Amidst a backdrop of economic uncertainties, small-business optimism in the United States reached a five-month high, propelled by positive earnings. According to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the sentiment index rose by 1.3 points in the last month, reaching 91.9. This marks the highest level since July, aligning with the most optimistic reading of 2023.
Stabilizing Views on Economic Conditions
Small business owners exhibited a notable shift in sentiment, particularly regarding the outlook for business conditions. The survey revealed that owners were less pessimistic, with only a net 4% expecting lower sales in the upcoming three months. This represents the smallest share expressing such concerns in nearly two years.
While an air of caution still lingers among small businesses regarding the broader economy, there is a sense of stabilization rather than a deepening pessimism. The Federal Reserve’s decision to halt interest rate hikes, given receding inflation and a resilient job market, reinforces the expectation that the US is steering clear of an imminent recession.
NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg highlighted the prevailing skepticism among small-business owners about the economic landscape in the current year. Persistent challenges related to inflation and labor quality have been ongoing complexities, and owners remain unconvinced of a significant improvement in these aspects in 2024.
Inflation and Labor Dynamics
In the face of persistent economic challenges, a net 25% of firms reported higher prices in December compared to the preceding three months. However, this figure remains at its lowest level since early 2021. Notably, during the two years leading up to the pandemic, the share of businesses reporting increased prices ranged between 10% and 15%.
The struggle to fill open positions and attract quality candidates continues to be a prevalent issue reported by many small businesses. The report indicates that, on net, more firms have recently decreased their headcount, marking the ninth consecutive month. This aligns with the longest streak in this trend since 2011.
Credit Conditions and Outlook
Encouragingly, credit conditions for small businesses are showing signs of improvement, with fewer owners anticipating a worsening environment in the next three months. A net 20% of owners reported paying a higher interest rate on their most recent loan, representing the smallest share since July 2022.
The report underscores the intricate balance small-business owners are navigating—juggling improved earnings prospects with persistent challenges in labor markets and inflation. The nuanced landscape reflects the ongoing resilience and adaptability of these businesses in the face of a dynamic economic environment.