June 07, 2013
The Hiring Forecasts of Small Firms: Will the Pace of Employment Growth Pick Up?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced today that the U.S. labor market added 175,000 payroll jobs in May, continuing a trend of steady but disappointingly slow employment growth. The employment recovery has been even slower among small firms. Will it pick up in the coming 12 months? Results from the Atlanta Fed's latest survey of small businesses in the Southeast suggest that employment growth among small firms will continue but not necessarily at a faster pace.
Since the recession began, changes in employment have been asymmetric across firm size. In contrast to large firms, employment at small and medium sized businesses began decreasing earlier, declined more, and, by last March, was a little further from its prerecession level. As of the first quarter of 2012, employment at firms with fewer than 500 employees was 5 percent below prerecession levels, compared to just 2 percent for firms with more than 500 employees. So why is employment at small firms not recovering as quickly as employment at large firms? Is it poised to accelerate and perhaps catch up?
While the Business Employment Dynamics data series from the BLS only go through first-quarter 2012 (chart 1), we can use our semi-annual survey of small business in the Southeast to find out a little more about the experiences of small firms through first-quarter 2013 as well look at their forecasts through the first quarter of 2014. Four-hundred-seventy-eight firms across the industry and age spectrum participated in the first-quarter 2013 survey, which was conducted during the first three weeks in April. Although the survey is not a random sample, the results are weighted to make them more representative of a national distribution.
When asked about changes in employment over the period Q1 2012 to Q1 2013, employer firms on net said there was almost no change. Slightly more than 40 percent of firms said they had not altered employment levels. The remainder of the responses were distributed pretty evenly between "expansion" and "contraction". As you can see in chart 2, the distribution of firms creating jobs was almost a mirror image of the distribution of firms shedding jobs in terms of the magnitude of change.
In addition to asking about changes during the past 12 months, the survey probed small firms about their expectations for the coming 12 months. Using the power of our panel data set, we can compare the expectations of firms that took the survey exactly one year ago with their actual hiring activity during that time period to determine how accurately firms predict what the future holds and whether these hiring plans are indeed good forecasts of future activity.
As it turns out, the 184 firms participating in both surveys came pretty close to meeting their hiring expectations. However, they did tend to overestimate the extent to which employment would increase (or underestimate the extent to which it would decrease), regardless of how well firms were performing at the time they made their forecast (see chart 3). For example, firms that had recently experienced reductions in their workforce expected the greatest positive change in the pace of hiring, and in fact went on to report the highest actual change during this period. Firms that had not changed their employment levels recently or had changed them by up to 10 percent expected very little growth—on average, they achieved just slightly less than expected. Regardless of how well the firm had recently performed (in terms of employment growth in the previous period), the degree to which hiring increased or downsizing decreased was less pronounced than anticipated.
Small firms are reasonably good at predicting the direction and relative magnitude of their employment growth, but on average tend to overestimate. For this reason, it might be useful to examine changes in the hiring expectations index (as opposed to changes in the pace of employment growth) when trying to understand how the forecast of firms participating in the survey might translate into actual employment growth of small firms in the Southeast.
Chart 4 shows the hiring index of firms across four broad industry groups. In the first quarter of 2013, the index for hiring in the coming 12 months was essentially unchanged from the Q3 2012 survey, and significantly below that of the Q1 2012 survey. The only industry whose employment forecast was notably positive was the construction and real estate industry. Firms in that category have been steadily increasing their hiring forecasts since the third quarter of 2011.
The fact that hiring expectations did not improve in the first-quarter survey leads to another, perhaps more important question: Why didn't they?
One contributing factor that could be having a particularly large impact on hiring expectations is rocky sales. Firms may be less willing to hire if they are uncertain about the future or if they do not expect consistent sales growth. Indeed, by looking at the experiences of firms in the past 12 months, we can tell that there is a clear correlation between rising sales and rising employment. As chart 5 shows, half of employer firms reported a recent rise in sales, and the more sales had risen, the more likely firms were to have increased their workforce.
A couple of questions that arise from chart 5 are: What about the firms that recently experienced sales growth but didn't hire? Are they planning to hire in the coming 12 months? About one-third of firms say "yes". One driving factor in that decision appears to be sustained sales growth; another is reduced uncertainty. As chart 6 makes apparent, the sales expectations of firms in this group is higher on average for the one-third of firms that say they do plan to hire in the coming 12 months than for the two-thirds who do not. All the firms in the hiring group also expect sales growth to continue, with the most common response being greater than 10 percent growth. In contrast, while 77 percent of firms in the not-hiring group anticipate sustained sales growth, the group’s most common response was lower than that of the hiring group: 1 percent to 5 percent.
Another factor that may be related to hiring is reduced uncertainty. Employer firms experiencing sales growth in the past 12 months are more likely to anticipate hiring if they perceive a decrease in uncertainty compared to six months ago. Seventy percent of firms that had a recent increase in sales and decreased uncertainty concerns relative to six months ago anticipate hiring in the coming year. In contrast, 46 percent of those who had experienced a recent increase in sales but also perceived heightened uncertainty anticipate hiring.
For now, the results suggest that uncertainty and rocky sales growth are negatively affecting the hiring plans of small firms and, unfortunately, that small firms are not likely to increase their rate of hiring in the next 12 months. However, if uncertainty eases and sales growth continues, small firms will likely revisit their hiring plans and the pace of hiring just might improve.
By Ellyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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