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Small Business Sentiment Near Lowest Levels In History!

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    January 10, 2013

    The latest issue of the NFIB Small Business Economic Trends is out today (see report). The January update for December came in at 88. This is the 12th lowest reading in history of this series.

    Here is the opening summary of the report:

    Small business owner confidence did not rebound in December, according to the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index. While owner optimism crept up 0.5 over November’s historically low report, the 88.0 point reading was still the second lowest since March 2010. December’s poor report resulted largely from a deterioration of labor market components, and the surprising percentage of owners who still expect business conditions to worsen in the next six months

    “Congress played chicken right up to the end of the year, leaving small-business owners with no new information about the economy’s future—no sense of how much their taxes would increase or if the economy would go over the now infamous ‘cliff. The eleventh hour ‘deal’ has brought marginal certainty about tax rates and extenders and will provide some relief to owners, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee a more positive forecast for the economy. The January survey results will be far more enlightening about how the sector views the deal—higher taxes and minimal spending cuts may not be a panacea. And let’s not forget what is looming on the horizon: a debate over the debt limit and a regulatory avalanche of historic proportions about to spill out into the country. Happy New Year.”

    The first chart below highlights the 1986 baseline level of 100 and includes some labels to help us visualize that dramatic change in small-business sentiment that accompanied the Great Financial Crisis. Compare, for example the relative resilience of the index during the 2000-2003 collapse of the Tech Bubble with the far weaker readings of the past three years. The NBER declared June 2009 as the official end of the last recession.



    The average monthly change in this indicator is 1.29 points. To smooth out the noise of volatility, here is a 3-month moving average of the Optimism Index along with the monthly values, shown as dots.



    Inventories And Sales

    The findings on small business sales and sales expectations continue to highlight a fundamental source of distress.


    The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales over the past 3 months improved 5 points to a negative 10 percent, a step in the right direction, but a small one. The low for this cycle was a net negative 34 percent (July 2009) reporting quarter over quarter gains. Nineteen (19) percent still cite weak sales as their top business problem, historically high, but down from the record 34 percent reading last reached in March 2010. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes rose 3 points to a negative 2 percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted), 14 points below the 2012 high of net 12 percent reached in February. Not seasonally adjusted, 20 percent expect improvement over the next 3 months (up 1 point) and 40 percent expect declines (down 3 points).


    Credit Markets

    Has the Fed’s strategy of quantitative easing had a positive impact on Small Businesses?


    Six percent of the owners reported that all their credit needs were not met, unchanged from November. Twenty-nine (29) percent reported all credit needs met, and 52 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan. Only 1 percent reported that financing was their top business problem, tied for the lowest reading in survey history, compared to 23 percent citing taxes, 19 percent citing weak sales and 21 percent citing regulations and red tape. Twenty-nine (29) percent of all owners reported borrowing on a regular basis, down 1 point from November. A net 9 percent reported loans “harder to get” compared to their last attempt (asked of regular borrowers only), unchanged from November. A record low 1 percent of owners reported financing as their top business problem and a net negative 2 percent (seasonally adjusted) reported higher interest rates on their most recent loan. Interest rates are not rising.


    Labor Markets

    The NFIB labor market indicators are at recession levels despite a tiny increase in job creation.


    Overall, owners reported a tiny increase in job creation, adding an average of 0.03 workers per firm, better than November’s -0.04 reading, but both roughly “0”. For the entire sample, 11 percent of the owners (up 1 point) reported adding an average of 2.9 workers per firm over the past few months, and 13 percent reduced employment (up 2 points) an average of 1.9 workers (seasonally adjusted). The remaining 76 percent of owners made no net change in employment. Forty-one percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 33 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 16 percent of all owners. This measure is highly correlated with the unemployment rate, so the NFIB survey anticipated little or no improvement in the rate.


    NFIB Commentary

    This month’s “Commentary” section includes grim outlook on the first half of 2013:


    The current Index value of 88 is a recession level reading. There isn’t much else to say beyond that. Inventory demand fell, job creation plans weakened, both from levels that were already in the hole. Capital spending remains weak. Seventy percent of the owners characterize the current period as a bad time to expand; one in four of them cite political uncertainty as the top reason. This “uncertainty” is likely to be a headline player for at least the first half of 2013. As the year progresses, those looking for some meaningful progress on the deficit are likely to be disappointed. Spending will not be cut in any substantial way. Many new “taxes” will be imposed. The Federal Reserve will keep financing the deficit, continually expanding its portfolio.


    Business Optimism and Consumer Confidence

    The next chart is an overlay of the Business Optimism Index and the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index. The consumer measure is the more volatile of the two, so I’ve plotted it on a separate axis to give a better comparison of the volatility from the common baseline of 100.



    With the latest NFIB data, we see that the mood of small businesses continues to be highly correlated with Consumer Confidence.


    Images: Flickr (licence attribution)

    About The Author

    My original dshort.com website was launched in February 2005 using a domain name based on my real name, Doug Short. I’m a formerly retired first wave boomer with a Ph.D. in English from Duke. Now my website has been acquired byAdvisor Perspectives, where I have been appointed the Vice President of Research.

    My first career was a faculty position at North Carolina State University, where I achieved the rank of Full Professor in 1983. During the early ’80s I got hooked on academic uses of microcomputers for research and instruction. In 1983, I co-directed the Sixth International Conference on Computers and the Humanities. An IBM executive who attended the conference made me a job offer I couldn’t refuse.

    Thus began my new career as a Higher Education Consultant for IBM — an ambassador for Information Technology to major universities around the country. After 12 years with Big Blue, I grew tired of the constant travel and left for a series of IT management positions in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. I concluded my IT career managing the group responsible for email and research databases at GlaxoSmithKline until my retirement in 2006.

    Contrary to what many visitors assume based on my last name, I’m not a bearish short seller. It’s true that some of my content has been a bit pessimistic in recent years. But I believe this is a result of economic realities and not a personal bias. For the record, my efforts to educate others about bear markets date from November 2007, as this Motley Fool article attests.