The Economy Now and in the Future: Housing, Deficit, Interest Rates, and More
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Lyn Alden (00:00):
When you look at across the world, in developing countries, they learn to deal with background levels of inflation for periods of time that are longer. The risk is that when you get kind of sustained runaway inflation, the problem is that everything becomes way less organized because contracts have to be renewed more quickly. And so, there's all these frictions grow throughout the economy, and then basically the challenge that inflation is kind of a result of disorganization. Basically, things are not working right, the capital's impaired in some way, and it's almost like disorganization leads to more disorganization, which then leads to more disorganization. And so it kind of becomes a vicious cycle. So, I think the challenge is why inflation's happening and who's getting the new money because that impacts how they feel it.
Speaker 2 (00:52):
Welcome to Paychex THRIVE, a business podcast where you'll hear timely insights to help you navigate marketplace dynamics and propel your business forward. Here's your host, Gene Marks.
Gene Marks (01:08):
Hey everybody, it's Gene Marks and welcome back again to the Paychex THRIVE Podcast. Really glad to have you here if you're listening or watching, and I'm glad to have back as a returning guest, hopefully for many more return visits, Lyn Alden. Lyn is the founder of the Lyn Alden Investment Strategy and you can reach her at lynalden.com.
Gene Marks (01:26):
Lyn, first of all, thank you so much for joining me.
Lyn Alden (01:29):
Happy to be back. I enjoyed our prior discussion.
Gene Marks (01:31):
Yeah, so did I. And to recap our prior discussion just so people can get a little knowledge of who you are and what you do and why you're here actually, just tell us a little bit about what you do.
Lyn Alden (01:42):
Sure. My background is a blend of engineering and finance. I originally came from the aviation industry, focused initial on engineering, moved into overseeing their procurement, their finances, and I eventually founded Lyn Alden Investment Strategy to provide basically analysis on sectors that I cover using macroeconomic as well as things that touch and attack our energy that I tend to spend a little extra time on. And I generally treat it like a systems engineering approach because we have this kind of complex set of systems and you can use the same type of logic to address it.
Lyn Alden (02:20):
Basically, it's this big highly variable thing. There's inputs and outputs and I kind of just go through it systemically and try to break it down and say, okay, what are the bottlenecks here? What are the likely range of outcomes? And I try to basically make institutional type of research in plain English. So it is useful for both retail investors, business owners, institutional allocators across the board.
Gene Marks (02:43):
That's great. And you make your money, you have a newsletter, so that is quite popular that people can subscribe to on your website. And then also you do consulting for specific clients that want to know where the economy is going. Is that correct?
Lyn Alden (02:55):
Yes, I do consulting and I also am involved with some startups as well, a little bit in the VC space.
Gene Marks (03:01):
Great. All right, well that's great. Well, I'm glad to have you here. So, like I said before we get started, so our audience are small and midsize business owners for the most part. These are employer owned businesses. Everybody is trying to figure out where the economy is going. No one really knows, and no offense on your limb, but you don't... we don't know, you know what I mean? We're trying to figure it out. And it's a weird economy that we're dealing with as you're well aware. Who would've thought that we're record low unemployment, interest rates are higher than they've been in the past 30 years, and yet the economy keeps chugging along.
Gene Marks (03:34):
Let's start with real estate and housing and the construction industries. Some data that came out last week I do want to share with you. One has to do with consumer prices. The cost of shelter has slowed down, this is the cost of basically rents, to only an 8% year-over-year increase. So it's still high, but good news that it's trending in the right direction.
Gene Marks (04:02):
Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors are reporting that median house prices are kind of stuck where they are. They have been declining as well. New listings they say of sellers putting homes up for sale were down again this week by 18% from a year ago, which is certainly a lot. And residential sales still have not met the same levels that we saw pre COVID, but they've been sort of the bright spot of the housing and the real estate industry.
Gene Marks (04:33):
So Lyn, talk to us a little bit what's going on in your thoughts about housing and real estate. For all the people that are listening here that are in this industry, what areas do you think are going to be regrowing? What areas do you think will be recovering? And where are your concerns?
Lyn Alden (04:50):
Yeah, I think we're dealing with a couple different cross currents that are somewhat conflicting, which is why I think we end up with this unusual type of environment. And so basically the sharp increase in mortgage rates, to one extent it puts downward pressure on prices, but then it also means that nobody wants to sell if they can help it, if they've got a mortgage attached to their property. If you're locked in at under 3% or under 4%, that's like an asset, it's a liability. But for them it's like, the fact that they hold that and they can never replace it is something they want to hold onto. And so you have both affordability problems on the buy side and also a lack of desire to sell on the sell side. And so it's been decent for home builders to come in and fill that gap.
Lyn Alden (05:39):
And so, we've seen basically the housing sector manifest mainly in a slow down in activity. So there's not a lot of turnover, there's not a lot of houses being sold, but we have not seen that big price correction that a lot of people expected. And I've been kind of in the camp that, obviously real estate is a very local market, so there's various different types of cities and different types of, they're going to behave very differently. But in general, looking at linear markets nationwide, I've been in the camp that it's going to be flat pricing for a while, flat and choppy because on one hand you have that industry pressure, but then you also have that lack of selling. And then this is compounded by the fact that we're still running very large deficits. I think this is going to be a theme to pay attention to is just the phrasing is kind of fiscal dominance is a term I think we'll hear more of, which is when you have a backdrop of deficits of this size, it does provide a tailwind to some extent to parts of the economy.
Lyn Alden (06:38):
And so, on one hand, the higher rates pushing prices down. The deficit and other things kind of keeping them up, the fact that there's not many sellers keeping it up. And so it's obviously, this is a challenging environment for businesses that care about volumes. If you're involved in the turnover, that's where you're most hurt.
Lyn Alden (06:54):
We also see that the interest rate policy, to wrap up the point, it has very uneven impacts. So if you're a large corporation and you mostly access debt financing through bond issuance, a lot of them, if they're investment grade, they've locked in pretty long durations. So kind of like a homeowner, they're sitting pretty tight, they're not very industry sensitive on average. I was looking at a pipeline company for example, and their average debt maturity is 20 years at 4% or 5%. It's just locked in, basically the opposite of what the banks are dealing with.
Lyn Alden (07:29):
Whereas smaller businesses, obviously they're more reliant on bank financing, tend to have shorter average maturity of their various types of loans and liabilities. And so these smaller businesses are more impacted. So you have this very uneven impact from the rates.
Gene Marks (07:46):
Staying on the real estate for just minute. And then I do want to get to some of your points on interest rates and deficits. A lot of buyers are put up by what you just said, they're sitting on maybe 3% or 4% mortgages. To get a new home, your mortgage is 7% or 8%, so it puts off a lot of people from selling their existing home. I always thought that, when I talk about that with my clients, I'm like, yeah, okay, I get it that mortgage rates are certainly higher than what they've been before. You can always refinance though down the road. And I wonder if not enough people know that, or maybe they just do know that and they just don't want to incur the cost even in the short term.
Gene Marks (08:26):
How far down the road do you think somebody would have to hold onto a 7% or a 7.5% mortgage before they would be looking at refinancing? Do you think that's a 2024 thing, 2025?
Lyn Alden (08:38):
I think there's a decent chance of refinancing, but I don't really see them getting as low in that timeframe as what's previously been available. And of course, the challenge with the homeowner, especially if it's not a rental property, if it's just your primary home, you're trying to be conservative with it. And so you're trying not to, for example, stretch. And so we see a lot of... We look at affordability ratios like the median house price compared to the, like how many hours of work, for example, does it take to afford that house? Or how many hours a week do they have to work to afford the mortgage? Different metrics like that show that they're very expensive.
Lyn Alden (09:14):
And so, if they buy something they can't quite afford with the hope that it comes down, it's kind of like being in the same situation as having a variable rate mortgage. You're kind of playing chance. And so I think there's been some conservatism, probably rightfully so, on people saying, well, I can refinance. It's like, well, maybe, but we don't know when, we don't know at how much of a lower level that's really going to materialize.
Gene Marks (09:37):
Lyn Alden (09:39):
And I think a lot of the mobility we're seeing is from, we have to remember that not every house is bought on mortgage, especially the older demographic. On average, they have a lot more home equity,-
Gene Marks (09:50):
Lyn Alden (09:51):
... and so, they're a lot more portable. Whereas the part that's locked in is really that tied to mortgages.
Gene Marks (09:59):
That makes a lot of sense. It's funny, your work is so analytical and mathematical. And then there are actually some non-quantifiable things I think going on as well. I mean, there was a big spike in home buying during COVID. There was a lot of people that have been working from home that previously weren't working from home or are now maybe appreciating their homes that they never appreciated before. So they're actually enjoying their housing and don't have that desire to sell. There is that sort of less mobility. There's a lot of factors that are pushing people. But on the new housing, we still have a huge shortage of available housing. And I guess that's just going to continue to be an opportunity for home builders going forward. Does that make sense?
Lyn Alden (10:39):
I think so. I'm not sure we'll see the same type of performance we saw in the first half of this year, but I do think that home builders still have a runway ahead of them and other businesses that are part of that whole supply chain of new house construction and turnover and remodeling.
Gene Marks (10:55):
Yeah, it makes sense. It's funny, we have a house down the Jersey Shore and there's a bunch of old homes there that are 50, 60 years old that there's even new requirements now that these homes have to be built on a certain level above the ground now in case there's flooding. And you could just see the home builders down there flocking because anybody who sells a home, it's pretty going to be a tear down and new construction. So, you're right, earlier what you said, it really just depends on where you are and where your community is. It depends on inventory, it depends on pricing in your region. It's so localized, real estate, it's hard to just make a blanket statement about the real estate industry in the entire country.
Lyn Alden (11:29):
Yeah, that's also why we see some divergence. So if you look at, for example, median sales price of houses is down, but for example, the Case-Shiller has turned back up. And so different ways of measuring it, depending on what region you use, how you weight them, how you arrive at the pricing, you're going to get very different numbers. And so generally what we've seen is that most markets, these linear markets you don't think about, most of them are doing fine in terms of price. And most of the price declines have been isolated to certain cities, certain geographies, and that pulls down the whole average.
Gene Marks (12:00):
Right. All right, great point. All right, so we talked about interest rates before. You mentioned about deficits giving a tailwind to, I guess, spending. I mean, I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean by that and I was hoping you could explain that more.
Lyn Alden (12:16):
Sure. So, a fiscal deficit, it impacts the economy in ways that are generally near term bullish and longer term obviously a problem when you have all that debt accumulation. But generally, a deficit is a type of stimulus. That's why during recessions they'll usually either, there could be a tax cut program, there could be some sort of spending increase. So, we're in the kind of unusual environment right now where the federal government's running like 8% of GDP deficits when we're not even in a recession. That's nearly as high as they reached during the great recession of 2008, 2009. And we're running that without a recession.
Lyn Alden (12:59):
So, despite very low unemployment, we're kind of still plowing that stimulus in. And a lot of that is demographics based. So a lot of that is social security. A lot of that is healthcare. Some of its uptick in military expenditure, but a lot of that does cycle back into the economy. It doesn't cycle as quickly as a stimulus check or childcare tax credit. You're not just injecting money right into the, say lower middle class, but it's coming out in the form of higher interest expense to retirees that are able to travel with it and able to go to restaurants with it and then able to buy services with it and able to help their grandkids afford a wedding with it. It does trickle through the economy, and so it's somewhat of a counterforce against the tightening of monetary policy.
Lyn Alden (13:46):
And one of the challenges, so the inflation of the 1970s, the majority of money creation was from bank lending. So, the baby boomers that were born in the late 1940s were starting to enter their home buying years. That's a period of more rapid credit creation. And so you had an uptick in bank lending, that was the peak ever for the rate of new loan creation. Then you add to it obviously oil embargoes and other challenges like that, you get a pretty inflationary environment.
Lyn Alden (14:13):
And so, the main tool there is trying to raise rates to slow down the bank lending. And back then federal debt to GDP was only 30%, and so the increase in interest expense was meaningful, especially at the rates they did. But the negative impact on loan creation was a bigger force. So that was a disinflationary pressure.
Lyn Alden (14:32):
If you go back to the 1940s, the inflation was almost all fiscal driven. So it wasn't because banks were lending, it was because the government was running 30% of GDP deficits to fight the war. Most of that money would get plowed back into the economy, soldier salaries, manufacturing, commodities, whatever the case may be.
Gene Marks (14:50):
Lyn Alden (14:51):
Yeah. And so, you had... The 2020s has been a lot like the 1940s where it's been very fiscal driven inflation. Most of the money supply growth is not from excessive levels of bank lending, it's from the deficits. And then when you have over a hundred percent of GDP public debt and you raise rates, that increases the deficits in what is already deficit driven inflation, and at a time when homeowners and large corporations have locked in a lot of fixed rate debt, making them less influenced by interest rates.
Lyn Alden (15:21):
And so, you actually have this kind of period where the interest rates are not as impactful as you might've otherwise thought they were, and at extreme ends can even become pro inflationary. I don't think we're there yet, but they're certainly having mixed results in this type of economy.
Gene Marks (15:35):
When you look at the Fed's balance sheet, I mean their M2 money supply, it's still around 21 trillion dollars. I mean, it's still around $6 trillion higher than it was pre-COVID. You see it edging downwards, which is the right direction and a good sign. But I look at it, I'm like, wow, there's still a long way to go. And it seems like there is still so much money that has been spent and still to be spent. I mean there's obviously all of the stimulus bills that are still having their impact. There are the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Act. There's the State Small Business Credit Initiative, which is like $10 billion, going out into the economy just funding. It was supposed to be for COVID, but by the time the treasury department finally got around to approving it, COVID was pretty much in the river.
Gene Marks (16:20):
It's a lot of money that's washing around in the system. It concerns me that the Fed does not have all the tools that they need to constrain that. They have to almost wait for the economy to absorb all of that. Has it surprised you that inflation has been on the downturn over the past six months or so? Were you expecting it to go another direction?
Lyn Alden (16:46):
So, I expected the disinflation to occur. If you would've asked me nine months ago, I would've thought that we probably would've been in a recession by now, but it was earlier this year where I started to see that we kind of crossed the point where industry rates were no longer being as impactful as they were initially, and they were actually now leading to larger deficits.
Lyn Alden (17:06):
So, for example, if you look at what the deficit did, it blew out obviously during 2020, 2021, and then it was during 2022 that the deficit actually came back down pretty low. And that was partly because all of the capital gains taxes of all the good asset pricing in 2021 were all payable in 2022. So, tax came with a lag and some of that spending wound down.
Lyn Alden (17:29):
But then it started widening again in late 2022 and then into 2023. And when I started to see that happening, I said, okay, this is getting interesting now. And so, it's not that the inflation's really done anything different than I thought, but I do think that, the adjustment I've made is to see that the fiscal, ongoing deficits are, they keep pushing back the potential range for recession and keep making the economy more resilient than it otherwise would have. And I think the risk there is that we do risk another wave of inflation.
Lyn Alden (18:00):
This has been a period of economic deceleration for the most part. Obviously certain industries are more resilient than others. But as we've seen manufacturing indicators go down, real estate indicators go down, all these kind of areas-
Gene Marks (18:11):
Lyn Alden (18:12):
... get a lot softer. Yeah, tech. When we have the next round of acceleration, again, my concern is that inflation would still be there because some of the underlying forces are still there. So you still have the large background deficits. You still have arguably under-investment in the energy sector, and so you could have more price spikes in that type of area.
Gene Marks (18:35):
I guess then you're a fan then of maintaining interest rates at their current levels or even higher to try and provide an anti-motivation or a disincentivization for more spending more capital equipment purchases, more investment I guess because that would heat up the economy and potentially spur inflation.
Gene Marks (18:58):
So, are you happy with the level of interest rates where they are now do you think? And as part of that question, you had just said before that this is no longer, this is like the 1940s, not the 1950s. In other words, the interest rates have less of an effect on reducing deficits. Is it worth keeping interest rates this high? Do you think that they should be higher?
Lyn Alden (19:24):
So, I think that there should be a cost of capital, so it should not be at the zero level that it was before. I think a risk is that, going back to your prior point, is that the Fed doesn't really have the tools really to deal with fiscal driven inflation. There are certain things, let's say an oil shortage, or a very large fiscal deficits, those types of variables are largely outside of the Fed purview. And so the best they can do is attack it indirectly.
Lyn Alden (19:48):
So, if they say, okay, well the federal sector is stimulatory, we can try to slow down the private sector to balance that out. But is that, at the end of the day, what we want? When we think about getting inflation under control, we really want disinflationary growth. If you temporarily get inflation under control with a recession and then you stimulate out of the recession, get another round of inflation, that's not really what we're after.
Lyn Alden (20:10):
So, I think one thing that the Fed could do is kind of point out the issue. I mean, one, the Fed is interesting because in some ways they're like a fourth branch of government. They're a semi political organization. They're kind of like Supreme Court where they're not really supposed to be political. It's almost like it's a separate type.
Lyn Alden (20:29):
But during the peak of 2020, Powell called for more fiscal spending. He's like, we've kind of used our tools, we need more fiscal. I think he's at the phase now where it would be right to say, hey, the inflation we're seeing, the sticky part is partially because of this background deficit spending that's really outside of our control. And so we can only offset so much of that and that the legislative branch has to really look at some of the deficit spending.
Lyn Alden (20:59):
Outside of that, I think there's a risk that they basically, the Fed tries to overdo it even though they don't really have the right tools. So they might overuse tools that they have because it's like you're trying to hammer a nail in with a wrench and you just keep doing it because you're like, well, that's the only tool I have.
Gene Marks (21:16):
Sure. Younger people, I don't know how old you are, but I mean younger people have grown up in an era of almost 0% inflation, and that's what they're used to. So when it goes up to even 3%, 4% or 5%, people are freaking out about it. I mean, I remember when inflation, this is the late 1970s, early 1980s, obviously it was a lot higher than that. In your opinion as an economist, is there an acceptable level of inflation? Is 4% inflation so bad for an economy as long as wages are keeping pace?
Lyn Alden (21:49):
So, it partially depends on where it's coming from. The biggest risk I think is uneven types of inflation. And so some of the inflation we've seen in the past were injected at the bottom. A lot of that 1940s stuff was injected. The GIs came back and they were, 8 million were put through technical school and college and given mortgage assistance. So, it was kind of that bottom-up injection.
Lyn Alden (22:12):
The challenge in this cycle is that some of it was bottom up, but a lot of it was also top down. People would receive stimulus checks, but then also small business owners would get PPP loans to turn into grants. And for some of them, they needed it. Whereas other ones, they didn't really need it. And so a lot of that would just go to the bottom line. There's been studies showing that something like two thirds of it didn't really go to workers.
Lyn Alden (22:33):
And so, there's a lot of money creation. And so now I think the challenge is that it's hard for wages to keep up. And when you look at across the world, in developing countries, they learn to deal with background levels of inflation for periods of time that are longer. The risk is that when you get kind of sustained runaway inflation, the problem is that everything becomes way less organized because contracts have to be renewed more quickly. And so there's all these frictions grow throughout the economy, and then basically the challenge that inflation is kind of a result of disorganization. Basically things are not working right, the capital's impaired in some way, and it's almost like disorganization leads to more disorganization, which then leads to more disorganization. And so it kind of becomes a vicious cycle. So I think that's the challenge is why inflation's happening and who's getting the new money because that impacts how they feel it.
Gene Marks (23:30):
I got it. It's a great answer. All right, next and then we'll let you go. I do want to get back to interest rates for just a minute.
Gene Marks (23:37):
So, the Fed open market committee has announced they're going to have another 25 basis point increase. So, many of my clients right now are facing a prime rate of 8.5%, could be even higher, as much as 9% soon. Which means if you're a small business and you're borrowing money, you are looking at maybe 11%, 12% depending on their credit worthiness for new equipment, property, for working capital. It's a big deal. And all of this happened in a really short period of time.
Gene Marks (24:10):
What I'm seeing with my clients, and I have about 600 in my practice, is that they got financing over the past couple of years. But I'm looking at refinancing coming up and I get concerned because the people that want to refinance their existing term loans or their existing working capital loans are going to be looking at a lot higher cost of capital.
Gene Marks (24:29):
And I think that affects not only their ability to get those loans, I think banks will be questioning whether the debt maintenance will be there for them to continue to extend those loans or even to get that financing. It's just an ROI calculation as to whether or not it makes sense to get this for this piece of equipment. The financing costs are too much and I'm just going to defer until it makes more sense to me.
Gene Marks (24:51):
Do you see those similar headwinds? Because when we have, these are small businesses, I'm actually not familiar with the data about corporate financing and what's coming due then, that's going to have to be financed at a higher interest rate. Do you think that's a potential headwind over the next six to 12 months?
Lyn Alden (25:09):
I do. And when we think about interest rates, that's why I have to think that, we have to think both in terms of level and duration because merely staying at the current level will get tighter over time as more of these types of liabilities become due and get refinanced.
Lyn Alden (25:23):
And again, so we can segment the market. So at the very high end, so the big corporations, they've got these long duration locked in bonds. Now obviously some comes due, but a very small percentage of it comes due every year because they've really extended their durations.
Lyn Alden (25:37):
Whereas when you look at either more troubled areas of the large market, office or junk graded types of bonds, they obviously have shorter durations. And then when you go into small businesses and bank lending, basically these are shorter durations. And so that refinancing I think is a key risk that's still present.
Lyn Alden (25:57):
And the weird thing is, it works both ways. So for example, that deficit I talked about that is kind of fueling some of this, that also will get bigger just as more and more treasury debt matures and get refinanced at higher rates. So actually, the deficits will keep increasing even at current rates. But then also the drag on these smaller businesses will also keep increasing as more of their debt comes due at these higher rates. And so I do think that's why it makes sense for the Fed to slow down here and to see, okay, over the next six months, 12 months, what we've already done, how's that going to impact things, both on the stimulatory side and the drag side.
Gene Marks (26:36):
All of this converts into your prospects for the economy over the next, say three to six months. When I look at the economy, and again, I go to industry association after industry association, Lyn, and they all, I hear their numbers because before I speak to them, they do their business meeting, they go over how the association's doing. And across the board, I mean with some exceptions, like you've mentioned, manufacturing, construction, technology. But people are doing pretty good. I mean, it's been a fairly good year for most businesses, and yet all of them are uncertain about the future, which is not uncommon, but most are, no one's panicking about the economy. They're just expecting it to be a 2% to 3% type of year, and we'll see what happens in the next elections in 2024. Is that your take as well? Is there any areas of the economy that are panicking you right now or are you fairly confident of mostly stability over the next few months?
Lyn Alden (27:32):
Yeah, there's specific pockets. So, on profitable tech, that's reliant on constant equity issuance, that's been a problem. And then obviously commercial real estate, especially office, because they run it, is both problem of the property itself is partially vacant, and then also they're running into that refinancing wall. And so there are these areas that are almost apocalyptic, but they're generally small. They're kind of parts of the economy. And when you add three or four of them together, I do think we could see a mild recession by the end of the year or early next year. I wouldn't be surprised. The prior year, we kind of bounced off. We had the two negative quarters in a row, but we didn't have some of the other signs of recession like increase in unemployment, things like that.
Lyn Alden (28:20):
I think we could see another type of slowdown that people will debate whether or not it was a recession or not, depending on what metrics you look at. But I still think we have this somewhat stagflationary environment. And one of the challenges that the higher cost of capital slows down some of the supply side response.
Lyn Alden (28:38):
And so, for example, we're seeing that in the shale oil industry where drilling has already rolled over and overall production tends to follow with a lag. And so production's still increasing, but drilling is already rolled over. And so, I think we have increasing risk of a little bit more tightness in the supply side, which then can keep the Fed elevated, keep inflation metrics above the 2% target that they aim for. So, I still think this is kind of going to be a process that's going to have some kind of unpleasant quarters.
Gene Marks (29:11):
All right. Well, super helpful, Lyn. This is great talking with you again. We're going to hopefully have you back in another couple of months. We'll talk about where the economy is going. I want to get into crypto with you as well. I think our audience needs an education from you and the pros and the cons and where you think things are going. We have lots to talk about. But thank you. It was great and informative discussion. I appreciate your time.
Lyn Alden (29:30):
Happy to. Thanks for having me.
Gene Marks (29:32):
Lyn Alden is the founder of Lyn Alden Investment Strategy Group, Lyn Inc. Lyn Alden Investment Strategy.
Lyn Alden (29:40):
Lyn Alden Investment Strategy. Yeah. Just the name.
Gene Marks (29:41):
Okay. Fair enough. You can find Lyn at Lynalden.com. L-Y-N-A-L-D-E-N. Lyn, thank you again. Thanks for joining us.
Gene Marks (29:50):
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Gene Marks (30:01):
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Speaker 2 (30:27):
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