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After three months of sustained growth, the March NFIB Index of Small Business Optimism ended its slow climb, declining 1.3 points and landing at 89.5. In the 44 months of economic expansion since the beginning of the recovery in July 2009, the index has averaged 90.7, putting the March reading below the mean for this period. The NFIB is the National Federation of Independent Business.
Of the ten index components, two increased, two were unchanged and six declined. Among the greatest declines were labor market indicators, inventory investment plans and sales expectations.
"After another false start, small-business confidence has sputtered and stalled again. For the sector that produces half the private GDP and employs half the private sector workforce – the fact that they are not growing, not hiring, not borrowing and not expanding like they should be, is evidence enough that uncertainty is slowing the economy," said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. "Virtually no owners think the current period is a good time to expand, because they simply don't know what the future holds. So why invest? And with the lack of any sustainable fiscal policy or a federal budget, no one's banking that Washington will be at forefront of any meaningful change. Overall, it appears that there will be little growth coming from the small business half of the economy; as the world economy slows, even big business may suffer."
In the March report, over three-quarters of business owners reported that they expect business conditions in six months to remain the same as they are now or worse. Aggregated, there are no plans to create new jobs in the coming months, although some parts of the U.S. will experience job growth and some sectors will create new jobs (housing
and energy in particular). A near record low percentage of small-business owners claim that credit is their top business problem (3 percent); the greatest business problem for 23 percent of owners is taxes and regulations and red tape for 21 percent of owners.
Other highlights from March's Optimism Index include:
Hiring: The fourth consecutive month of positive job growth, owners reported increasing employment an average of 0.19 workers per firm in the month of March. This is the best reading NFIB has recorded in a year.
For the 47 percent of owners who hired or tried to hire in the last three months, 36 percent (77 percent of those trying to hire or hiring) reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions.
Sales: The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales over the past three months was negative 7 percent, an improvement of 2 percentage points and the best reading in eight months. However, firms are still reporting more declines than gains. Seventeen percent of small employers cite weak sales as their top business problem, a one point improvement over February.
Earnings and Wages: Reports of positive earnings trends improved 3 points in March, but landed at a negative 23 percent. However, a seasonally adjusted net 16 percent of owners reported higher employee compensation (up 2 points from last month).
Credit Markets: Credit demands remained weak in March. Twenty-nine percent reported all credit needs met, and 49 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan (64 percent including those who did not answer the question, presumably uninterested in borrowing as well). Seven percent of owners surveyed reported that all their credit needs were not met, unchanged from February and 3 points above the record low.