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Updated: 12/30/2013 09:14:52AM

What will the Florida business

environment be like in 2013?

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With a dash of optimism, a New Year economic forecast for our part of the world shows up in this space every year. When our principal concern is jobs and the inflation rate, our forecast record is as good as or better than the economists with their mathematical models. Not so in 2008. While concerned about some warning signs from debt statistics, the forecast for 2008 missed the severity of the real estate bubble and the Great Recession. We had company.

While not true during this long real estate and debt-induced recession, Florida, usually fares better than the nation’s economy. We start growing again at a faster pace than the nation as retirees continue to seek the sunshine. That appears to be happening now.

For hints at the direction of the nation’s economy, the Consumer Conference Board’s Leading Index is one of the most reliable indicators. Its 10 components include employment trends, manufacturers’ new orders including consumer goods, building permits, stock prices, the money supply, cost of debt, and consumer confidence expectations.

The Board’s leading indicator showed modest gains in September and October but fell back 2/10th percent in November. It stands at 95.8. A happier economic year, 2004, indexed at 100. Perhaps consumer confidence is shaken by the dysfunction of Congress in dealing with taxes, spending and the fiscal cliff.

It is also worth looking at our gross domestic product, the GDP, as measured in current dollars. Also important is the amount of debt the average household is carrying. The inflation rate continues to merit attention. However, for us, nothing is more important than Florida’s population growth.

Nationally, housing starts for the three months ending in November were the strongest they have been since the 2008 crash. Home sales in Florida, both new and resales, are moving up, as are their deflated prices.

On Wednesday, Standard & Poor’s released the respected Case-Shiller Index, which reflects apples-to-apples home price changes for 20 cities. The index shows prices up 4.5 percent over last year and up 8.5 percent in Miami. The inventory of brand new homes is at the lowest level in 50 years.

On the cautionary side, as important as unemployment and the fiscal cliff is our credit card debt. It averages about $7,200 per household. But more critical, half the households have no long-term credit card debt, meaning those that do average over $15,000. Not anything they can clear up in the next month or two. Before the crash, credit card debt was often repaid by an easy-to-acquire mortgage refinancing. On the positive side, over the last two years that overhanging credit card debt has been reduced by over $2,000 per household.

However, much of that reduction in the average has been achieved through defaults rather than repayment. For a large minority of consumers there is little borrowing capacity to fuel GDP growth.

On the flip side, many of our retirees looking at an increase in wealth from a recovered stock market are ready to satisfy a pent-up demand for new cars or a delayed retirement. Credit card companies are able to borrow at unusually low rates and charge very high fees for late payments and some usurious balance rates. Count on them to continue to make the growth in credit card debt easy to acquire.

It may not be healthy for the household but in the short term it helps fuel the recovery. The Conference Board believes GDP growth for the year ending this week will finish at 2.3 percent. Their forecast for next year is 1.6 percent, and for 2014, 2.4 percent.

Our population is growing again. Last year we added a quarter million new residents. New homes mean construction jobs. A growing retirement population means an ancillary growth in jobs to service that population from nurses to auto repairers to restaurant staff to plumbers, electricians and yard maintenance.

The forecast is for a year of above-average growth fueled by population growth, home resales and new home construction. Fairly robust retail sales will follow this activity with new jobs created in our economy. At Sun Coast Media Group newspapers, we are forecasting retail sales growth of better than 5 percent.