The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said that small business confidence in March recovered some of its February decline. The Small Business Optimism Index increased from 91.4 in February to 93.4 in March, but it had fallen from 94.1 in January. Sentiment among small firm owners has generally moved higher over the course of the past year, with quite a bit of volatility. For instance, just over the past six months, the Index has ranged from 91.6 to 94.1, with the government shutdown, weather and persistent uncertainties dampening optimism at times.
Despite the higher headline figure, the underlying data were largely mixed. On the positive side, the percentage of firms saying that the next three months were a “good time to expand” increased from 6 percent to 8 percent, returning it to the level recorded in January but still below December (10 percent). Of those saying that it was not the right time for expansion, the economy was the primary reason.
Still, “poor sales” – a proxy for the current economy – was not listed as the “single most important problem.” Instead, the top concern was a tie between taxes and “red tape,” with each cited by 21 percent of respondents. This was followed by poor sales (14 percent), the cost of insurance (10 percent), and the quality of labor (9 percent). Indeed, the net percentage of respondents saying that they expect higher sales in the next three months rose from 3 percent to 12 percent, reflecting a pickup in sentiment.
Nonetheless, earnings figures remain weak overall, and the employment and capital spending data were less positive. Small business owners said that the hiring slightly declined in March, with the net percentage planning to bring on new workers in the next three months down from 12 percent in January to 7 percent in February to 5 percent in March. Hopefully, the uptick in optimism on sales will reverse this trend in the coming months. Meanwhile, capital spending has edged marginally lower, with capital expenditure plans essentially unchanged so far this year.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.