Is it Different This Time?

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Is this recession’s so-called recovery period different enough from past recoveries to lead people to think that while it’s slower and a more painful slog back, we will nevertheless return to some pre-recession “normal,” or, is it so different that we are unable to see the “double dip” ahead?

I moderated a panel last week at inaugural seminar of The Robin Report and Fashion Group International C-Level Seminar Series. On this panel were Joe Gromek, CEO of Warnaco Inc., Alexis Maybank, Founder and CMO of the Gilt Groupe and Neil Cole, CEO of Iconix. Preceding our panel discussion were presentations by Andrew Tilton, Senior Economist from Goldman Sachs and John Long, Partner and Retail Strategist at Kurt Salmon.

While Andrew’s macro-economic forecast was for low GDP growth (in the 2 – 2.5% range), and low inflation with the feds fund rate remaining close to zero, which he predicted through 2014, he did not even hint of a “double-dip” recession. However, he did toss out a nugget for thought: that this recession’s recovery is different than all past recoveries, pointing to the fact this time consumers are spending more on oil and gas, whereas in all past recessions since WWII, they spent less on fuel. Furthermore, all past recessions were followed by increased home construction — which of course is not only not happening, it’s going in the opposite direction.

John Long’s presentation of a consumer survey conducted by Kurt Salmon found that some 60% of consumers intended to spend less this Holiday season than in 2010. However, he then pointed out that in every past similar survey they had conducted in which consumers said they were going to spend less, they, in fact, ended up spending more. They also invariably end up spending more than they intend to.

I then had an “Aha” moment, and connected the dots to a paradox of thoughts. Andrew’s point about this time being different seems paradoxical to John’s implied point that this time is not different. In fact, the two points are not paradoxical because the same motivating factor is driving consumer behavior in both instances. The erosion of “fear” led consumers to do discretionary spending on more than just oil and gas coming out of all past recessions. And, a similar reduction in “fear” led consumers to spend more than they had consciously, rationally planned to.

\"RRWell, as FDR said: “all we have to fear is fear itself,” and, unless I have lost all my marbles, we have every reason to fear “fear.” Big time fear spans the globe, and without detailing the multitude of reasons you are all aware of, for why apocalypse is indeed, “on the table,” I don’t see it disappearing as we head into the holidays.

So, back to my panel to close the loop on this little missile. All three panelists – Gromek, Maybank and Cole – are extremely intelligent leaders of their very successful businesses, barely hiccupping through the 2008 meltdown. And, while they generally acknowledged that the state our economy (including retail) is about “as good as it gets” for the foreseeable future, meaning slow growth and intensely competitive, not a hint of a “double-dip” crossed their lips either.

Speaking of fear of “fear,” maybe we were all afraid to even consider another U.S. recession, much less a global one.

However, when I awoke the next day, hearing more bad economic news on the airwaves, reality dawned on me that the proverbial sh–t is about two inches from hitting the fan on consumer spending, a big threat to this holiday season.

Yes, this time is different. Just as the erosion of fear pulled us out of those past recessions, an accelerating fear, based in reality, and good reason for fear, will push us into the feared “double dip.”

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