Small-business owners are reporting that the political climate is a reason not to expand—second only to the economy, which is only keeping up with population growth, says chief economist William Dunkelberg of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). The association released its influential September NFIB Small Business Optimism Index which dropped 0.1, falling to 92.8.
NFIB said the reading was pulled down by a deterioration in labor market indicators, with job creation plans plunging 6 points, job openings falling one point and more. "And so, in the meantime, owners are in maintenance mode; spending only where necessary and not hiring, expanding or ordering more inventories until the future becomes more ‘certain,'” Dunkelberg said. The outlook for expansion did improve slightly, NFIB said: "Those who view the current period as a “good time to expand” gained 3 points, and the number of owners expecting business conditions to be better in six months gained 4 points, landing at a net two percent. While the readings are improved, they are still below historical averages."
September was another month of low expectations and pessimism for the small-business community, NFIB said. “The election is just weeks away and essentially a horse-race, and its outcomes would have vastly divergent policy implications,” said Dunkelberg.
There was almost no news for credit markets, where most owners reported no interest in a loan, NFIB said. "Only eight percent complained that they didn’t get all the credit they wanted. Two percent say credit is their top business problem compared to 21 percent each citing taxes, regulations and red tape, and poor sales. Sales and profit trends were negative with little sign of improvement in the third quarter."
Highlights of the NFIB's September’s Optimism Index include:
• Sales: Weak sales continue to be an albatross for the small-business community, NFIB reports. "The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales over the past three months was unchanged at a negative 13 percent, cementing the 17 point decline since April and affirming weak GDP growth for the second quarter. Twenty-one (21) percent still cite weak sales as their top business problem—historically high, but down from the record 34 percent reached in March 2010."
"Seasonally unadjusted, 23 percent of all owners reported higher sales (last three months compared to prior three months, down 1 point) and 30 percent reported lower sales (up 1 point). Consumer spending remains weak and high energy costs continue to “tax” consumer disposable income. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales was unchanged at one percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted), down 11 points from the year high of net 12 percent in February. The weak reading is unlikely to trigger orders for new inventory or business expansion. Not seasonally adjusted, 24 percent expect improvement over the next three months (down 4 points) and 31 percent expect declines (up 3 points). "
• Job Creation: "Job creation plans showed that small-business owners created fewer jobs in September than in the two previous months. Not seasonally adjusted, 10 percent plan to increase employment at their firm (down 3 points), and 11 percent plan reductions (up 2 points). Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners planning to create new jobs fell 6 points to four percent, a historically weak reading, especially in a recovery. Essentially, hiring is keeping up with population growth, but not exceeding it."
"Seasonally adjusted, 10 percent of the owners reported adding an average of 2.2 workers per firm over the past few months, and 13 percent reduced employment an average of 3 workers. The remaining 77 percent of owners made no net change in employment. Fifty-one (51) percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 41 percent (80 percent of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions. The percent of owners reporting hard to fill job openings fell 1 point to 17 percent of all owners. The only region of the country that saw any positive job growth was the West North Central states, largely because of energy production. "
• Capital Expenditures: "Small-business owners are still in “maintenance mode,” with the frequency of reported capital outlays over the past six months falling 4 points to 51 percent. Of those making expenditures, 34 percent reported spending on new equipment (down 7 points from the previous month), 16 percent acquired vehicles (down 5 points), and 14 percent improved or expanded facilities (unchanged). Four (4) percent of owners acquired new buildings or land for expansion (down 2 points) and 12 percent spent money for new fixtures and furniture (unchanged)."
"Overall, there was a substantial reduction in capital spending activity. The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next three to six months fell 3 points to 21 percent. While the number of owners who characterized the current period as a good time to expand facilities went up 3 points (seasonally adjusted) to seven percent, this is only half of the 14 percent of owners who said the same in September 2007."
"The net percent of owners expecting better business conditions in six months rose 4 points to two percent after posting a 6 point improvement last month, albeit still registering a pessimistic collective view. Not seasonally adjusted, 15 percent expect an improvement in business conditions (up 1 point), and 20 percent expect deterioration (down 4 points). A net one percent of all owners expect improved real sales volumes, " NFIB said. The NFIB report is based on the responses of 691 randomly sampled small businesses in NFIB’s membership, surveyed throughout the month of September.