Small-Business Optimism Up in August

graphIn spite of a disappointing jobs report, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Small Business Optimism Index gained 1.7 points, rising to 92.9, in the month of August. The Index showed some positive signs; employment indicators for the fourth quarter improved substantially, as did plans for capital outlays and expectations for business conditions. Business owners, however, continue to cite weak sales as their top business problem, NFIB says.

NFIB says few employers continue to think the current period is a good time to expand. And, political uncertainty has reached a new record high for this business cycle, and small employers continue to act cautiously when it comes to growing their businesses.

"In spite of a terrible jobs report from the Labor Department and an increase in the number who view the current period as a terrible time to expand, small-business owners continue to show their resilience; last month they were even a bit more optimistic about improvements in real sales volumes and business conditions," said NFIB chief economist William Dunkelberg.

"However, nothing happened in August to really improve their outlook - economic news was uninspiring and mixed. But it is possible that the uptick in their spirits will forecast of the election outcome and the chance for a favorable resolution of our fiscal dilemma. If election odds start changing, owners (and consumers) may change their minds about spending, hiring and saving, but for now, expect little change in the current course of the economy," Dunkelberg said.

August was a mixed bag: spending and hiring variables gained during the month, as did plans to create jobs, NFIB said. Inventory investment plans remained mildly negative, as more owners still plan reductions than plan to add to stocks. Sales and earnings trends remained negative, spending remains depressed, hiring is weak and few are ordering new inventory. Loan demand is also low, with record levels of owners expressing no interest in a loan to finance new projects or hiring.

Highlights of NFIB's August's Optimism Index include:

Capital Expenditures: The biggest news about capital expenditures was the increase in owners expecting better business conditions in six months; those expectations gained 6 points, settling at a net negative two percent. Not seasonally adjusted, 14 percent expect an improvement in business conditions (a 2 point gain), and 24 percent expect a deterioration (down 1 point). A net one percent of all owners expect improved real sales volumes - up 5 points from July, but still 11 points below February's reading, which was this year's high. The frequency of reported capital outlays over the past six months gained 1 point, rising to 55 percent.

Of those making expenditures, 41 percent reported spending on new equipment (up 3 points), 21 percent acquired vehicles (up 2 points), and 14 percent improved or expanded facilities (unchanged). The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next three to six months gained 3 points, rising to 24 percent. Still, only four percent characterized the current period as a good time to expand facilities, in contrast with 10 percent in December 2011 and 28 percent in December 2004.

Sales: Sales trends reports confirm that consumer spending is weak and that it slowed mid-year. The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales over the past three months lost 4 points, falling to negative 13 percent, after a 7 point decline in June. Twenty (20) percent still cite weak sales as their top business problem, historically high, but down from the record 33 percent reading in December 2010. Seasonally unadjusted, 24 percent of all owners reported higher sales and 29 percent reported lower sales. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales rose 5 points and settling at a net 1 percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted), ending a five month decline of 16 percentage points. However, this is a weak reading and unlikely to trigger orders for new inventory or business expansion.

Job Creation: Job growth in the small-business sector mirrored other national reports: the net change in employment per firm over the past few months (seasonally adjusted) was -.05, making it the third negative month in a row. With job growth essentially "zero," the only jobs being created are by new firms to serve new consumers due to population growth. Seasonally adjusted, 12 percent of owners surveyed reported adding an average of 2.7 workers per firm over the past three months, and 10 percent reduced employment an average of 2.5. The remaining 78 percent of owners made no net change in employment.

Forty-nine (49) percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 37 percent reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions. The percent of owners reporting hard to fill job openings rose 3 points to 18 percent of all owners. Not seasonally adjusted, 13 percent plan to increase employment at their firm (up 2 points), and 9 percent plan reductions, unchanged. Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners planning to create new jobs rose 5 points to 10 percent.

Credit Markets: There were no interesting developments in credit markets. Seven (7) percent of the owners reported that all their credit needs were not met (unchanged), 31 percent reported all credit needs met, and 53 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan (62 percent including those who did not answer the question, presumably uninterested in borrowing as well). Financing was the top business problem for only three percent of those surveyed; this compared to 23 percent who cited taxes, 20 percent who cited weak sales and 21 percent who named unreasonable regulations and red tape.

Credit is not a problem for most owners and the report suggests that many "qualified" applicants are sitting on the sidelines waiting for economic conditions to improve before borrowing. Thirty (30) percent of all owners reported borrowing on a regular basis, down 1 point from July. A net 7 percent reported loans "harder to get" compared to their last attempt (asked of regular borrowers only), unchanged. Three (3) percent of owners reported higher interest rates on their most recent loan, and five percent reported getting a lower rate.

The current report is based on the responses of 736 randomly sampled small businesses in NFIB's membership, surveyed in August.


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