Small Business Owners: Optimistic but Cautious

While small business owners are generally upbeat about the future of the economy, they are also becoming more conservative in their willingness to take risks. These were the findings of a survey taken by financial services company The Hartford. They indicate that living through the Great Recession of the last decade has left business owners battle scarred and cautious about making dramatic moves.

The survey found that a rising share of small businesses were expecting a stronger economy. They were more bullish about their local economies than they were about the national economy, with 48 percent more optimistic about local conditions versus 22 percent more optimistic about the national economy.

In addition, they were less worried about economic threats to their businesses. Smaller shares of business owners cited slow economic growth, taxes, healthcare costs and uncertain federal regulations as major threats. In particular, the percentage of those worried about regulations fell 26 percent, and the share of those worried about taxes fell 17 percent.

Still, the percentage of small businesses rating themselves as conservative with regard to risk-taking rose from the year before, with almost eight in ten describing themselves that way. This indicates that the effects of the recession still linger. Until they feel more certain about their future prospects, they will be inclined to play it safe rather than take chances. 

The risk factors that worry them are those that affect their businesses’ profitability. For example, almost half of those who cited healthcare costs as a major risk said it was because they believe healthcare is unaffordable. Nearly a third of those who cited slow economic growth said it was because their customers were reluctant to spend.

Two-thirds of them considered themselves well-informed about the Affordable Care Act. Almost four in ten believed it would hurt their businesses; slightly more thought it would have no effect, positive or negative. Of particular note, 43 percent of businesses with 1-4 employees thought it would hurt, while 36 percent of those with 20-49 employees thought so.

The ACA’s tax penalties for employers who fail to offer affordable health coverage to employees do not apply to businesses with fewer than 50 workers. The high percentages of businesses below that threshold expecting the law to hurt them indicates that more information is needed. Those who expected it to hurt their businesses were contemplating reducing employees’ work hours, reducing future hiring or cutting jobs.

Most business owners are happy with the way their firms are running. More than 60 percent say that increased demand for their goods and services will help business, while half that number cited fewer regulations and deeper pools of qualified employees. However, they are not impressed with social media. Half of them feel it has no effect on their success.

Business owners want stable economic conditions and predictability. The Great Recession shook their faith in both. While their optimism appears to be returning, it may take some time before they are willing to make major investments in buildings, technology and creating new jobs.



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