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Is Bullishness at IPEX a Positive Sign?

The reports from IPEX have been very enthusiastic.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: May 25, 2010

The reports from IPEX have been very enthusiastic. Most all reports from any show floor, in my 33 years in the industry, are positive, no matter what the facts seem to be. It's our nature, especially when our industry's owners and suppliers are all in one place. But these reports from IPEX seem to stand apart. I was not there, nor have I ever been to an IPEX, so I can't offer my own assessment. The idea of such bullishness it got me thinking (that's usually dangerous). What if the show really is a change in sentiment, and that sentiment is based on a true upward turn in the fortunes of print businesses. If so, then what was it that happened? Did anyone repeal the Internet, deflate the excitement of the iPad, and “unfriend” social media? Did print demand suddenly rise? Of course, none of those happened, and all of those still and will affect our business. Perhaps the industry may have right-sized itself. Weak print businesses have closed (even those who did not know that they were weak at the time), displaced workers took their skills elsewhere, and inefficient equipment sits idle or was scrapped. We won't know if this has happened except in retrospect, but there is some reason to believe that these trends were underway in 2009. While print demand won't come back, print profits can. The number of workers in the industry declined for part of the year at a faster rate than print shipments fell. That means that the industry was finally getting down to a productive base that was more appropriate for demand levels. Prior to that, employee reductions were trending at a rate down that was less than shipments. Finally things may be more appropriately balanced. The industry finally made an annualized profit in the fourth quarter of 2009. The decline in employees also means that there was a decline in the number of establishments. This was discussed in a recent chart. Weaker companies, prone to cut prices to stay busy, can survive in an environment where demand is flat or rising. Last year's steep decline in shipments, however, may have been too much for them, especially if they had more debt than they should have. While print prices are not rising, the healthier firms that have survived are in better position to cope with retrograde market prices than those who had heavy debt burdens. Perhaps we have finally arrived at a point where we have a core set of healthier print businesses, who have absorbed the sales volumes of their departed brethren without their overhead costs. That's they way it's supposed to work. Even if those volumes are at disappointing prices, they are being added to firms that have already covered their fixed costs, and show profits when others did not. When will we know? The full extent of government data about this period will not be available until 2012 or 2013; that doesn't help us now. We are able to make estimates with some assumptions based on other data later this summer. If this scenario is true, it also means that a positive capital investment period for the print industry may start again soon. Wouldn't that be nice?

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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