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Small Businesses Less Optimistic as Inflation, Labor Take Toll

Business is good, according to NFIB’s monthly study – but it would be better for small companies if they could get more workers and not worry about inflation.

WASHINGTON – A monthly study of small business attitudes, the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index, decreased one point in September to 99.1. Three of the index components improved, five declined and two were unchanged.

Overall, America’s small businesses are doing well, but many have trouble attracting new employees and some face supply-chain shortages.

“Small business owners are doing their best to meet the needs of customers, but are unable to hire workers or receive the needed supplies and inventories,” says NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg.

He says small-business owners also fear possible changes in policy that could impact their bottom line. “The outlook for economic policy is not encouraging to owners, as lawmakers shift to talks about tax increases and additional regulations,” says Dunkelberg.

In response to a tight labor market, they survey found that 30% of small-business owners plan to raise compensation in the next three months, up four points from August’s record-high reading. While 12% of owners cited labor costs as their top business problem, 28% cited labor quality. Both were record-high readings for the monthly survey.

Capital expenditures

Overall, small businesses appear to be shying away from capital expenditures when they can: 53% expect capital outlays in the next six months, down two points from August and historically a weak reading. Of those with recent expenditures, 37% spent it on new equipment, 21% acquired vehicles, 12% improved or expanded facilities and 10% spent money for new fixtures and furniture. July 6% of owners acquired new buildings or land for expansion.

In the next few months, 28% play capital outlays, down two points from August and one point below NFIB’s 48-year average.

Sales improving

Seasonally adjusted, 3% of owners reported higher nominal sales in the past three months, up three points from August. The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes improved by four points to a net 2%.

The net percent of owners reporting inventory increases rose five points to a net 3%, back into positive territory after two months with owners reporting more declines than gains. NFIB says it’s the highest reading since the pandemic started.

Over 35% of owners say supply chain disruptions had a significant impact on their business; 32% report a moderate impact and 21% report a mild impact. Only 10% of owners report no impact at all.

One in 10 (10%) owners say current inventory stocks were “too low” in September, down one point from August. A net 9% of owners plan inventory investment in the coming months, down two points from August but historically a notably elevated reading.

Inflation affecting prices

The net percent of owners raising average selling prices decreased three points to a net 46% (seasonally adjusted). Unadjusted, 8% of owners reported lower average selling prices and 53% reported higher average prices. Price hikes were the most frequent in wholesale (75% higher, 0% lower), manufacturing (67% higher, 4% lower), and retail (71% higher, 2% lower).

Seasonally adjusted, a net 46% of owners plan price hikes.

The frequency of positive profit trends increased one point to a net negative 14%. Among the owners reporting lower profits, 26% blamed the rise in the cost of materials, 23% blamed weaker sales, 19% cited labor costs, 10% cited the usual season change, 6% cited lower prices, and 6% cited higher taxes or regulatory costs.

For those owners reporting higher profits, 57% credited sales volumes, 19% usual seasonal change, and 5% higher prices.

Business loans

Only 2% of owners said that all their borrowing needs weren’t satisfied, while 20% said. Twenty percent said all credit needs were met and 62% said they’re not interested in a loan. A net 4% of owners said their last loan was harder to get than in previous attempts, though none considered financing their top business problem, and 0% said they paid a higher rate on their most recent loan.

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