The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.
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February 05, 2013
2013 Business Hiring Plans: Employment, Effort, Hours, and Fiscal Uncertainty
How much is fiscal uncertainty holding back hiring? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask. Early in January, the Atlanta Fed spoke to 670 businesses in the Southeast about employment. Conditional on the respondents’ 2013 hiring plans (expand, hold steady, or contract), the following set of charts summarizes the results for how the businesses viewed activity relative to their own interpretation of “normal” along three dimensions: their current employment level, the amount of effort required from their staff per hour, and the average hours worked per employee. These questions were modeled on questions asked in the Atlanta Fed’s December 2012 Business Inflation Expectations Survey. In the following three charts, the green bars represent firms that said they planned to expand employment in 2013. The grey bars represent firms that said they did not plan to change their employment level in 2013, and the red bars represent firms that planned to reduce employment in 2013.
The first chart shows the results for current employment. Regardless of hiring plans over the next 12 months, most firms said they were currently at or below normal employment levels. Those planning on increasing employment over the next 12 months were a bit more likely to say they have already surpassed normal levels of employment than other firms, while those looking to shed employees were very likely to say their employment level is below normal employment levels.
Chart 2 shows that businesses are generally pushing hard along the effort dimension. Firms were quite likely to say that their staff’s effort per hour worked was currently at or above normal, whether or not they were planning to change employment in 2013.
Chart 3 shows that firms planning to expand were very likely to say that average hours worked were at or above normal (28 percent said hours were above normal, 60 percent about normal), whereas firms planning to contract were more likely to say that hours were at or below normal (48 percent about normal, 39 percent below normal).
Taken together, these results suggest that some firms are approaching the limit of how far they can go along the intensive margins of effort and hours before they have to hire more workers. With effort elevated, as more firms increase average hours worked to above-normal levels, one might expect more hiring to follow.
Each business was also asked how uncertainty about future fiscal policy was affecting its hiring plans. Firms planning to reduce employment tended to cite fiscal uncertainty as having a negative impact on their hiring plans. However, for those firms, hours also tended to be well below normal, so it is unlikely that removing fiscal uncertainty would move many of those firms into expansion mode (although it may help stabilize their outlook).
In contrast, fiscal uncertainty was generally viewed as having less impact by those planning to expand employment and those planning to hold employment levels steady. Presumably, reducing fiscal uncertainty would move some of the firms planning to hold steady into expansion mode, and those planning to expand would do so a bit more. To get some idea of this potential, Chart 4 shows the responses by firms who reported above-normal effort per hour and above-normal average hours worked. About 40 percent of those businesses said that fiscal uncertainty had caused them to scale back their hiring plans.
It is unclear whether eliminating fiscal uncertainty would have a big impact on the hiring plans of these firms. But these results suggest that it sure couldn’t hurt.
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist, and
Ellyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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December 12, 2012
Anticipating Growth despite a Slowdown? Results from the Recent Small Business Survey
The latest reading on the Wells Fargo/Gallup's Small Business Index indicated business conditions for small firms dropped to the lowest levels since July 2010 (see the chart), and index also said:
Key drivers of this decline include business owner concerns about their future financial situation, cash flow, capital spending, and hiring over the next 12 months.
The latest iteration of the Atlanta Fed's small business survey, which was conducted in October, also noted a decline in 12-month-ahead expectations for sales, hiring, and capital spending (see the chart).
Dissecting this by firm age, the overall decline in expectations stemmed from the firms in our sample that were more than five years old (see the charts).
Over the life of the survey, young firms have tended to be more optimistic about changing business conditions. Are these young firms simply naïve about changing economic conditions, or are they anticipating growth despite expectations for a pullback in the broader economy? We asked the following question this time around in an attempt to capture the business owners' aspirations and job-creating "gazelle" potential:
Five years from now, do you anticipate your business will be:a) Smaller
b) About the same
c) Somewhat larger
d) Significantly larger
It turns out the group is an optimistic bunch: 30 percent of employer firms said they thought their business would be significantly larger in five years, and firms under six years of age were twice as likely to say so (see the chart). Considering that young firms also tend to have smaller operations than mature firms (the median young firm had from $100,000 to $500,000 in annual revenues and the median mature firm had from $1 million to $7 million), this difference is not shocking.
What was a little surprising was how few of the young firms said they thought they would be smaller in five years. Research suggests that that only about half of businesses make it past five years, and yet only three young firms identified themselves as shrinking. There is always the chance that these young businesses will become fast-growing, job-creating gazelles. After all, a recent study of high-growth firms by the Kauffman Foundation found the average age of the fastest-growing firms in 2010 was only seven years old.
Will they achieve their goals? Only time will tell.
The Atlanta Fed's third quarter small business survey, which asks firms questions about business and financing conditions, is available on our website.
By Ellyn Terry, a senior economic analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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November 29, 2012
Gazelles, and Why They Matter
A gazelle, as you may recall from your favorite wildlife show, is one of those antelope-like animals that run around in herds across the plains and are known for their speed. Sheltered by the herd at birth, their youth is short-lived. In no time flat, gazelles are expected to be up and running or they will be easily devoured by hungry lions.
Probably because of that imagery, the word gazelle is also used in the business literature to represent a young firm that grows very quickly in a relatively short period of time. According to Kauffman Foundation research, the fastest-growing 1 percent of firms typically account for about 40 percent of job creation in the United States. Of that 1 percent, three-quarters are less than six years old. Research also shows that these high-growth young firms are more likely to provide solutions to other businesses than directly to consumers, have some form of intellectual or technological property, and tend to be started by entrepreneurs with business startup experience.
To learn more about the role of gazelles and the challenges they face, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta recently hosted Amy Wilkinson, a senior fellow at Harvard University and a policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Wilkinson is a leading entrepreneurship scholar. Her current research focuses on entrepreneurs who scale their company to reach $100 million in revenue in less than five years. (You can see her discussing the topic here.) She has shown that these "founders" tend to drive innovation, and ultimately job creation, in the U.S. economy. These young, high-growth firms are typically driven forward by entrepreneurs with high aspirations, novel ideas, and a strong support system. This support system is analogous to the gazelle's herd—it is a network of financial and human capital providers that help the businesses grow to potential.
To get a perspective on the key drivers and impediments to growth for high-growth-potential firms in the current economic climate, the Atlanta Fed also hosted an entrepreneur roundtable in November. The roundtable included founders of Southeast-based businesses in various stages of development, along with representatives of "the herd."
Many participants indicated that attracting capital in the Southeast has always been challenging, but it has been even more difficult in recent years. Investors in general are more hesitant to take on risk, and the market available for early-stage financing has shrunk. But the biggest impediment to growth in recent years has been the recession and the halting nature of the recovery. The Atlanta Fed's poll of small businesses has noted that business startups today are much more reliant on personal capital versus external capital than was the case for businesses started prior to the recession. The word "uncertainty" was also mentioned a lot, prompting even this group of risk takers to take a bit more conservative stance in their growth expectations.
On the topic of labor, many of these firms cited the importance of having the right talent in place to make a business successful. Participants noted that the person who starts a business is often not the right person to propel the business forward. Recognition of the correct timing of a leadership change and the ability to make hard decisions generally were deciding factors on whether a firm would continue to grow rapidly or plateau. The Kauffman Foundation also cited the important role of talent in its poll of fast-growing firms conducted last year.
Another theme of our recent conversations with entrepreneurs and business experts is the crucial role of the supporting herd in nurturing and enabling a young business to succeed. In building a business from the ground up, a first-time entrepreneur confronts a significant learning curve—from figuring out the tax code to securing financing. The business information and support networks that exist are evolving, but matching ideas to money to people is still not a straightforward process. To complicate things further, "the herd" is not a one-size-fits-all concept; it differs geographically and across industry. As highlighted in a recent Kauffman Foundation study, high-growth firms are more prevalent in some areas of the country, and there are hot spots for certain industries. One group working to make these connections stronger and more efficient is Invest Atlanta, the city of Atlanta's economic development agency. The agency recently launched Start Up Atlanta. The stated aim of Start Up Atlanta is to "…bring together and build Atlanta's entrepreneur ecosystem." Similar efforts are under way across the region.
Considering the significant impact that high-growth firms play in innovation and job creation, researchers at the Atlanta Fed continue to explore the various issues facing young, high-growth potential firms. If you are a small firm and are interested in contributing to this research, we would love for you to sign up for our semiannual poll of small business financing by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Whitney Mancuso and
Ellyn Terry, senior economic analysts in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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October 04, 2012
Trends in Small Business Lending
The Atlanta Fed's latest semiannual Small Business Survey is active through October 22, 2012. If you own a small business and would like to participate, send an e-mail to SmallBusinessResearch@atl.frb.org.
In our previous survey conducted in April 2012, we found that firms applying for credit at large national banks had notably less success than firms that applied to small banks.
We also found that the firms applying to large banks tended to be much younger than the firms that applied to small banks. We speculated that this "age factor" could be contributing to the lower overall success rates at large banks.
A difference between small businesses' success at large and small banks has also been documented by the online credit facilitator Biz2Credit. Biz2Credit works a bit like an online dating service—after answering a series of questions (and providing the typical financial documents required by lenders), small businesses are presented with five potential "matches." To determine the best five matches, Biz2Credit identifies what lenders are looking for—usually a certain credit score, a minimum number of years in business, an established banking relationship, and targeted industries.
The resulting credit applications are the basis for the Biz2Credit Small Business Lending Index. Biz2Credit also reports approval rates from the matching process for large banks, small banks, credit unions, and alternative lenders. These approval rates are plotted on the chart below.
Much like we saw in the Small Business Survey, Biz2Credit reports that small firms have had consistently less success in obtaining credit at large banks.
Confirming our results encourages us that our April observation was a good one. But confirmation isn't explanation—what accounts for the different experiences small businesses have in securing credit from small banks versus big banks? And so, we dig deeper.
Note: According to Biz2Credit, its index is based on 1,000 of the 10,000-plus applications submitted each month. To be included, the business has to have at least a 680 credit score, be at least two years old, and have an established relationship with the bank to which it is applying. Selection methods are also applied to provide for national representation.
By Ellyn Terry, senior economic research analyst at the Atlanta Fed
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November 18, 2011
Job creation by small firms: Age matters
Talking about the role of the average or typical small business in job creation is problematic. Discussing it is challenging because job creation is highly skewed along the age dimension of small firms. This point was driven home in a nice presentation (featuring the chart below) by John Haltiwanger at last week's small business conference cosponsored by the Atlanta Fed, the Board of Governors, and the Kauffman Foundation.
The chart shows the 90th and 10th percentiles of the employment-weighted job growth rate distribution by firm age (in years). The fastest-growing firms are the 90th percentile (in purple) of the growth distribution, and the fastest-shrinking firms are the 10th percentile (in green). The data are from the Census Bureau's "Business Dynamics Statistics" (for example, here is a related presentation by John Haltiwanger, Ron Jarmin, and Javier Miranda).
As the chart makes clear, the fastest-expanding 10 percent of young firms grow extremely rapidly. While the fastest-growing 10 percent of older firms also expand at a good clip, their growth is much slower than that of their younger-firm counterparts. Note that these are employment-weighted growth rates, so the outsized growth of fast-growing young firms is not an artifact of having a lot of firms with one employee simply doubling in size by hiring an additional worker. Firms that are contracting the most (shown in the 10th percentile) also are skewed along the age dimension, although the differences are not as dramatic.
These differences by firm age are a reason why we at the Atlanta Fed have tried to make our poll of small businesses more representative of the age distribution of firms and have recently been separately featuring the results for young and more mature businesses.
John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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November 10, 2011
Bank lending to finance a business start-up
On Wednesday and Thursday of this week I attended a conference titled "Small Business and Entrepreneurship during an Economic Recovery," presented by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, and the Kauffman Foundation.
Echoing the findings of research conducted by the Kauffman Foundation and others (for example, here and here), President Lockhart highlighted the vitally important role that business start-ups have played as job creators in the U.S. economy. He also made a distinction between true small business start-ups—those that intend to be small-scale operations (usually with single location and no more than a handful of employees), and growth-oriented start-ups. Both types of start-ups play a role in job creation, but the biggest impact over time comes from successful high-growth start-ups.
"Whether they're so-called 'mom-and-pops' or 'gazelles,' they create some jobs at inception. Inherently small enterprises either fail or sustain operations, but tend to level off in terms of employment. The growth businesses ramp up creating initial employment. They may fail in time, or they may grow to what is still small scale and level off, or they may break out and grow to large scale.
"A 2010 Kauffman Foundation study shows that just 1 percent of employer businesses—those growing the fastest—generate roughly 40 percent of new jobs in a given year. Three-quarters of those businesses are less than five years old."
So, if having a sufficient pipeline of new businesses is important to overall job creation, and especially enough start-ups with high growth potential, what is the role of banks as providers of financial capital to new business ventures? Because a new business is an inherently risky proposition, banks tend to provide a start-up loan only when it can be sufficiently collateralized. That collateralization often means using nonbusiness-related assets such as personal real estate. As President Lockhart's notes:
"The most prevalent form of hard collateral is real property. Start-up entrepreneurs often hear, 'If you'll put up your house, we'll lend to your new business.' Real estate related to the business—to the extent the entrepreneur needs such and actually owns it—can be problematic as collateral because its value may be a function of the business cash flow it helps generate."
The results of Atlanta Fed's most recent poll of small business credit conditions in the Southeast are consistent with the view that the combination of weak economic conditions and lower real estate values since 2006 has significantly reduced access to bank loans as a source of start-up capital. One of the questions in the poll asks: "When you started the business, what sources of financing did you use?" We are able to separate the answers from owners of mature businesses (those starting more than five years ago) and younger businesses (those starting in the last five years). The findings are summarized in the following chart.
Although the sample size is pretty small, I found the results to be quite striking. The younger businesses we talked to were much less likely to have used a business loan or line of credit from a bank when they started than their more mature counterparts. Instead, these younger businesses were more likely to have used personal savings or some other source. Almost certainly, these differences between older and younger firms are not simply because young entrepreneurs suddenly didn't want to get start-up financing from a bank.
There's obviously still a lot to learn about the business creation process, including the financing of new business ventures in today's economic and financial environment. I believe it's important that these topics are moving up in the list of national priorities and that the body of research dedicated to them, as evidenced at this conference, is growing.
John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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August 18, 2011
The new firm employment puzzle
Last week, John Bussey of the Wall Street Journal identified some discouraging statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics "Business Employment Dynamics" (BED) program concerning the number of new establishments (a specific physical location like a store) and the number of jobs from new establishments. These data are replicated in the following chart, which shows both a steep decline in the number of establishments over the last few years but also a decade-long trend of a declining number of jobs coming from new establishments.
Not only has the number of new establishments declined, but the average size of new establishments has also tended to decline over time.
If small businesses, or more specifically new small businesses, are an engine of job growth in the United States, that particular engine has been getting less powerful. Between March 2009 and March 2010, new establishments generated 1 million fewer jobs than over the period from 2005 to 2007. About 85 percent of that decline was related to a reduction in the number of new establishments. The other 15 percent was attributable to the smaller average size of those new establishments. In contrast, the 1 million fewer jobs per year coming from new establishments between the years 2000 and 2005 were all attributable to a decline in the size of the establishments—the number of new establishments per year actually rose slightly over that period.
The BED program also maintains a quarterly series on establishment births (the annual data are for the year ending in March). The quarterly data show that the number of new establishments rebounded over the latter half of 2010 to a pace comparable to the late 1990s. But the associated number of jobs did not increase proportionately.
So while there appears to have been a healthy pick-up in the number of new establishments in late 2010, the gradual march toward ever-smaller new establishments seems to be continuing.
The changing industrial composition of the economy doesn't seem to be the explanation for the declining establishment size trend—the pictures look basically the same if sectors such as manufacturing and construction are excluded. Perhaps it is that new establishments are simply more able than older establishments to adopt new technologies and processes that reduce the demand for labor because they have no legacy employment or capital to deal with.
How robust are these findings? The BED data do have some drawbacks. For example, the BED data are extracted from the administrative unemployment insurance records for businesses that have payrolls (employees). This covers the vast majority of workers in the United States (about 98 percent of employees on nonfarm payrolls and 94 percent of total employment) but not the majority of businesses (U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2006 report that there were about 3.5 times as many firms without employees other than the owner(s) than firms with employees). Also, these data do not distinguish between a new location that is part of a new firm and a new location that is part of a larger multi-establishment firm (like a national chain).
The Census Bureau maintains a related, but different, data set—the Business Dynamics Statistics (BDS)—that allows distinguishing between new firms and new establishments. However, the latest publicly available data only go through the year ending March 2009. The BDS data for new establishments from new firms and the jobs from those new establishments are shown in the next chart. Like the BED data, the BDS new firm data show that the number of new establishments peaked in 2006 and has been trending lower since.
However, the two data sources differ in terms of job creation: the BED new establishment employment data peaked in 1999 and has been declining steadily since, while the BDS new firm employment data peaked in 2006 and was relatively stable prior to that.
Compared to the BED data, the average size of new establishments from new firms in the BDS data has changed relatively little over time—the swings in the number of establishments and employment in the BDS data move about in proportion to each other.
Interestingly, the BDS data on the average size of new establishments at firms of all ages (new firms as well as older firms) appears to be more cyclically sensitive than the new firm data, suggesting that older firms respond more to prevailing economic conditions than new firms do. Neither of the two BDS series displays the secular trend apparent in the BED data over the last decade.
Why do inferences about new establishments from the BED and BDS data differ? I don't know. This 2009 paper by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economists Akbar Sadeghi, James Spletzer and David Talan tries to reconcile the differences but concludes that a definitive answer would require linking the data series together to compare the measures for matched establishments.
There is plenty of scope for investigating the dynamics of new business formation using data at a U.S. Census Bureau Research Data Center (RDC). The newest RDC will be located at the Atlanta Fed, which has partnered with six other research institutions to apply for and be approved to operate the 13th RDC location in the United States. The Atlanta Census Research Data Center will be a secure location where approved researchers will have access to restricted microdata in order to investigate questions like these. The Atlanta RDC is scheduled to open in September. For researchers in the Southeast interested in exploring research opportunities at the Atlanta Census Research Data Center, contact Melissa Banzhaf. For more information about U.S. Census Bureau Research Data Centers, and the Atlanta Census Research Data Center in particular, see here.
Update: Hat tip to Jim Spletzer at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who pointed me to this paper by E.J. Reedy and Bob Litan, which was published by the Kauffman Foundation in July. Reedy and Litan show similar patterns in the aggregate BLS and BDS data, as I do, and also demonstrate that the shrinking size of new establishments is not made up for in later life. New firms are getting smaller on average and tend to stay smaller over their life. They posit as explanations increased firm-level productivity and shifting occupational needs related to increased use of information technology and increased globalization.
By John Robertson, vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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June 27, 2011
Stimulating small business activity: Still a struggle
In testimony before Congress on June 22, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner laid out the disproportionate effect the financial crisis has had on small businesses and particularly their ability to raise funds:
"The banking and credit component of the economic crisis was especially damaging for small businesses, which are more dependent on bank loans for financing than are larger firms. Alternative forms of financing, through household credit via mortgages and credit cards, were also deeply compromised by the financial crisis. Mortgages and other loans account for four times the share of liabilities for non-corporate businesses as they do for corporate businesses. Total lending to non-financial businesses shrank for nine straight quarters starting in the fourth quarter of 2008, before turning slightly positive in the first quarter of 2011; on net, lending has declined by a cumulative $4.2 trillion since Fall 2008. Over the same period, larger businesses were able to raise $3.6 trillion by issuing debt securities."
Evidence from the Atlanta Fed's latest small business finance poll of approximately 182 firms in the Southeast confirms that many firms are still struggling with financing. Total financing received among repeat poll participants edged up only slightly in the first quarter of 2011 from the previous quarter. Further, 43 percent of participants overall reported that tighter lending practices are hindering access to credit. In addition, when offers of credit do occur, they often do not materialize into loans as a result of the unfavorable credit terms being offered. In fact, 41 percent of applications to community and regional banks and 57 percent of applications to large national banks were refused by the borrower, according to the first quarter poll.
In response to these ongoing problems, the Administration has created several programs to help small business obtain funding. One is the Small Business Lending Fund (SBLF). Created by the Small Business Jobs Act in September 2010, the fund began accepting applications in December 2010. The SBLF was set up to provide an incentive for financial institutions with less than $10 billion in assets (mostly community banks) to boost lending to small businesses.
Under the terms of the program, the more small business lending increases, the greater the benefit to the institution. In theory, shoring up the balance sheets of the banks in exchange for an increase in small business lending would result in an increase the amount of loanable capital. Further, there would be a greater opportunity cost for failing to bring loans to closure, and this cost could result in borrowers receiving more appealing credit terms. As a result, those small businesses currently rejecting loans based on the cost of funds could see credit terms ease, resulting in more acceptances and an expansion of small business loans. (You can read more about the details of the SBLF here.)
Unfortunately, the program, which closed out June 22, was not very popular. As of the morning of June 22, the Treasury had received 869 applications out of 7,700 eligible lenders. All together, they requested only $11.6 billion out of a possible $30 billion from the program.
Why was participation so low? One potential reason is lack of demand. According to Paul Merski, chief economist and executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, "You're not going to pull down capital unless you have loan demand."
If demand for small business loans is not expected to pick up, then what is restraining demand?
One possibility that we considered in a macroblog about a year ago is that demand is being restrained as a result of the perception of tight credit supply. Creditworthy borrowers could be assuming they will be denied so they are not applying. Another possibility is that demand is constrained because of economic weakness. To get a handle on the extent to which these factors are restraining demand, we turn back to our small business finance poll. In the poll, we ask those who did not seek credit in the previous three months why they didn't seek it. The chart below shows the responses to the question. (Note that survey participants can check more than one option.)
At first glimpse none of the reasons seem to dominate. However, if we categorize the responses into "I didn't need credit" and "I didn't think I'd able to get credit," the graph becomes a little more useful.
The graph below shows the responses placed into these two categories (where possible). Firms that only marked "sales/revenue did not warrant it," "sufficient cash on hand," or "existing financing meets needs" are put into the "I didn't need credit" category. Meanwhile, firms that only said "unfavorable credit terms" or "did not think lenders would approve" fall under "I didn't think I'd be able to get credit."
We do not claim that our survey is a statistically representative sample, and we of course can only reach existing businesses. The survey is silent on potential new businesses that were not formed because of credit issues that the SBLF could potentially address. With those caveats, we do find that the majority of firms (66 percent) did not borrow because they didn't need to or want to. Whatever the merits of the SBLF program, it appears that understanding why those businesses that are fully capable of expanding are not doing so is at least as important as understanding the slow pace of SBLF activity.
By Ellyn Terry, an analyst in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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March 30, 2011
A disturbing trend: No growth in total business establishments in U.S.
The last Atlanta Fed poll of small businesses in the Southeast suggested an uptick in confidence late last year. A similar upturn has been noted in the National Federation of Independent Business's survey of its members conducted in February of this year and released in March. This upturn is good news for the U.S. economic outlook, as small firms are one group that has lagged the economic recovery.
It's also good news, given the continuation of unimpressive readings from last week's release of the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) for the second quarter of 2010. As we have noted previously and highlighted in this recent Wall Street Journal blog post,
"The recession caused a sharp decline in new business start-ups, intensifying job market losses and potentially putting future economic growth at risk."
The QCEW data also showed that the number of business establishments with payrolls in the United States has remained stuck at around 9 million since late 2007. By comparison, in the early 1990s there were about 6.5 million establishments, a number that rose to close to 8 million in 2000 before peaking at 9 million 2007.
The net creation of business establishments—that is, physical locations for conducting business such as manufacturing plants, retail stores and business offices—has in the past been a key ingredient in job growth in the United States. This growth is driven partly by demand from newly created businesses and by mature firms expanding their footprint by opening additional locations. The demand for physical space is also clearly important to the commercial real estate industry, which has been burdened by elevated vacancy rates in many markets and generally low demand for new space.
Another trend from the QCEW data is striking—the number of employees per establishment is much lower than it used to be. The average size of U.S. establishments was relatively stable during the 1990s, at around 16.5 employees per physical location. The 2001 recession was associated with a decline in the average size to about 16 workers per establishment, and the average size continued to track lower during the last decade, moving down to about 15 employees per establishment in 2007. The latest reading for the second quarter of 2010 was 14.3 workers per establishment, up from 14 workers in the first quarter.
Several possible explanations exist for these declines in average establishment size. First, there is a cyclical response to weak demand as firms cut their payrolls. Second, productivity gains over time allow a plant, store, or office to support the demand for its goods or services with fewer workers. Third, there is a secular trend away from industries that have a large average establishment size, such as manufacturing.
If one digs into the data, only one major sector has experienced a rise in average employment per location over time—health care. This growth is likely a result of increased demand for health care services, and those services are primarily embodied in the staff at doctors' offices and hospitals. Manufacturing, on the other hand, has witnessed dramatic declines in average plant size. During the 1990s, average plant size was relatively stable at around 43 workers. The average size then declined to about 38 workers following the 2001 recession and remained around that level through 2007 before declining again and reaching an average size of 33 workers per plant in the second quarter of 2010. This trend appears to primarily reflect a combination of secular shifts away from labor-intensive types of manufacturing where productivity gains have already played out—some apparel manufacturers, for instance—and sharp cyclical downturns.
Of course, something will have to give if there is employment growth—primarily more and/or larger establishments. Consider the following thought experiment: if the average size of establishments returns to the prerecession level of 15 workers per location, and private-sector jobs are added around a pace of 2.4 million a year pace (or 200,000 jobs a month), then we would see establishment growth return to the 1992–2007 average of about 160,000 per year. Clearly, we are currently far below that trend.
By John Robertson
Vice president and senior economist in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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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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