Small Business Optimism Held Up Better Than Expected in December

President Donald Trump celebrated the end of the old system of filing taxes on Tax Day and touted the benefits of reform.
AP/Alex Brandon

Small-business owners’ confidence in the U.S. economy was nearly unchanged in December despite steep losses in the stock market and burgeoning talk about the possibility of an economic slump in the near future.

The National Federation of Independent Business said Tuesday that its optimism index ticked down slightly to 104.4 in December from November’s 104.8 reading. Economists had expected a steeper decline to 103.

The stock market in early 2019 has been recovering the December losses, climbing in four out of the past five trading days. Economic data released about the end of last year has painted a picture of an economy still growing and unlikely to enter a recession soon, even if some indications show growth has decelerated from the very rapid pace seen in mid-2018.

Last week, the government said the economy added 313,000 jobs in December. The NFIB survey suggests strong job growth will continue.

“Actual hiring strengthened to the highest reading in six months, job openings are at a record high levels, and plans to create new jobs are down only three points from August’s record high,” the NFIB said in a statement.

Tightness in the labor market may be a source of diminished optimism by owners.

“Optimism among small business owners continues to push record highs, but they need workers to generate more sales, provide services, and complete projects,”said NFIB President and CEO Juanita D. Duggan.

Diminished optimism was also seen in earnings trends and expected credit conditions, signaling that owners are worried that about central bank policy.

In a positive sign for growth in the early months of 2019, a larger share of owners say they plan to add to inventories. That was offset, however, by a decline in the number of businesses saying now is a good time to expand.

Actual capital investments rose while plans to make capital investments declined.

The index hit a record high of 108 in August.

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