Small Business Optimism Index Declines in September
September’s optimism index gave up 0.8 points, falling to 95.3. At 95.3, the Index is now 5 points below the pre-recession average (from 1973 to 2007). Four Index components improved, six declined. Two declined by 10 points total, accounting for the entire decline in the Index score. Unfortunately, the two that fell drastically were job openings and planned capital outlays, which are directly relevant to GDP growth and hiring.
“Small businesses just can’t seem to get out of second gear. In order for the Index to get back to the average, responses to the 10 Index component questions would have to improve 50 percentage points cumulatively. That’s a lot of ‘positive’ responses to makeup to get back to ‘average’ much less reach a level that means a solid recovery,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “A decline in job openings and capital spending plans were primarily responsible for September’s Index decline. Overall, small business owners are still stuck in a rut that has been difficult to escape.
A review of the September indicators is as follows:
• Labor Markets. NFIB owners increased employment by an average of 0.24 workers per firm in September (seasonally adjusted), the 12th positive month in a row and the largest gain this year. Seasonally adjusted, 13 percent of the owners (unchanged) reported adding an average of 3.7 workers per firm over the past few months. Offsetting that, 10 percent reduced employment (down 3 points) an average of 2.4 workers, producing the seasonally adjusted net gain of 0.24 workers per firm overall, a historically large figure. Fifty percent of the owners hired or tried to hire in the last three months and 42 percent reported few or no qualified applicants for open positions. Twenty-one percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, down 5 points, not a good sign for improvements in the unemployment rate. Fifteen percent reported using temporary workers, down 1 point. Job creation plans faded, suggesting weaker job creation ahead. The net percent of owners planning to increase employment fell 1 point to a seasonally adjusted net 9 percent, after a 3 point decline in August.
• Sales. The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales in the past 3 months compared to the prior 3 months deteriorated 2 points to a net negative 4 percent. Fourteen percent cited weak sales as their top business problem, one of the lowest readings since December 2007, but up 1 point from August. Expected real sales volumes posted a 1 point decline, falling to a net 5 percent of owners expecting gains after dropping 4 points in August. Overall, these readings are more like a recession period than one of expansion.
• Capital Spending. The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next 3 to 6 months fell 5 points to 22, an unfortunate reversal for this important measure. Inconsistent with this decline was a 4 point rise in the percent of owners viewing the current period as a good time to expand substantially, the best reading since December, 2007, the peak of the last expansion. Fifty-six percent reported outlays, down 2 points from August, not a very encouraging reading. Of those making expenditures, 38 percent reported spending on new equipment (down 4 points), 23 percent acquired vehicles (up 1 point), and 12 percent improved or expanded facilities (down 2 points). Five percent acquired new buildings or land for expansion (down 2 points) and 9 percent spent money for new fixtures and furniture (down 2 points). Overall, spending remains in “replacement mode”, not a lot of expansion except in selected markets including Texas and North Dakota.
• Earnings and Wages. Earnings trends deteriorated 2 points, reaching a net negative 19 percent (net percent reporting quarter to quarter earnings trending higher or lower). Sales are not improving substantially and labor costs continue to put pressure on the bottom line. Benefit increases induced by the healthcare laws raise labor costs but contribute little to take home pay.
One percent reported reduced worker compensation and 19 percent reported raising compensation, yielding a seasonally adjusted net 18 percent reporting higher compensation, down 4 points, reversing a positive compensation trend. A net seasonally adjusted 15 percent plan to raise compensation in the coming months (unchanged). The reported gains in compensation are still in the range typical of an economy with reasonable growth, but the reversal was disappointing (for employees) as it signals weaker labor demand and soft labor markets.
• Credit Markets. Six percent of the owners reported that all their credit needs were not met, up 2 points from the historic low. Twenty-eight percent reported all credit needs met, and 51 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan. Only 2 percent reported that financing was their top business problem compared to 21 percent citing taxes, 22 percent citing regulations and red tape and 14 percent citing weak sales.
The net percent of owners expecting credit conditions to ease in the coming months was a seasonally adjusted negative 7 percent, 2 points worse than August. Interest rates are low, but prospects for putting borrowed money profitably to work are not great and so loan demand remains weak among small business owners. Low rates have not triggered the growth in spending that would promise a good cash flow on business investments.
• Inventories. The pace of inventory reduction accelerated, with a net negative 7 percent of all owners reporting growth in inventories (seasonally adjusted). Clearly firms are liquidating stocks faster than adding to them. With sales trends weakening, the reductions in inventories are not surprising.
The net percent of owners viewing current inventory stocks as “too low” improved a point to a net negative 0 percent, a very balanced reading. Sales trends continued to deteriorate a bit but remained near the best levels in the recovery, just historically weak. Expected real sales did not improve, and this contributed to less urgency to rebuild stocks. The net percent of owners planning to add to inventory stocks rose 1 point to a net 2 percent. While inventory accumulation can add to GDP growth, there isn’t much “juice” in the small business sector to contribute.
• Inflation. Fourteen percent of the NFIB owners reported reducing their average selling prices in the past 3 months (down 1 point), and 17 percent reported price increases (down 3 points). Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners raising selling prices was a net 4 percent, down 2 points after a surprising 8 percentage point decline in August.
Twenty percent plan on raising average prices in the next few months (unchanged). Five percent plan reductions (up 2 points), far fewer than actually reported reductions in past prices. Seasonally adjusted, a net 16 percent plan price hikes (down 3 points). These developments are good news to the Federal Reserve, making them more comfortable providing “accommodation” even though there isn’t much evidence to support the notion that buying bonds is helping the employment picture or creating the “desired” inflation.
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