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March 18, 2011
Survey: Small business optimism improving, especially among young firms
Through our quarterly Small Business Lending Survey, we heard from our small business contacts that economic or sales uncertainty acts as a considerable influence in their hiring and capital expenditure decisions. In the third quarter, half of business contacts not planning to increase capital expenditures indicated economic or financial uncertainty was affecting their decisions. Likewise in the fourth quarter, economic or financial uncertainty was noted among those planning to hire as an influential factor. (Below are charts of our survey's special questions on this topic.)
Since uncertainty can act to inhibit investment and hiring, a reduction of uncertainty and a more positive outlook for the economy might be early signs of future growth for small firms. Recent data suggest both optimism and demand for credit from small firms are on the rise. The net percent of banks reporting stronger demand from small firms has been steadily improving since the first quarter of 2009 and was positive (that is, more banks reported increased demand versus decreased demand) for the first time since the second quarter of 2006, according to the January Senior Loan Officer Survey. Also, of the banks that eased standards, many reported a more favorable or less uncertain economic outlook. In another report, Capital One Bank's fourth quarter Small Business Barometer survey, suggested that "many U.S. small businesses are more optimistic about the strength of the economy and their own financial position relative to the third quarter." The National Federation of Independent Business' (NFIB) Index of Small Business Optimism has also been steadily rising since March 2009. Last week, the NFIB released results from its most recent survey:
"The Index of Small Business Optimism gained 0.4 points in February, rising to 94.5, not the hoped-for surge that would signal a shift into "second gear" for economic growth…
" 'This is not a reading that characterizes a strongly rebounding economy,' said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. 'But it is the third best reading since the fourth quarter of 2009 when the economy was expanding rapidly. So, it gives us cause for some real optimism. Apparently the future is looking brighter for a few more small-business owners, although much will depend on what Congress does this year.' "
As the NFIB notes, much in line with gross domestic product growth, optimism at small firms has been improving, albeit at a slow pace. Here at the Atlanta Fed, we have seen the same gradual improvement in optimism in our Small Business Lending Survey.
While we don't create an overall optimism index, we ask firms how they expect the number of employees in their firm to change over the next six to 12 months—increase, no change, or decrease. Similarly, we ask them about their expected changes to capital expenditures and level of sales. From the third to the fourth quarter of last year, the outlook in all three categories improved among the 163 participants that took both the Q3 and Q4 surveys. The percent of those anticipating increases (net of those anticipating decreases) are plotted on the chart below. Any dot appearing to the left of the 45-degree line indicates a greater net percent indicated "increase" in the fourth quarter. A few other survey questions are also plotted on the graph and explained in detail underneath.
One of the more interesting findings in our survey was that young firms (which we define as any firm less than seven years old) in the Q4 survey were found to be far more optimistic about future business conditions than their mature (seven years or older) counterparts. Young firms were more likely to indicate they were seeking credit to expand their business. Also, significantly larger net percents of young firms anticipate increases to employees, sales, and capital expenditures over the next six to 12 months. In fact, none of the young firms indicated they anticipated decreases to the number of employees in their firm over the next six to 12 months. The differences are outlined in the table below.
The optimism among this group of young firms was present despite the group having a relatively difficult time obtaining credit. (The difference in the average amount of financing received between mature and young firms was statistically significant at the 98 percent level.) When comparing applications for credit, 42 percent of young firms seeking credit received the full amount or most of the amount requested compared to 64 percent of mature firms. The lack of credit fulfillment by young firms was not the result of not trying, as a greater portion of young firms applied for credit—on average, young firms applied through a larger variety of credit channels.
As research by John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin, and Javier Miranda has demonstrated, credit availability for young firms and their outlook for the future is particularly important since young firms play a large role in net job creation. (This topic was discussed in a past macroblog as well.)
While the movements are small and gradual, it's nice to see that things appear to be improving and that we're seeing the trend across many measures.
By Ellyn Terry
senior economic research analyst at the Atlanta Fed
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