At the end of last year, an all-time high — 73 percent — of middle market company executives reported that their company’s overall performance exceeded that of last year, according to the National Center for the Middle Market. In Q3 2019, that number was 60 percent, down from 68 percent in Q2, according to the organization’s Q3 2019 Middle Market Indicator report, released last week.
This figure is indicative of the report’s overall findings — while performance is still relatively solid among middle market organizations, growth rates are declining, hiring rates are slowing, economic confidence is wavering, and companies are adjusting their expectations for expansion in the coming year. “Overall, leaders appear to be taking appropriate steps and hedging their bets for the time being, perhaps responding to growing national and global economic uncertainty. As attitudes and behaviors shift toward conservatism, many leaders are focusing internally on ways to cut costs and drive efficiency to ensure they are prepared for whatever the coming months bring,” according to the report.
Here are four takeaways from the National Center for the Middle Market’s Q3 report. For more, read the full report.
1. The percentage of companies adding jobs dips under 50% for the first time in 2.5 years:
For the past 2.5 years, more than half of middle market companies reported adding jobs, vs. 46 percent of companies this quarter. Year-over-year employment growth also fell this quarter vs. Q2 2019, from 6.4 percent to 4.1 percent, and the projected rate of growth for the next year is only 2.5 percent — the lowest number since 2014. Companies with annual revenues under $100 million were less likely to have added jobs than those with revenues between $100 million and $1 billion.
2. Middle market leaders are confident in their local economics — the global economy, not as much:
While 81 percent of middle market executives remain confident in their local economies, the figure for the global economy is much lower at 55 percent. This reflects a major decline from Q1 2018, when the figure was 82 percent. Confidence in the U.S. economy was 76 percent this quarter — lower than the five-year average of 79 percent.
3. Talent management is a persistent challenge:
Even as company’s hiring plans become more modest, today’s middle market companies struggle with retaining workers given low unemployment rates and persistent skills gaps, particularly in certain sectors. According to the report, 55 percent of companies cited talent management as a pressing short-term challenge and 46 percent as a long-term concern.
4. Nearly half of companies are consciously tightening their purse strings:
Forty-six percent of executives said they had “accelerated cost-cutting and efficiency efforts in the last six months.” This is likely tied to declining hiring rates and may lead to a decrease in raises for existing employees as well. In addition, “this suggests that bosses may be more Scrooge than Santa when merit increase time rolls around,” according to the report. These cost-cutting efforts come amid a widening gap between cost and profit expectations — this quarter, middle market executives reported their profit margin growth over the next year as 1.7 percent, compared to reports of 3 percent throughout 2018 and earlier this year.
The data seems foreboding — “this quarter’s report shows the biggest one-quarter drops in revenue and employment growth in the eight-year history of the MMI,” notes the study’s authors. However, they also note “it’s important not to make too much of these downward-pointing numbers,” as they only reflect a quarter’s worth of data and may prove to be an anomaly. Tracking growth and hiring, investment activity, and executive sentiment over the coming quarters will help determine whether this data is an outlier or a true reflection of economic softening.