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Small Business Optimism Rises, Best Reading Since December

June 9, 2015

by Doug Short

The latest issue of the NFIB Small Business Economic Trends is out today. The update for May came in at 98.3, a 1.4 point increase from the previous month. The index is now at the 39th percentile in this series.

The forecast was for 97.1.

Here is the opening summary of the news release.

The Index of Small Business Optimism increased 1.4 points to 98.3 in spite of 5 months of lousy growth. May is the best reading since the 100.4 December reading but nothing to write home about. The 42 year average is 98.0, a bit lower than the 99.5 average through 2007. Eight of the 10 Index components posted improvements. Overall, the Index remained in a holding pattern, a few points below the pre-recession average, although at the 42 year average, and showing no tendency to “break out” into a stronger pattern of economic growth.

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 following the Great Recession that ended in June 2009.

NFIB Optimism Index

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.

NFIB Optimism Index Moving Average

Here are some excerpts from the report.

Labor Markets

Small businesses posted another decent month of job creation in May, a string of 5 solid months of job creation. On balance, owners added a net 0.13 workers per firm over the past few months. Fourteen percent reported raising employment an average of 2.7 workers per firm while 12 percent reported reducing employment an average of 3 workers per firm. Fifty-five percent reported hiring or trying to hire (up 2 points), but 47 percent, reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill. Thirteen percent reported using temporary workers. Twenty-nine percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, up 2 points, revisiting the February reading, and the highest reading since April 2006.

Credit Markets

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

Four percent of owners reported that all their borrowing needs were not satisfied, unchanged and historically low. Thirty percent reported all credit needs met, and 50 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan. For most of the recession, record numbers of firms have been on the “credit sidelines”, seeing no good reason to borrow. Only 2 percent reported that financing was their top business problem (unchanged).

NFIB Commentary

This month's "Commentary" section includes the following observations:

Real GDP declined in Q1 following a not very impressive 2014Q4. Special events (weather, dock strike, oil patch weakness) certainly subtracted a point or so from growth, but the fundamental economy did not have enough strength to survive the shocks and that remains the problem. The second quarter did not get off to a good start, growth of course will look better because the denominator is lower in Q1. It looks like trade will be a positive for Q2 as the deficit fell - that will help. Financial markets are driven by “Fed guessing”. In spite of the poor first quarter performance, growth for the 12 months through March 31 was approaching 3 percent, very inconsistent with current Federal Reserve policy, as are current labor market indicators. The Fed’s reticence to move, the continual delays, are negatives for growth, generating considerable uncertainty. A move toward “normalization” would be welcome to the real economy and to savers. The Fed should give up managing asset prices.

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 it is plotted on a separate axis to give a better comparison of the volatility from the common baseline of 100.

NFIB Optimism and Consumer Confidence

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