Eternal optimism of the spotless mind

January 17, 2012
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When it comes to optimism, local business owners have apparently cornered the market.

The recent 2012 Economic Trends Survey from The Employers’ Association revealed that West Michigan data reflects a higher level of optimism regarding both the 2011 and 2012 economic pictures than the national data.

Local data indicates 60 percent of respondents felt 2011 was better than 2010, as compared to 37 percent nationally, while 44 percent expect this year to be better than last. Nationally, only 32 percent were willing to make that claim.

An interesting point in the survey found that 52 percent of executives plan to manage their organizations by trimming costs and focusing mainly on lean/process improvement initiatives, as opposed to layoffs (6 percent), during 2012.

“Interestingly, 39 percent of respondents have no cost-cutting measures planned for 2012. This is a 5 percent decrease compared to last year’s survey results,” said Maggie McPhee, director of information services at TEA. “It’s not clear if this is a barometer of employers’ optimism or if it is an indicator of how lean companies are (already) operating after past cost-cutting measures.”

Tax app

Grand Rapids-based Greatland Corp. has an app for that. In fact, it’s the very first app business owners can use to file 1009-MISC forms with the IRS and have these forms mailed at the same time via their iPad and iPhone 3GS, or newer, mobile device.

“This first-of-its-kind app really caters to business owners who are always on the go and often away from their offices. By connecting to their existing Greatland speedEfiler.com or FileTaxes.com account, users can easily add new recipients and edit information on existing forms,” said Bob Nault, Greatland CEO. Nault said the app is free and can be downloaded from the App Store. More app information is available at greatland.com.

Hot pact

It’s too bad the App Store doesn’t offer a bargaining app that would instantly lead to new contracts. Still, the city of Grand Rapids is doing pretty good by using the old-fashioned method, sitting across a bargaining table. The city reached a new four-year agreement with the International Association of Firefighters Local 366 last week.

The contract represents a reduction in personnel costs of 8.2 percent annually. It contains a four-year wage freeze, a 20-percent health insurance premium and lower pension benefits for new hires. “The ratification of the Grand Rapids Firefighters’ contract demonstrates the desire of the IAFF to work with the city in order to continue to provide excellent service to our citizens,” said GR Fire Chief Laura Knapp.

Money trail

In an election year where the leading Republican presidential contender, Mitt Romney, is a former CEO of a private equity and investment firm known as Bain Capital, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization has released a list of how much PACS and individuals connected to those types of firms have donated to politicians.

MapLight reported that the private equity industry gave more than $17 million to Congressional figures from 2001-2011. Perhaps surprisingly, $10.8 million of that total went to Democrats and $6.5 million to GOPers. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, received $101,900 in contributions over that period and was listed at 51st on the listing of 638 names. Her fellow Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin, who has been in office longer than Stabenow, got just $39,500 from the private equity givers and was 139th on the MapLight list. Kinda goes to show you that seniority isn’t everything.

Swipe and smile

Well, consumers are back at it. The Federal Reserve reported that consumers increased their overall borrowing in November by $20.4 billion and some fiscal analysts see that as a sign that people are feeling better about the economy. But they put about $5.6 billion of that borrowing on their credit cards, after a few years of cutting back, and that amount was the largest monthly total in plastic charging since March 2008.

“This is a big jump in credit-card debt, and these are November figures. With the strong holiday sales, we will likely see another increase in December during the peak of the shopping season,” said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of Lowcards.com. “Consumers can’t get lured into running up more credit-card debt if they can’t afford to quickly pay it off. Increasing credit-card debt is not a trend to be carried over into the new year.”

Turn and cough

Neither is spending more for health care in tough economic times, but the trend continues. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, health care spending rose 3.9 percent in 2010, which is up a tongue depressor or two from 2009, when it went up by 3.8 percent. CMS revealed last week that total spending in 2010 was $2.6 trillion, which is 17.9 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Hospital spending, though, rose by 4.9 percent to $814 billion in 2010, but was down from 6.4-percent growth the previous year.

The Republican-dominated House Energy & Commerce Committee reported that taxpayers are bearing the brunt of the increase because the federal government’s spending share went up to 29 percent from 23 percent in 2007 — probably because fewer taxpayers had insurance, and jobs, in 2010 than in 2007. Michigan Congressman Fred Upton chairs the committee.

Atta buoy

Arn Boezaart, director of GVSU’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon, was four miles out on Lake Michigan on Dec. 30, overseeing the retrieval of MAREC’s new baby — a $1.6 million, 10-ton laser-equipped buoy that had been gathering weather data since Nov. 4.

The WindSentinel will be put back out again in March, to resume high-tech collection of wind, waves and much more data that may ultimately determine the feasibility of building commercial wind turbine farms out in Lake Michigan. The buoy has a laser wind sensor that simultaneously measures wind speeds at various heights above it, up to 150 meters — about as high as the hub on a big wind turbine.

The 58 days’ worth of data collected in November and December left Boezaart in a positively jubilant mood.

“We have real-time, hub-height offshore data for two of the most challenging months of the year, weather wise,” said Boezaart, which included some “major wind events” and storms.

“We recorded wave heights between 10 and 20 feet,” he added.

In mid-March, if the weather cooperates, the WindSentinel will be anchored on the Mid-Lake Plateau for most of 2012. The plateau is a big, submerged hill in the middle of Lake Michigan that rises from surrounding depths of 700 feet, up to within 130 feet of the surface.

First, however, a remotely-operated submersible owned by the University of Michigan will be dispatched to the site to make sure the WindSentinel’s six-ton anchor doesn’t come down on top of a valuable fish breeding site or an old shipwreck.

Boezaart said the Mid-Lake Plateau is a large geological formation, as much as a mile long and a quarter mile wide — apparently large enough to accommodate a substantial wind farm, if one could be built there.

Judging from nautical charts, the plateau is at least 30 miles from shore, due west of Montague. That means a wind farm there would not be visible from either shore, eliminating one of the major complaints that met earlier proposals for building wind farms four or five miles from the Michigan shoreline.

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