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PhillyInc: Looking ahead to 2012 - with caution

With the better part of three weeks to go in 2011, I've received far fewer holiday cards than business surveys about what 2012 will bring.

With the better part of three weeks to go in 2011, I've received far fewer holiday cards than business surveys about what 2012 will bring.

Perhaps no one's feeling very festive after this hard slog of a year. The business forecasts are far from jolly. Their tone is one of continued caution and littered with the U-word - uncertainty.

While I think it's far more important to follow what people and businesses do rather than what they say they'll do, it can be useful to scan the results of such surveys for possible trends.

For many, job growth is the only thing that matters. But as we've heard often throughout the recession and tepid recovery, job growth only follows from sales growth.

TD Bank N.A. last week released results of a survey of 200 executives of companies with annual sales between $25 million to $250 million. Encouragingly, 75 percent of the respondents said they expected sales to increase in 2012, including 27 percent who anticipate an increase of 10 percent or more.

While that should bode well for hiring, when asked how they'll deploy capital in 2012, 40 percent answered "technology." The next most likely area was "improvements to existing facilities" at 17 percent. Hiring and workforce development was tied for third at 12 percent, with new construction and acquiring office equipment or heavy machinery.

That emphasis on technology was also picked up by discussions at a recent meeting held by the Philadelphia office of KPMG L.L.P. and attended by more than 100 business leaders.

The auditing and tax-advisory firm regularly surveys professionals who are definitely not of the "man on the street" variety. They are the senior executives who serve on the audit committees of corporate boards and they very much view the world in terms of opportunity and risk.

Jerry Maginnis, KPMG's Philadelphia managing part-

ner, said much of the program revolved around companies' adoption of social media strategies and governance policies to minimize their risk. Where information technology may once have been viewed as something akin to "plumbing" - and thus beneath boardroom consideration - firms now see IT as a "strategic issue" and a new source of potential risk, he said.

KPMG also asked about profit expectations and hiring plans in 2012. Only 19 percent of those who responded indicated plans to hire over the next six months, down from 22 percent in a similar survey in May. As for profits, 59 percent expect a fatter bottom line in 2012, down from 72 percent in May.

Over the next few weeks, keep an eye on individual companies' projections for 2012 sales and earnings.  On Tuesday, Wilmington-based DuPont Co. is scheduled to provide its 2012 forecast.

Economists are never at a loss for prognostications, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia's latest Livingston Survey shows 35 of them lowering their targets for economic growth to 2.5 percent in first six months of 2012. They also don't see the unemployment rate budging much, calling for an 8.7 percent rate in December 2012.