and, by extension, printing industry growth over the course of the next three years. Could it continue on its present path of sputtering, but still positive, growth? Is there a chance of accelerated growth? Or might we experience a mild recession?
Predicting the direction the economy will take is much like meteorologists trying to peg down the path of a hurricane. Davis has crunched the numbers and feels the odds [50 percent] are most likely that the U.S. economy will continue on its current trajectory of continued, yet spotty, growth during the next 36 months. Accelerated growth has a 25 percent chance of finally rearing its head; ditto for the chances that we’ll see a mild to average recession during the course of the next three years.
Fortunately, a major recession seems a remote possibility, given that downturns of this caliber are extremely rare. Particularly since it would come on the heels of one of our nation’s most prolific downturns.
How does this impact GDP growth? The slow-growth trend would call for a 2.4 percent increase during the next three years. Accelerated growth would see that number climb to 3.5 percent by 2017, which would be the highest rate since 2004. The recessional scenario would see a bottoming out at -1 percent before turning flat in 2017.
There is reason for optimism. Paparozzi points out that sales have risen 5.5 percent from the 2011 low. An impressive 32.3 percent of Epicomm’s research respondents predicted increased sales by at least 5 percent in 2015 when they were polled, and another 24 percent believe they will see a bump of at least 10 percent.
Some Key Traits Among Sales Leaders
The common thread among the group of printers experiencing handsome growth is their ability to become engaged with clients very early on in their projects. “Many of the companies we survey are getting involved in their clients’ work earlier, staying involved longer and satisfying a broader range of the communications needs,” Paparozzi notes. “They are creating customized programs that help clients communicate more effectively with their clients.
“As Epicomm has long emphasized, the problem in our industry is not a shortage of opportunity—it’s deciding what’s the right opportunity for my company, given our unique resources, circumstances and goals. That’s a make-or-break decision.”
One of the biggest variables that could sway the printing industry’s fortunes during the next four years is, in itself, a prime resource for printing work. The 2016 presidential election will produce a considerable influx of political printing—Davis estimates it will actually represent about 0.5 percent of printing growth next year—but, ultimately, the next president will hold even greater influence based upon his or her policies and agenda.
In fact, Davis feels some public policy issues could enable the economy, and printing sales, to reap the best-case scenario of accelerated growth. Even under a Republican president, the odds are long that all of the items on Davis’ laundry list would make the cut.
The list includes: pro-growth tax reform, with a reduction in corporate income taxes to make the U.S. tax system more efficient and competitive; regulatory reform to encourage business and employee expansion; export-friendly trade agreements; more independence by the Federal Reserve System; and “serious” entitlement reform to help foster deficit reduction.
“Printing as a marketing and promotional medium is still doing quite well,” Davis concludes. “Printing tends to do well in a mature economic recovery phase. Even 1 percent growth is fairly stable in such a big industry. There are still a lot of dollars out there that printers can chase.” PI