January disappoints, according to one tracker of small business hiring, but the movie is not over--not by a long shot.
The beginning of 2012 has been a bit like an Oscar-nominated movie. You expect it to be great, but it starts off mediocre, and then it's more depressing than you thought. Advertised as a comedy, the story turns out to be a family drama.
Still, if you give a good movie some time, it usually turns out to be worth your while, even if it's hard to get into. I'm hoping the small business economy tells a similar story this year.
January was frustrating. According to the SurePayroll Small Business Scorecard, which analyzes data from 35,000 small business owners across the country, month-over-month hiring fell 0.2 percent and paychecks stayed flat nationwide. It's not terrible news, but it's disappointing because our optimism survey shows 65 percent of small business owners are optimistic about the economy. The level of optimism has shown great strides since September, when it was down to an all-time low of 33 percent.
The trend toward optimism created a lot of excitement about 2012, but, regardless, it appears the small business economy has shifted back to neutral as a great deal of uncertainty has continued to swirl around us in the last 30 days.
Internationally, we're still waiting to find out what will happen with Greece and how that will impact the euro. At home the U.S. economy has not grown like we thought it would. And the Federal Reserve is sending signals the climate is going to stay this way for a while; it plans to keep interest rates low until 2014.
Meanwhile, the upcoming presidential election leaves us with two very divergent choices, so business owners can't be at all sure which direction the country will go. Small business owners need to have plans for either a Republican or Democratic administration, but I fear we may end up with gridlock, like we've seen for months now.
I remain hopeful, though, because optimism is still high and one month doesn't make a year. Our aspirations can still be realized. Let's hope 2012 is like one of those award-winning movies—a little slow at first, but worth sitting out.
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter