NFIB's August 2016 report: Business optimism drops sharply

Bill Dunkelberg

The Index of Small Business Optimism declined two-tenths of a point in August to 94.4, with owners refusing to expand; expecting worse business conditions; and unable to fill open positions, according to the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB).

“Once again, the NFIB survey showed no signs of strength in the small business sector,” said NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Uncertainty seems to be the major enemy of economic progress and the political climate is a major contributor to the high levels of uncertainty that we’ve seen. The current economic environment is not a good one for strong or sustained growth.” 

At 94.4, the Index remains well below the 42-year average of 98. Five of the 10 Index components posted a gain, four declined, and one remained unchanged. The outlook for business conditions in the next six months had the most dramatic change, dropping seven points. Setting an all-time high for the survey, 39 percent of business owners cited the political climate as a reason not to expand.  Uncertainty about the economy and government policy also hit record highs among small business owners.

“The political climate used to be background noise in the economy.  It was always there, but small business owners focused more on general economic conditions,” said NFIB President and CEO Juanita Duggan.  “Based on this data, small business owners now blame the political climate for the declining economic conditions.  We haven’t seen numbers like these before, and it’s alarming.”  

Another major problem for small business owners is finding qualified workers to fill open positions. According to the survey, 15 percent said that finding qualified workers was their biggest problem. Thirty percent said they had job openings that they couldn’t fill. That’s the highest level since the recovery.

“There’s a very disturbing picture emerging in the economy,” said Duggan. “A growing number of small business owners are paralyzed by the political climate. They’re especially reluctant to hire. On the other hand, there’s another group of small business owners who want to hire, but can’t find qualified workers to fill positions.”

NFIB’s monthly Small Business Economic Trends survey is based on a monthly survey of small businesses. The survey was conducted in August and reflects the response of 730 small businesses.


Reported job creation remained weak in August with the seasonally adjusted average employment change per firm posting a decline of -0.02 workers per firm. Fifty-six percent reported hiring or trying to hire (up 3 points), but 48 percent reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill. Fifteen percent of owners cited the difficulty of finding qualified workers as their Single Most Important Business Problem. This issue ranks third out of nine major issues listed behind taxes and the cost of regulation and red tape. Thirty percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, up 4 points and the highest reading in this recovery. Fifteen percent reported using temporary workers, up 2 points. A seasonally adjusted net 9 percent plan to create new jobs, down 3 points from July.


The net percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reporting higher nominal sales in the past 3 months compared to the prior 3 months fell 1 percentage point to a net negative 9 percent. Eleven percent cited weak sales as their top business problem, down 1 point from July. Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes fell 2 points to a net negative 1 percent of owners, a weak showing.

The net percent of owners reporting inventory gains increased 5 points to a net negative 0 percent (seasonally adjusted), restoring some balance after a major reduction in the first half of the year. The net percent of owners viewing current inventory stocks as “too low” improved 2 points to a net negative 2 percent. The net percent of owners planning to add to inventory increased 1 point to a net 1 percent, not a strong picture, but now positive and a contribution to growth if owners follow through as planned.  


Fifty-seven percent reported capital outlays, down 2 points from July. The percentage of owners making an outlay peaked in July 2015 at 61 percent, revisiting that percentage in January but has faded since. The percent of owners planning capital outlays in the next 3 to 6 months rose 3 points to 28 percent. This is 1 point better than the recovery high reading reached in October 2014, but historically weak. The small business sector remains in “maintenance mode”. Seasonally adjusted, the net percent expecting better business conditions deteriorated 7 percentage points to a net negative 12 percent. Clearly, expectations for the economy are not conducive to a meaningful improvement in business investment as prospects for profits are poor.


Inflationary pressures remain dormant on Main Street. Fourteen percent of owners reported reducing their average selling prices in the past three months (down 2 points), and 16 percent reported price increases (up 1 point). Seasonally adjusted, the net percent of owners raising selling prices rose 5 points from July to 3 percent. In spite of the Federal Reserve’s efforts, inflation on Main Street is M.I.A. Seasonally adjusted, a net 15 percent plan price hikes (up 1 point). Prospects for a resurgence of inflation are low, especially with gas prices on the decline again.


A seasonally adjusted net 24 percent of owners reported raising worker compensation, up 2 points from June but 2 points below May. The net percent planning to increase compensation rose 1 point to a net 15 percent.

Earnings trends worsened a point to a net negative 21 percent reporting quarter on quarter profit improvements. Gas prices are falling again, and once again providing a small cushion for the bottom line compared to past years. At the macroeconomic level, corporate profits are showing weakness as well.


Four percent of owners reported that all their borrowing needs were not satisfied, 2 points above the record low reached in September 2015. Twenty-nine percent reported all credit needs met (down 1 point), and 52 percent explicitly said they did not want a loan, down 1 point. Record numbers of firms remain on the “credit sidelines”, seeing no good reason to borrow. Only 2 percent reported that financing was their top business problem. Twenty-nine percent of all owners reported borrowing on a regular basis (up 1 point). The average rate paid on short maturity loans fell 10 basis points to 5.2 percent. The net percent of owners expecting credit conditions to ease in the coming months was a negative 5 percent, unchanged from July. Interest rates are low, but prospects for putting borrowed money profitably to work have not improved enough to induce owners to step up their borrowing and spending.


After nine months of 1 percent GDP growth, the economy is set to turn in a better performance. This will result because the denominator in the change calculation is low, and because the huge inventory reduction that knocked a point off the GDP growth rate appears to be over, with an ever so modest increase in plans to build inventory. Consumer spending looks like it will maintain some strength, including car sales, although there are mixed signals on consumer sentiment. It doesn’t appear that capital spending is ready to pick up, but housing will continue to add to growth, even though it is supply constrained, due to a shortage of skilled labor and permitted land.

The Federal Reserve has started its regular “hide the rate hike” game, sending observers looking under every rock of data to see if there are 25 basis points underneath. Most of the “rocks” look like pebbles, there’s not a lot of growth in the landscape, and there’s that darn international thing, the value of the dollar (which is officially not the province of the Fed) and all that. The inflation and employment goals are defined “downward” in terms of what the Fed might accept, along with prognostications that assure “full” attainment by 2018. Comments by Chicago Fed president Charles Evans, in remarks to the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance in Beijing, indicate that the Fed thinks it is the determining force shaping interest rates, not markets, a very troubling view. He said, “Long-run expectations for policy rates provide an anchor to long-run interest rates,” continuing with “So lower policy rate expectations act as a restraint on how much long-term rates could rise following a surprise over the near-term policy path.” These contortions in policy cannot be maintained. We will regret this arrogance even more over the next decade as our private financial institutions become unable to meet the promises they have made.

Population growth will continue to push fundamental growth ahead with more haircuts and houses. Another 120,000 jobs will keep the unemployment rate steady, but with job openings at the highest level in this recovery, any more than that will likely lower the rate. Health insurance costs keep rising, diverting compensation gains into benefits rather than take home pay. Other regulatory pressures such as a rising minimum wage and mandatory paid leave also put an upward pressure on reports of compensation increases. Capital spending will remain M.I.A., plans are at the highest level for the recovery, matching the previous peak in 2014, but not typical of an expansion and reports of actual spending have been weakening. Inventory investment will reverse the reductions of the first half of the year and that will add to growth. Overall, a return to 2 percent growth for the year is expected.

Print page