The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) reported that its Small Business Optimism Index edged slightly higher in October, up from 92.8 in September to 93.1 in October. Even with the higher confidence level, small business owners remain anxious about the current economic environment. The net percentage of respondents saying that the next three months would be a good time to expand was unchanged at 7 percent. Of those saying that it was not a good time, the main reasons were economic conditions and the political climate. The latter answer is most likely a proxy for the election and the fiscal cliff.
Adding to these worries, small business sales have been moving in the wrong direction since June. The net percentage of owners reporting actual sales increases versus decreases has been negative since then, and it was -15 percent in October. In addition, earnings levels also remain weak, hiring intentions continue to be low, and firms’ ability to raise prices appears to be constrained. Just 22 percent of owners plan to make capital expenditures in the next three to six months.
Along these lines, the single most important problem – cited by 22 percent of respondents – was poor sales. This was followed closely by taxes (20 percent) and government regulations and red tape (19 percent). The inability of political leaders to solve the fiscal cliff is more than likely a major factor in both rising uncertainties regarding the future as well as the fact that “taxes” continue to be cited as one of the more pressing concerns.
In short, the NFIB survey provides us with a mixed bag of economic news as it pertains to small business owners. On the one hand, whether you compare to the last few months or last year, small business confidence has clearly risen. In October 2011, for instance, the Small Business Optimism Index stood at 90.2. Yet, it is also clear that owners remain anxious, with slowing sales and worries about the fiscal cliff. The Index was 94.5 just six months ago (April), and we remain well below the threshold of 100 which would indicate a growing small business sector.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers.