The National Federation of Independent Business Index of Small Business Optimism lost 0.3 points in December, falling to 88.0 (1986=100) . The Index has been below 90 for 15 months. Optimism has clearly stalled.
Since I made a resolution this year to look at the world from a “Glass Half Full” perspective, let’s see what good news we can see in the details from this survey.
Ten percent of the owners increased employment, which was the highest reading of 2009. That is encouraging, but the survey also found that 22 percent reduced employment.
The job outlook is also has some hopeful signs. Ten percent reported unfilled job openings, up two points from November. This is a good sign.
Those planning to reduce hiring still is about double the percentage of those planning to increase hiring. However, over the next three months, the number of small business owners planning to reduce employment has declined slightly. And those planning to increase their hiring is up one percentage point from November.
The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past six months was unchanged at 44 percent of all firms, holding at a record low level (data first collected in 1979). But, plans to make capital expenditures over the next few months rose two points to 18 percent. Still near the record low, but at least it has started to move in the right direction.
When it comes to revenues, it becomes a little harder to see positive signs. The net percent of all owners reporting higher sales in the past three months remained negative at negative 25 percent. However, this is a six-point improvement over the dismal November reading.
Try as I might, I could not find a silver lining in the responses on profits. Reports of positive profit trends were unchanged at a net negative 43 percentage points. For the 54 percent reporting lower earnings compared to the previous three months, 65 percent cited weaker sales, 4 percent each blamed rising labor costs, higher materials costs and higher insurance costs, while 6 percent blamed lower selling prices. Poor real sales and price cuts are responsible for much of the weakness in profits.
Owners continued to reduce compensation at a record pace, with 10 percent reporting reduced worker compensation and 9 percent reporting gains, unchanged from November.
Regular borrowers (accessing capital markets at least once a quarter) continued to report difficulties in arranging credit at the highest frequency since 1983. A net 15 percent reported loans harder to get than in their last attempt, unchanged from November.
“Still that is not nearly as severe as the financial distress reported in the pre-1983 period,” said NFIB Chief
Economist William Dunkelberg. “Twenty-four months of recession have sapped the financial strength of many small firms.”
Look for the Small Victories
“2009 was a very difficult year for small business,” said Dunkelberg. “Continued weak sales and threatening
domestic policies from Washington, have left small business owners with
little to be optimistic about in the coming year.”
Alright, so the big picture shows only slight signs of improvement in the economic conditions for small business.
Let’s keep focusing on the small victories. Let’s keep our eyes on those entrepreneurs who are keeping their heads held high and finding ways to succeed in spite of the adversities they are facing in the economy and from the misguided policies coming out of Washington.