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Middle Market Left Largely Unscathed by Retail "Apocalypse"

July 27, 2017, 07:20 AM
Filed Under: Economic Commentary

With distress in the brick & mortar sector leading to hundreds of store closures since the start of the year, retail firms operating in the middle market have managed to dodge the worst of the crisis, posting gains in both sales and employment in the second quarter. That's according to the Q2 2017 Middle Market Indicator (MMI) released by the National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM).

The retail industry is a focal point for Q2 due to the segment increasing sales and jobs in substantial numbers. Not only has year-over-year growth accelerated in retail trade over the past four quarters, but employment growth has doubled since last quarter to 9.1 percent with expectations continuing to rise. Nearly 55 percent of retail firms increased employment within this past year, and 44 percent expect to increase the size of their workforce in 2018.

"The retail apocalypse has spared the middle market so far with 39 percent of firms expecting expansion in the next year," said NCMM Managing Director Doug Farren. "On the other hand, 18 percent expect their industry to contract in the next 12 months, which is the highest number of pessimists in the middle market." 

Overall performance in the middle market continues to remain strong and optimistic, with most middle market leaders stating that performance has improved with very few reporting worsening conditions,

Revenue growth, employment growth and confidence remain high, despite dips across the board from the previous quarter. Middle market companies continue to report impressive employment growth, with this quarter's 5.7 percent growth two points higher than the average and the second highest mark in the MMI's five-year history. Similarly, confidence in each of the local (87 percent), U.S. (84 percent) and global (70 percent) economies received their second highest marks. Meanwhile, the Q2 revenue growth of 6.7 percent represents a return to the average level of 6.6 percent, following a surge in Q1.

"The U.S. middle market had an exuberant Q1 and has settled back to normal in Q2," said NCMM Executive Director Thomas A. Stewart. "It's important to note how remarkable 'normal' is because most companies would kill for an average revenue growth rate of 6.7 percent. Tying in impressive employment growth and confidence levels, the middle market has continued to gain ground during the MMI's five-year history."

The continued employment growth rate and its expectations reflect the anticipation of strong overall company growth going forward. Every industry prospered and had strong, solid performances over the last 12 months with the exception of wholesale trade, which saw a 20 percent decrease in revenues. Even with this decline, the wholesale trade industry's expectations for future growth remain bright.

As expected, the upper segment of the middle market – those with annual revenues from $100M to $1B – represents the most positive outlook. The pictures for these firms are brightest due to their expansion capabilities, acquisition potential and investment opportunities, bolstered by their higher revenue.

With the influx of mergers and acquisitions the past couple of years, larger firms across all industries are likely to take advantage of this boom over the next 12 months. NCMM's Q2 MMI report found that 34 percent of acquiring firms rank gaining new markets and customers as a top priority, but acquiring new talent and leadership is an aspect that should not be overlooked ranking at 11 percent.

Challenges for the Middle Market

While the current state and growth of the middle market remains optimistic, a troubling trend could be hiding in the otherwise cheerful picture. In the middle market, labor productivity (output per hour of work) is growing slowly, if at all. The narrowing gap between Q2 MMI revenue (6.7 percent) and job increases (5.7 percent) is being achieved by putting more people in jobs, not by realizing more revenue per employee. Economists believe that slow labor productivity growth is one reason wages have risen slowly even with the currently low unemployment rate. As a result, productivity should go up as a consequence of achieving economies of scale or investing in new equipment and technology.

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