Is the Economy Really Improving for Small Business? You Decide

As the economists declare we are coming out of the recession, I bet your bottom line tells a different story. After all, they declared the recession months after you had already been knee deep in the throes of the struggle to keep your head above water for many months. But the good news is that the talking heads are discussing a positive outlook on the horizon. That alone helps people feel better about the future.

There are plenty of groups talking about how the signs for small business are improving. Let’s take a look at a few of the statistics.

PNC Economic Outlook Survey

According to the report from the PNC Economic Outlook Survey, their new fall findings support PNC’s forecast that the U.S. economy has started a moderate U-shaped recovery in the latter half of this year that will continue throughout at least 2010. The PNC survey, which began in 2003, gauges the mood and sentiment among small and mid-sized business owners, who represent the bedrock of the American economy. The highlights include:

  • Small business owners are less pessimistic about their company prospects than they were six months ago. In the spring of 2009, 36% were pessimistic compared to 25% during the fall 2009 survey.
  • The economic stimulus has yet to trickle down to small business as 79% indicated they had not yet benefited.
  • Overwhelmingly, 96% of small business owners said the economy has not yet begun to improve, but some (13%) think it’s on its way. This is twice as many as indicated such in the fall 2008 survey.

Small Business Administration (SBA)

The SBA had a tough year. At its fiscal close on September 30th, they had approved less than 45, 000 loans, down 36% from 2008 and 56% from 2007 according to a report from The good news is that, although slow, the American Recovery Capital (ARC) loan program which is part of the economic stimulus package seems to be picking up as more banks decide to participate.

Digital Insights Second Annual Online Financial Management Survey

The Digital Insight Second Annual Online Financial Management Survey was fielded by Decipher research in July-August 2009. The small business portion surveyed 500 small business owners across the United States. There’s good news in this survey for the banking industry. Nearly 70% of respondents (both consumer and small business) indicated confidence in the stability of their bank or credit union. Other highlights include:

  • Sixty-one percent of small business owners are expressing optimism about their potential businesses growth.
  • Seventeen percent of small business owners have increased their use of online financial management tools in the past year.

American Express OPEN® Small Business Monitor

More than half (55%) of entrepreneurs have an optimistic outlook on near-term business prospects, up from 45% in March 2009, according to the American Express OPEN® Small Business Monitor, a semi-annual survey of business owners. Key highlights of this report indicate small business are taking a conservative approach.

  • Forty one percent say their top priority over the next six months is maintaining current sources of revenue with only one quarter (26%) focused on growing their business, which is the lowest number for growth in Monitor history.
  • Half (49%) say they are not willing to take on financial risk to grow their business, an all-time high for the Monitor.
  • Maintaining morale is a big issue. Three-quarters say morale has stayed the same, and nine percent say it has improved. In addition, approximately one in three (28%) business owners see offering financial incentives such as bonuses and paid time off as a way to increase employee morale.
  • Sixty percent of entrepreneurs report cash flow issues this fall, a slight uptick over the previous fall (55%) and this spring (57%).
  • The biggest cash flow worry for business owners is the ability to pay bills on time (26%).
  • When cash flow concerns arise, business owners are most likely to dip into their own pockets: 32% of business owners will use personal or private funds, and one in four (25%) will put off purchases. Others will use credit or charge cards (13%), obtain and use a line of credit (12%), lease rather than purchase business equipment (4%), or get a short-term loan in order to improve cash flow (3%).

What It All Means for Your Small Business

Your situation may be entirely different than any of the companies surveyed, but the general consensus is that the economy is slightly better. Does that mean credit will loosen up and bank loans will be easier to come by? Not likely. You’ll have to continue to keep a sharp eye on expenses and pay close attention to collecting your receivables to stay afloat. Even in a flush economy that’s how small business should operate to stay on the positive side of cash flow. Today’s economy just makes the challenge a bit tougher. But I know you can do it.

Editor’s note: this article was originally published at the American Express OPEN Forum, and is republished here with permission.


Denise O'Berry Denise O'Berry is a small business expert who provides tools, tips and advice to help small business owners be successful. O'Berry is the author of "Small Business Cash Flow: Strategies for Making Your Business a Financial Success." Her blog can be found at Just for Small Business.

7 Reactions
  1. Like my accountant says invoicing is good but collecting is better.

    And boy has that been my challenge all along, getting people to pay their bills.

    Now with the news of the recession coming to a close they can’t use that as the excuse any more.

    I hope

    Thanks and Regards

    Noel for
    a graphic design studio

  2. Hopefully the recent unemployment numbers (over 10%) don’t put too much of a wet blanket on these positive indicators. My outlook all along has been that the recovery will be slow and people need to be willing to deal with that.

  3. Denise, this is much appreciated. I see a slight uptick in biz. A willingness to spend, but like many others, projects and engagements are smaller, in scope and cost. I really agree with Noel…

  4. @noel — your accountant is right! But even better is setting up your services so you don’t have to invoice. Take a good look at how you provide your services to your clients. There may be a way you can get your money sooner.

    @robert — the key is to pay attention to the information, but not let yourself get bogged down by it. There are still ways to thrive despite the economic situation.

    @tj — glad to hear you are seeing some difference. I think we’ll see more and more of that, but it’s never been (or will be) “easy” street for most small businesses.

  5. There is a good chance that the economy will turn a corner. This is the time to make preparations and ensure that we are ready when increased activity is upon us.

  6. In talking to so many business owners, I can report that most feel like Charles Dickens’ young Oliver Twist with his nose pressed up against the dining room window filled with people and good food.

    “Can I have some more?” he asks, only to get pushed away.

    While the economy is improving and a few owners are eating well again most are still watching with envy.

    Simply stated, where you stand depends on where you sit. If your customers are buying you are eating. If they aren’t, not so much.

    Andy Birol, Birol Growth Consulting, Helping Owners Create Profitable Growth

  7. Regarding the SBA’s ARC Loan program,

    The Washington Post, on 11/6/2009 reported: Loan program to aid small firms is expected to see 60% default rate