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Small Business Owner Sentiment Edged Slightly Lower in June

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The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said that small business owners’ sentiment declined slightly, down from 94.4 in May to 93.5 in June. Even with this month’s lower figure, it is clear that small businesses have become more optimistic in the past few months, with an average Small Business Optimism Index of 93.3 in the second quarter of 2013 versus an average of 89.7 in the first quarter. This could suggest an upward trend. But, we should also caution that the index’s average in the first half of 2012 was also 93.5, but it declined significantly in the second half of the year to 90.9 as we approached the fiscal cliff and had slower sales growth both domestically and globally.

This is not to suggest that we will have a similar fate this year, as other surveys have indicated some cautious optimism about the second half of 2013. Still, the data show that uncertainties continue to persist for small business leaders. The net percentage of respondents expecting sales to increase over the next three months fell from 8 percent to 5 percent, with continued weakness in earnings. In addition, the net percentage saying that the next three months are a good time to expand dropped from 8 percent to 7 percent. (It is still higher than the 4 percent observed in April.)

The main reasons cited for those suggesting that the next three months were not a good time to expand were economic conditions and the political climate. The single most important problems in this survey were taxes and government regulations, with each garnering 20 percent of the responses. The next closest concern was poor sales, a proxy for the economy.

The data did provide some positive news on hiring, which is welcome. The net percentage of those planning to add employees in the next three months increased from 5 percent to 7 percent, its fastest pace since August and a definite improvement from the zero reading in March.

Similarly, capital spending plans for the next three to six months were unchanged, with 23 percent of respondents planning to make a capital expenditure. This figure has averaged 23.3 percent so far in the first six months of 2013, marginally higher than the 22.2 percent average for all of 2012. This suggests a slight pickup in investment spending in recent months, starting with the February report.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.

Small Business Owner Optimism Improves, But Stays Sub-Par

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The National Federation of Independent Business said that small business owner confidence edged slightly higher to begin the new year. The Small Business Optimism Index rose from 88.0 in December to 88.9 in January. Nonetheless, it is hard to paint these figures in a positive light, particularly with low readings for three straight months. In October, the index stood at 93.1 before plunging to 87.5 in December. Recent gains still suggest sub-par levels of optimism, with owners remaining anxious about the economic and political environment.

There was a net percentage of 6 percent of respondents suggesting that the next three months were a good time to expand. Of those saying tht it was not a good time, economic and policy concerns were most pressing. Indeed, the most important problems — each garnering 21 percent of responses — were taxes and government regulations. The tax challenge that confronts many small business owners would be the higher tax rates faced by many of them resulting from the fiscal cliff deal. Poor sales were cited by 19 percent.

Many of the key indicators remain weak, even as some of them had marginal improvements for the month. For instance, the net percentage of those experiencing sales gains in January was -9 percent, a slight bit of progress from the -15 percent and -10 percent levels seen in the prior two months. Similarly, the percentage of respendents expecting the economy to improve stayed extremely low (-30 percent), and measures for earnings, prices, hiring, and capital spending continue to be sluggish.

Overall, the NFIB data indicate that small business owners remain pessimistic in January. Given the important role that small firms play in our nation’s economy, that is a troubling sign. Historically, Optimism Index readings of 100 or more were consistent with a healthy and growing small business sector, and we remain well below those levels.

Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.

Small Business Confidence Continues to Rise

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The National Federation of Independent Business released is monthly Small Business Economic Trends this morning, with Small Business Optimism rising from 92.0 in November to 93.8 in December. It was the fifth consecutive monthly gain, up from 88.1 in August.

Along with the gain in confidence, the net percentage of respondents saying that the next three months are a “good time to expand” has increased to 10, its highest level since before the recession. Likewise, small business owners are also more optimistic about future sales, employment and capital spending.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that small businesses remain anxious despite these improvements. Traditionally, small businesses are experiencing strong growth once the Optimism Index exceeds 100 – a threshold that it has not surpassed since 2006. Moreover, of those suggesting that now is not a good time for expansion, poor economic conditions and an unsettling political climate are cited. The single most important problem continues to be “poor sales” followed by taxes and government regulations.

Chad Moutray is chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.