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US small business sentiment slumps to more than 10-year low

2023-05-09T15:01:48Z

A shopping cart is seen in a supermarket in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., June 10, 2022. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

U.S. small business confidence fell to more than a 10-year low in April on worries about the near-term economic outlook and persistent worker shortages, but there were few signs that businesses were having difficulties accessing credit.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said on Tuesday its Small Business Optimism Index dropped 1.1 points to 89.0 last month, the lowest level since January 2013. It was the 16th straight month that the index remained below the 49-year average of 98.

Higher interest rates tied to the Federal Reserve’s battle to tame inflation combined with tighter credit conditions following recent financial market stress are stoking fears of a recession this year. A fight over raising the federal government’s borrowing cap is also helping to cloud the economy.

While the survey hinted at an economic slowdown, economists cautioned against reading too much into the drop in sentiment.

“The decline is broadly in line with the weakness in consumer sentiment seen over the past year,” said Michael Pearce, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics in New York.

“As we’ve argued before, though, measures of sentiment are often a poor guide of what is likely to happen in the economy because it tells us more about how business owners are feeling, rather than what they are doing.”

The share of owners expecting better business conditions over the next six months fell two points to a net negative 49%. A net negative 19% expected higher inflation-adjusted sales, down four points from March.

Thirty percent reported all their credit needs were met, up a point from the prior month. Fifty-nine percent said they were not interested in a loan, unchanged from March. A net 6% reported their last loan was harder to get than in previous attempts, down three points, while 4% reported financing was their top business problem, up one point from March.

“While owners are becoming more pessimistic, April’s report should help allay concerns that credit is becoming completely unaccessible for small businesses,” said Charlie Dougherty, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in New York.

A Fed survey of bank loan officers published on Monday showed credit conditions for businesses and households continued tightening in the first months of the year, but this appeared to be the result of the U.S. central bank’s aggressive interest rate hikes rather than the cliff-like decline in credit some feared after the March collapses of Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.

Though the Fed has signaled it may pause its fastest monetary policy tightening campaign since the 1980s, the economy has yet to feel the full effects of the cumulative 500 basis points of hikes in the policy rate since March 2022.

Forty-five percent of owners reported job openings that they could not fill, up 2 points from March. The vacancies were concentrated in construction and transportation. Thirty-seven percent of the owners had vacancies for skilled workers, up three points from March.

The government reported last week that there were 1.6 job openings for every unemployed person in March.

The share of small business owners reporting that inflation was their single most important problem dipped one point to 23%, and was 14 points lower than last July’s peak, which was the highest reading since the fourth quarter of 1979.

About 33% of owners reported raising average selling prices, down 4 points. Government data on Wednesday is expected to show consumer prices increased strongly in April, but services costs outside housing are forecast to have risen moderately.