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Panelists say there's 'room for some optimism' despite economic challenges

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The economy's gradual recovery inspired a cautiously optimistic panel discussion this morning at the Northern New Jersey Business Outlook at Ramapo College, in Mahwah.

Robert Topel, UPS vice president of marketing for the east region, said the 2013 economic expansion will be modest, but “there is room for some optimism, compared to 2012.” He said businesses “are making some forward-thinking decisions, but they are conservative and controlled in a way we have not seen in several years, and will remain so for some time to come, which will somewhat limit the expansion.”

He predicted more retail sales will be direct to consumer, with products delivered to the homes or workplaces of consumers who don’t have time to shop. And he said there will “be another Amazon someday” as innovators seek opportunity: “Great ideas come from young people wondering what they will do when they graduate.”

Topel said he is concerned about the health of small businesses, whose success fuels the economy and encourages more entrepreneurs to take the risk of starting up new enterprises.

James E. Glassman, senior economist for JPMorgan Chase, said the job market is a good barometer of the state of the economy, and the labor market is gaining strength.

“We are in the fourth inning of a recovery, and it has been very slow — and because it has been very slow, everyone has been beaten down,” he said.

The recession was extremely hard on 2008 graduates, but he said the job market has improved for every graduating class since then. And last year, “the lights started coming back on in housing industry: housing is becoming a positive source of growth for economy, but we have a long way to go.” He said corporate profits are strong, and “when companies are making record profits, it tells you there is a powerful incentive to think forward, because you know your competition will do the same thing.”

John Galandak, executive director of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, said the push from the administration of Gov. Chris Christie to make the state more business friendly, particularly by cutting red tape and superfluous regulations, is having an impact.

“The greatest challenge to our state is to create a climate in which private-sector jobs are created,” he said. The business decision to locate in New Jersey or leave the state “is not done in a vacuum — it’s a long, thoughtful process, and it’s tough to turn it around. Things need to be done to curtail spending — we can’t keep raising taxes, because the long-term cost is people leave for other states, and then that is where the future jobs are created.”

And state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Wayne) called partisan rancor a serious threat to the economy. He said Christie took criticism for reaching out to President Barack Obama for help after Sandy hit. “Christie is an outspoken Republican, but he put party aside and did what he had to do,” he said.

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