For months we've seen small and medium sized business confidence rise. Survey after survey have reported a growing optimism that has underscored increasing sales and profits for many businesses from main street merchants to industrial manufacturers. But have we reached a peak? Are there storm clouds on the horizon?
Earlier this month, the National Federation of Independent Businesses Small Business Optimism Index - while still very strong - retreated back from its 45-year high. This week Capital One's Small Business Growth Index, a biannual survey of 500 small business owners that gauges sentiment related to the economy, business conditions and plans for growth - while at its peak - also revealed growing concerns among many SMBs. (Capital One is a client of my company, The Marks Group PC. However, I have not been compensated to write this).
"We've seen small business optimism continue to rise as business owners benefit from a strong economy," said Jenn Flynn, head of Small Business Bank at Capital One said in a press release. "At the same time, small business owners still have concerns about taxes, tariffs and other areas of economic policy. As business leaders balance opportunity with risk, we remain committed to offering solutions designed to empower small businesses and fuel growth."
Although two-thirds (67 percent) of small business owners surveyed by Capital One think business conditions in their area are good or excellent - which is up from 60 percent one year ago and the highest measured since 2010 - many are struggling to find employees in the face of competition from big businesses that offer better benefits, a lack of financial resources and a continuing tight labor market. Savings from tax reform appear to be having a less-than-hoped-for impact too, with fewer small business owners (20 percent) expecting to pay less in taxes than earlier this year, when 36 percent thought they would pay less in taxes.
I'm seeing this. And other growing issues. Among them:
A trade red flag.
While the U.S. has taken significant steps to resolve disputes with Canada, Mexico and the EU, a trade war continues to grow with China which impacts not only pricing but the supply of key raw materials used by many companies in their manufacturing processes. While most of my clients are not directly impacted by the trade dispute, the indirect effects could be significant. Major companies from Ford to 3M to Caterpillar have recently announced cutbacks and price increases that will impact their supply chain, many of who are made up of SMBs. Retailers such as Walmart and Target say that price increases on consumer goods are likely, which will put pressure on spending and could dampen holiday sales. Oh, and then there are the markets.
Yes, the markets.
U.S. stock gains for the year have been recently wiped out and while most I know are still sitting on the gains they've achieved since 2016, many are becoming increasingly concerned that continued trade disputes, a stalemate in Congress or impeachment proceedings in Washington or even a potential rollback in tax reforms may further dampen the markets. Less valuation means less wealth which means less spending by our customers.
Other costs are creeping up.
Healthcare costs are "only" expected to rise around 5 percent this year, but other estimates put this increase at more than triple the amount in the next few years to come with no end to the growing healthcare problem in sight. Wage pressures, brought on by a tight labor market and a trend towards increasing minimum wages, are being felt by many small merchants and restauranteurs. The cost of energy, led by a double digit increase in oil prices over the past year, has added more overhead. Real estate prices in many areas remain high as a reflection of the hot economy, which has forced up rents. Interest rates are projected to double in the next two years, mostly as a result of planned Fed increases and economic growth. Meanwhile, inflation has remained stubbornly low which has held many back from raising prices.
Yes, there are many reasons to be happy with today's economic environment. But - and this is probably the accountant in me speaking - you can never forget that things are never as good as they seem. I know that many executives and business owners would agree with that sentiment.