Small Business Optimism Rises Slightly in April Despite Ongoing Challenges

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) announced that its Small Business Optimism Index increased by 1.2 points in April, reaching 89.7.
small business optimism increases in april 2024
© Andreas Klassen

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) announced that its Small Business Optimism Index increased by 1.2 points in April, reaching 89.7.

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This marks the first rise in the index this year, although it remains below the 50-year average of 98 for the 28th consecutive month. Despite this small uptick, small business owners continue to face significant challenges, with inflation being a major concern.

Inflation was cited as the most pressing issue by 22% of small business owners, a slight decrease from March’s 25%. Bill Dunkelberg, NFIB’s Chief Economist, noted, “Cost pressures remain the top issue for small business owners, including historically high levels of owners raising compensation to keep and attract employees. Overall, small business owners remain historically very pessimistic as they continue to navigate these challenges. Owners are dealing with a rising level of uncertainty but will continue to do what they do best – serve their customers.”

Key Findings from the April Report

1. Sales Expectations: The net percentage of owners expecting higher real sales improved by six points from March to a net negative 12% (seasonally adjusted).

2. Job Creation: A net 12% of owners plan to create new jobs in the next three months, up slightly from March, which saw the lowest level of job creation plans since May 2020.

3. Price Hikes: Plans for price increases dropped seven points to a net 26%, the lowest level since April of last year.

4. Job Openings: Forty percent of owners reported having job openings they could not fill, an increase of three points from March, indicating ongoing labor market tightness. (You might like to consider hiring pre-vetted freelancers to fill positions)

5. Raising Prices: The net percentage of owners raising average selling prices decreased by three points to a net 25% (seasonally adjusted).

Employment Challenges

According to NFIB’s monthly jobs report, 56% of owners were hiring or trying to hire in April. However, 91% of those reported finding few or no qualified applicants, underscoring the difficulty in filling positions.

Capital outlays remained steady, with 56% of owners reporting expenditures in the past six months. Investments included new equipment (38%), vehicles (24%), and facility improvements (16%). Looking ahead, 22% of owners plan capital outlays in the coming months.

The net percentage of owners reporting higher nominal sales in the past three months was a net negative 13%. However, the outlook for future sales volumes slightly improved, with a net negative 12% expecting higher sales.

Inventory levels showed minor changes, with a net negative 6% of owners reporting gains. Additionally, a net negative 4% viewed their current inventory stocks as too low, while a net negative 6% plan to invest in inventory in the coming months.

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Sector-Specific Insights

Price increases were most common in finance, retail, construction, manufacturing, and wholesale sectors. Notably, 54% of finance sector businesses reported higher prices, compared to only 7% reporting lower prices.

Despite the rise in optimism, small business owners remain cautious. The challenges of inflation, labor shortages, and uncertainty continue to weigh heavily on their outlook. As Dunkelberg emphasized, small business owners will persist in their efforts to serve customers while navigating these ongoing pressures.

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