Small Business Optimism Drops

October 14, 2014

by Doug Short

The latest issue of the NFIB Small Business Economic Trends is out today. The October update for September came in at 95.3, down 0.8 points from the previous month's 96.1. In characteristic style, today's report subtitle has a dramatic slant, pointing out that the September drop "leaves the Index 5 points below its pre-recesson average". The index is now at the 26.6 percentile in this series, below its post-recession 96.6 high in May and back to a level it last consistently achieved in October 2007, two months before the last recession.

The forecast was for 97.2.

Here is the opening summary of the news release.

September’s optimism index gave up 0.8 points, falling to 95.3. At 95.3, the Index is now 5 points below the pre-recession average (from 1973 to 2007). Four Index components improved, six declined. Two declined by 10 points total, accounting for the entire decline in the Index score. Unfortunately, the two that fell drastically were job openings and planned capital outlays, which are directly relevant to GDP growth and hiring. (Link to press release).

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 four years. The NBER declared June 2009 as the official end of the last recession.

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The average monthly change in this indicator is 1.3 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.

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Inventories And Sales

The latest findings show that "xpected real sales volumes posted a 4 point decline, falling to a net 6 percent of owners expecting gains." The excerpts below are from the latest monthly report (PDF format).

The pace of inventory reduction accelerated, with a net negative 7 percent of all owners reporting growth in inventories (seasonally adjusted). Clearly firms are liquidating stocks faster than adding to them. With sales trends weakening, the reductions in inventories are not surprising. The net percent of owners viewing current inventory stocks as “too low” improved a point to a net negative 0 percent, a very balanced reading. Sales trends continued to deteriorate a bit but remained near the best levels in the recovery, just historically weak. Expected real sales did not improve, and this contributed to less urgency to rebuild stocks. The net percent of owners planning to add to inventory stocks rose 1 point to a net 2 percent. While inventory accumulation can add to GDP growth, there isn’t much “juice” in the small business sector to contribute.

Credit Markets

Has the Fed's zero interest rate policy and quantitative easing had a positive impact on Small Businesses?

Six percent of the owners reported that all their credit needs were not met, up 2 points from the historic low. Twenty-eight percent reported all credit needs met, and 51 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan. Only 2 percent reported that financing was their top business problem compared to 21 percent citing taxes, 22 percent citing regulations and red tape and 14 percent citing weak sales. The net percent of owners expecting credit conditions to ease in the coming months was a seasonally adjusted negative 7 percent, 2 points worse than August. Interest rates are low, but prospects for putting borrowed money profitably to work are not great and so loan demand remains weak among small business owners. Low rates have not triggered the growth in spending that would promise a good cash flow on business investments.

NFIB Commentary

This month's "Commentary" section opens with some specific observations about Fed policy:

Pundits report that the Federal Reserve is planning to raise interest rates, probably around mid-2015. But, the message some observers get is a bit different. Federal Reserve officials have made it very clear that any decision to raise rates, or allow the market to work, is “data dependent”. The premise that rates will rise in 2015 is spun off of the economic forecasts of the Fed governors and regional presidents. Their forecasts have been persistently optimistic. If their forecasts are correct, rates can go up, but if their forecasts turn out to be too optimistic, will rates still be allowed to rise? Recent speeches by Federal Reserve officials have emphasized the “slack” in labor markets and the consequent need for “accommodation”, the code word for buying bonds to keep interest rates low. This in spite of the evidence that indicates the low rates are not stimulating the hoped-for spending and hiring but causing many other distortions. An official end to QE3 does not preclude the Federal Reserve from buying bonds through normal Open Market Operations in the conduct of monetary policy. The Federal Reserve has not been able to attain its goal of 2 percent inflation or its unspecified goals for employment (the unemployment rate was quickly disposed of as a target measure). This obviously creates much uncertainty, not just in financial markets but on Main Street as well. Seeing the Federal Reserve trying to create the very thing they were designed to minimize is a bit disconcerting.

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.

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These two measures of mood have been highly correlated since the early days of the Great Recession.

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