The Economy

Small-Business Owners Express Epic Pessimism

A new survey indicates that small business is less optimistic about the future today than it was in the depths of the recession.
David RosenbaumDecember 3, 2012

Small-business owners are more pessimistic about their businesses’ future than they’ve been since the third quarter of 2010, according to the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index released Friday.

The numbers are “jaw-dropping,” says Doug Case, small-business segment manager for Wells Fargo, currently the nation’s number-one Small Business Administration lender.

The index, in which small-business owners are surveyed quarterly and asked to assess their current condition and future expectations, was begun in 2003. It hit historic numbers Friday in three categories:

  • Financial Situation. Of the 607 small-business owners interviewed by telephone from November 12 to November 16, 28% described their situation as “somewhat” or “very” poor. That represents an 8% increase over the previous quarter, “the highest reading since the beginning of the index,” Case says. The highest level the index had recorded previous to this was 22% in the second quarter of 2011.
  • Jobs. Twenty-one percent expected the number of jobs at their business to decrease in 2013 either “a little” or “a lot,” a number Case has “never seen that high,” and an expectation that represents an 11% increase over the last quarter. In 2008, in the midst of the recession, only 8% of business owners surveyed expected the number of jobs in their company to decline.
  • Revenue and Cash Flow. The index reports that 29% of owners surveyed expected their revenue to fall “a little” or “a lot,” and 30% of respondents expected their cash flow to be “somewhat” or “very” poor in 2013, another high in index history.

Case sees small-business owners as traditionally optimistic about the future, even if they tend to be pessimistic about the present. They live, says Case, “day-to-day, and week-to-week, looking for growth to counter risk.” Unfortunately, he says, these highs (or lows) in the index are a clear indication that uncertainty is still paralyzing small-business owners, a situation that will not be cleared up in the short term.

One small-business owner, Case says, a designer of high-end furniture, told him he’d have “a really good month or two, and then a real poor one or two, and,” Case continues, “that seems to be characteristic of the recovery we’re in. It’s not predictable.

“Until there’s sustained improvement,” says Case, “you don’t get confidence.” And that lack of confidence, he says, encourages the small-business owner to put off a hire, or put off buying that new piece of machinery, or put off signing that new lease.

The Wells Fargo/Gallup index also found that 85% of small-business owners were not planning to borrow new money in 2013, a figure Case says has remained stable.