South Florida’s monthly unemployment rate probably will average less than 10 percent this year for the first time since 2008.

It has stayed in single digits for the last 12 months. Unemployed workers accounted for 8.4 percent of the area’s labor force in September.

But an austerity-induced return to double-digit unemployment is possible. Unless lawmakers step on the brakes, the federal government will plunge off the so-called “fiscal cliff” next year and take the economy down with it.

The Congressional Budget Office reported Nov. 8 that if federal lawmakers do nothing to avert automatic tax hikes and spending cuts in 2013, the U.S. economy will slip into recession and the nation’s unemployment rate will rise to 9.1 percent by the end of next year, well above the 7.9 percent level in October.

Will increases in federal tax rates on capital gains and other types of income combine with sharply reduced federal spending to throw the economy into a deep hole? Or will lawmakers tap the fiscal brakes lightly while gradual employment growth persists?

The Daily Business Review recently posed those questions and others in a roundtable discussion with nine South Florida professionals whose areas of expertise range from finance and law to education, entrepreneurship and economic development.


• Suzanne M. Amaducci-Adams, Miami partner, Bilzin Sumberg Baena Price & Axelrod

• James Cassel, chairman and co-founder, Cassel Salpeter & Co., an investment banking firm

• Francisco J. Cerezo, Miami partner, Foley & Lardner

• Bruce Foerster, president, South Beach Capital Markets Advisory Corp.

• Howard M. Gitten, patent attorney, Edwards Wildman Palmer, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach

• Mike Jones, retired president, Economic Council of Palm Beach County

• Erin D. Knight, executive vice president and Miami-Dade market president, Stonegate Bank

• Modesto A. Maidique, president emeritus, Florida International University; executive director, FIU’s Center for Leadership

• Tony Villamil, economist and dean of the school of business, St. Thomas University

The politics of government spending have clouded the 2013 economic outlook as the Obama administration and lawmakers in Washington debate the consequences of the “fiscal cliff” and alternatives to a sudden plunge in federal stimulus.

Allowing automatic federal tax increases and spending cuts to take effect next year “could throw us into another recession, starting in the second quarter,” said St. Thomas University’s Tony Villamil.

Villamil said a recession could unfold unless federal lawmakers prevent big increases in taxes on capital gains and other types of income and “provide the necessary environment so the private sector can begin growing faster,” including amendments to the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 that reformed bank regulation.

“If capital gains tax rates are going to double, if we’re going to continue with the Dodd-Frank reforms of the banking industry, we’re going to have a problem creating jobs,” he said.

Pressure for political compromise could keep the United States from going over the fiscal cliff. President Obama and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives may negotiate an alternative approach to sudden, severe federal austerity.

“I think people will be reasonable and take measures necessary to avoid the fiscal cliff,” attorney Francisco J. Cerezo said.

But the economy faces other challenges, too, and job growth could stall even if the fear of the fiscal cliff fades away.

“There are a lot of downside risks to the outlook,” Villamil said. “One is you’ve got a spreading eurozone recession.” In addition, “Latin America has slowed down sharply. … Brazil this year grew only 1.3 percent, so they’re trying to adjust, and that’s our major trade partner.”

At the same time, the Federal Reserve “may be creating a false economy based on liquidity” and low interest rates, Villamil said. “The excess bank reserves are $2.7 trillion and growing.”

Low borrowing costs have helped many small businesses survive the slow recovery from the U.S. economic recession from late 2007 to 2009. “A lot of those businesses are doing OK,” James Cassel said. “They’re not beating it out of the ballpark. But they’re not in trouble like they were three years ago.”

Low interest rates also have boosted demand for mortgages to buy and to refinance South Florida homes. “Now there’s activity on the purchase and refinance side,” Erin D. Knight said. In many cases, “what we are seeing is people buying these homes and renting them.”

Investors continue to bid aggressively for U.S. Treasury bonds, keeping interest rates near historic lows. But lawmakers have shown “a complete disregard for what happens if that market for government bonds turns unfriendly,” Bruce Foerster said. “When interest rates start to go up, the interest on that debt is going to become very rapidly a larger piece of a growing deficit, and I don’t hear people on either side of the aisle talking about that much.”

Not everyone is fretting about the fearsome fiscal cliff: The average busy entrepreneur may be giving scant attention to a possible overdose of economic depressants if the fiscally challenged federal government elects instant austerity come January.

Many businesses have a longer-term vision of the future, so pending federal tax hikes and spending cuts have little bearing on their day-to-day operating decisions, said Stonegate Bank’s Erin D. Knight.

“They can see what the world is going be in 10 years, so they’re ready to execute the plan. The stuff in the middle is irrelevant to them,” Knight said.

Leaders of growing, early-stage companies “don’t give a crap” about the current public debate over the “fiscal cliff,” said patent attorney Howard M. Gitten. “They see the fiscal cliff as a great distraction. It’s just another problem they’ll deal with when they get there.”

Gitten said several clients who are entrepreneurs with growing businesses told him prior to the Nov. 6 re-election of President Obama that they were “indifferent as to which tax regime will be in place.”

Total employment growth in South Florida has flattened. Civilian payroll jobs in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties declined slightly during the 12 months ended in September to 2.67 million, down by 0.9 percent from a year earlier. But area employment during the 12-month period grew at moderate rates between 1 percent and 2 percent in several key industries including trade and transportation, professional and business services, and health and private education services.

Growing companies “are basing those hiring decisions on what they really believe the future markets will be. It’s a combination of consumer confidence and … plenty of bank money available,” said investment banker James Cassel.

But Cassel also said employers adding staff are doing so cautiously, trying hard to avoid adding payroll expenses that they may have to cut later: “Every hire is heart-wrenching.”

Labor-saving technological advances restrain job growth because employers routinely consider automation as a substitute for additional staff, Tony Villamil said.

Innovations in technology have produced “creative destruction” by helping new companies displace old ones, but “from a jobs point of view, it’s not making that much of a difference,” Villamil said. “We do see employment growth, but it’s not at the levels that it should be at this stage of the business cycle.

Federal tax uncertainty has frozen some individual investors who are unsure how to handle their assets.

Many individual investors who hesitated to sell stocks, real estate and other assets for tax purposes prior to the Nov. 6 election may still wonder exactly what to do. Federal tax rates on capital gains, dividends and other forms of income are set to increase Jan. 1 — unless President Obama and Congress intervene.

But the fiscal uncertainty may be doing less to impede business investment activity than individual tax planning.

“We’re not seeing this paralysis,” attorney Francisco J. Cerezo said. “We’re right now working on a $700 million joint venture, which has some very complex tax consequences, and no one is sitting there fretting about whether it’s going to be Obama or Romney. … That’s just not happening.”

Individual clients of attorney Suzanne M. Amaducci-Adams have taken advantage of low interest rates by refinancing their mortgage loans but have done little else to minimize tax liability. They have been “somewhat paralyzed” due to tax uncertainty, she said.

But four commercial clients undeterred by the uncertainty recently obtained financing for construction projects, Amaducci-Adams said. “We haven’t seen construction deals for a long time,” she said, but the market for new commercial buildings recently has shown new life in hospitality, among other industries.

Investment banker James Cassel agreed that construction in South Florida is showing fresh signs of stability. He said one reason is a surge of foreign investment in Miami’s overbuilt condominium market and the subsequent rental of thousands of new, unoccupied condo units, which has reduced the area’s supply of surplus housing.

“The extinct ‘bird,’ the power crane, seems to be coming back,” Cassel said. “We didn’t predict that bird would come back for a few more years. In fact, four years ago, we had enough [condominium] inventory on Brickell Avenue for our grandchildren. Today it’s all gone, and there’s lights on.”

Many businesses with strong growth prospects are likely to view tax hikes more as a nuisance than an obstacle, said Modesto A. Maidique, president emeritus of Florida International University and executive director of the university’s Center for Leadership.

Maidique said tax liability was a remote concern when he invested in the 1970 startup of Analog Devices, now a publicly held company in Norwood, Massachusetts, that reports hundreds of millions of dollars of annual net income. “We thought we were going to be so successful that it [tax liability] didn’t matter,” he said.

Still, getting business acquisitions and other commercial transactions closed can prove challenging if the deal hinges contractually on a dynamic tax environment.

“There are usually deal terms that allow the money guys to reconfigure the playing field to their advantage,” attorney Howard M. Gitten said. “There’s now a deal term that if the tax situation changes, we can re-jigger the deal, and that’s a term you never saw before.”

The number of community banks in the area appears to declining, but South Florida has attracted more private equity firms and wealthy individuals, or “angels,” that buy stock in private businesses.

Mergers, acquisitions and failures continue to pare the number of banks based in South Florida, which has fallen to 67 from 80 over the last four years. Mike Jones said more banks, “community banks in particular,” will disappear as ongoing consolidation in the banking industry persists in the years ahead. Jones sits on a local board of BB&T Bank, which this year acquired the branch assets of Fort Lauderdale-based BankAtlantic.

But “the private equity community here is absolutely growing,” investment banker James Cassel said.

Compared with the number of institutional venture capital firms in South Florida, “you do find more angels down here,” Cassel said. “They move down to Florida, spend a year hanging out, then decide they’ve got to do something. Next thing you know,” they discover a promising business seeking equity capital and decide to “cover a million dollars of that deal.”

But a major outbreak of loan problems could constrain credit availability.

“Banks are not lending stupidly yet. They will again,” Cassel said. Under-pricing in bank lending already has lowered interest rates “to the point where from some bankers say we’re just going to drop out of this process because the rate is stupid.”

Bruce Foerster recalls when he moved to South Florida in the mid-1990s that the area lacked not only seed-capital sources but also a sophisticated view of business investment risk.

“When I got here in Christmas of ’94, you couldn’t find a venture capitalist in this town without a microscope,” Foerster said. “Now, I see a real serious building of a venture-capital mind-set, a private equity mind-set, that just didn’t exist here 25 years ago. I’m very encouraged about that.”

In California’s technology-rich Silicon Valley, “you look at any resume in that area, and the people have worked for a company that failed. … It doesn’t bother anyone there. Risk is in the DNA,” Foerster said. “The one thing I worry about here in Florida, with the political sector, is a misunderstanding of risk and a mischaracterization of risk, and maybe I would so far as to say a demonization of risk.”

Education is critically important to the development of talent and technology in South Florida, but underfunding threatens to undermine the academic mission of public schools.

“I think everybody is beginning to recognize that there is a new economy and … recognize the importance of education,” said Mike Jones, retired president of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County.

“We’ve got to re-educate a large portion of our labor force,” Bruce Foerster said.

But public universities in Florida have fallen off a fiscal cliff of their own, dragged down by deep cuts in financial support from the state government, Mitch Maidique said.

Maidique, former president of Florida International University, said, “$1 billion has been taken out of universities in the last four or five years. At FIU alone, we’ve lost $100 million. … How do you progress? How do you advance?”

Privately funded technology development has become a bigger driving force in the South Florida economy. Maidique said, for example, there is a “hotbed of high tech companies” along Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, including a fast-growing telemedicine business called Consult A Doctor.

Jones said South Florida has gained from the entrepreneurial influence of former IBM Corp. employees who started their own businesses after the information technology company downsized its operations in the area. “They didn’t leave when IBM shrank, and did their own thing here,” he said. “There are a lot of good things going on in our backyard.”

Jones said greater cooperation among research universities in South Florida could lead to increased invention and innovation. He cited the example of three universities in Research Triangle region of North Carolina. The schools — Duke University, University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University — entered an era of greater cooperation because “they all wanted a supercomputer, and couldn’t afford one. They all got together and shared one. And that was the beginning of a beautiful marriage.”