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Obama's economic plans may significantly affect Minn. companies

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SuperTarget in Roseville
The National Retail Federation predicts sales for the upcoming holiday season, will be the slowest since 2002, something that will hit retailers like Minneapolis-based Target Corporation hard.
MPR Photo/Martin Moylan

Talk to a consumer these days and you're likely to get an analysis like this one offered by Daschel Christopherson of St. Paul.

"With everything that's going on right now, people are going to hang on to their money," Christopherson said.

To fight that impulse, President-elect  Obama, and   Congress,  are expected to push through an economic stimulus program of between $150 billion to $300 billion. 

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans analyst Dave Heupel said retailers, suffering from sagging sales, would surely welcome that move.

"I think that certainly benefits the likes of a Target, who will see some increase in their store traffic and transactions," Heupel said.

It'd probably be good, too, for Richfield-based Best Buy. The consumer electronics retailer said the previous rounds of stimulus checks have helped boost sales.

Consumer spending
U.S. personal consumption expenditures posted their worst decline in 28 years in the third quarter of 2008.
MPR Graphic/Bill Catlin

But some industry experts think even $300 billion in checks won't be enough to get consumers to open their wallets, not given rising unemployment  and the pullback in spending that goes with it.  

Today, the U.S. Jobless rate jumped to 6.5 percent, and retail consultant Howard Davidowitz fears it  could reach 10 percent.

He said rising unemployment, combined with other economic woes, will rock Target, Best Buy and most other retailers.

"We're in for very rough period," Davidowitz said. "We're in for a financial crisis. The consumer has $14 trillion in debt, negative savings. Bankruptcies are through the roof. Consumers can't pay their credit card bills. Their retirement plans are devastated."

The bottom line is, consumers are going to be really watching their spending. Davidowitz said most retailers are going to see falling sales, as people forego buying  big-ticket consumer electronics, fashionable clothing, home furnishings and other discretionary items.    Davidowitz believes the only retailers that may fare well are those that focus on selling basic goods at low prices. Retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco and the Dollar Store.

Target, and most other retailers, may also face serious trouble on the labor front. Historically, they've pretty much kept unions at bay. But Democrats favor legislation that could make it much easier for unions to win representation elections. And retailers would be a prominent target for union drives.

Thrivent's Dave Heupel predicts unions will push for higher wages, as well as giving benefits to part-timers. 

"They'd want more of these employees deemed full-time and therefore more open to having health care and other benefits that full-time employee would have," Heupel said.

Heupel said may retailers keep workers under 40 hours to limit benefits.

Under Obama's leadership, the federal government could also change the rules greatly for health care industry players such as Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group.

Barack Obama made revamping the $2.2 trillion U.S. health-care system a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Among other things,  Obama promised to reduce the money insurers get for managing health care programs. He wants more money to go toward health care and less to the insurance companies themselves.

"The general consensus out there is that it's probably a negative for the managed care companies," said Andrew Adams, a portfolio manager at Mairs and Power in St. Paul. The firm pays close attention to regional stocks. 

 Adams notes there may be an upside for insurers in Obama's vision for health care.

"If Barack Obama does come up with a plan for insuring the 40 or 45 million uninsured in America, I believe that plan will include the managed care companies," Adams said. "So, longer term, it could turn out to be a positive for UnitedHealth."

Longer-term, for sure. Even though there's widespread support for expanded health coverage, there's the matter of paying for it. Finding the money will be a tremendous challenge given the housing, employment and other economic woes facing the nation.