Small Business Confidence Rising; ISI Remains Optimistic

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

We share the view of most economists that the major deterrent to a strong and sustainable U.S. economic expansion is the lack of healthy job growth. High unemployment and underemployment has dampened consumer confidence and spending, and is clearly having a serious negative impact on stock prices. The key to employment gains in this as in past economic recoveries will be small businesses. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, its members represent more than 99% of all U.S. employers and have created 64% of all new jobs in the past 15 years. The problem is that small business owners have been very reluctant to hire in the current economic recovery.
The announcement on June 8 by the National Federation of Independent Business that their small business optimism index increased from 90.6 to 92.2 in April, which marks a 20 month high, is a very encouraging sign. 7 of 10 components in the index rose, led by a significant gain in expectations for business conditions six months down the road. Most noteworthy is that job creation plans registered the first positive reading in 19 months. Other positive responses include an improvement in profits, plans to increase capital spending, and an expectation of easing credit conditions.
A caveat is in order: even with April’s advance, the Index trails levels reached in past economic rebounds. On the other hand, a pick up in hiring led by small businesses would be a powerful antidote to the currently fashionable thesis that the U.S. economy is heading into a double-dip recession.
Separately, The International Strategy and Investment Group (ISI), highly respected and influential among institutional investors, has taken a strong stand against the prospects of a double-dip. On June 7, ISI distributed their forecast for U.S. GDP growth of 3.5% in 2010 with an additional 3.0% in 2011. Key to this forecast is their weekly survey of companies, which last week rose to a new high and indicates that “a powerful, broad-based recovery is unfolding.”
ISI is well aware of the headwinds: the Eurozone economy is likely to see a double-dip, U.S. tax rates are headed up, U.S. state and local budget cuts and tax hikes are likely, and they foresee a slowing in China real GDP to 7.5%. Despite these and other negatives, they cite continued strength in manufacturing, strong corporate balance sheets and profit growth, lean inventories, low inflation and interest rates, and an accommodating Federal Reserve in addition to their company surveys to support their positive outlook.