Business Owners Are Optimistic as Economic Conditions Improve

Special to The Truth

What a difference a year makes. New research finds that small- and mid-sized business owners are increasingly optimistic about economic conditions and the prospects for their own businesses.

According to PNC’s Spring 2024 Economic Outlook Survey, nearly 80 percent of business owners surveyed feel optimistic about conditions for their business over the next six months — up from 60% a year ago.

This optimism likely stems from an improving outlook for the economy as a whole as inflation pressures and recession fears appear to be easing. A majority of those surveyed (55 percent) said they are highly optimistic about the national economy — a dramatic increase from the 26 percent who felt that way in the spring of 2023. Even more (63 percent) said they are highly optimistic about their local economy — more than double the reading from a year ago.

The uptick in optimism for the economy mirrors PNC’s revised outlook for 2024, which shifts away from a predicted recession to a forecast of slow growth. PNC chief economist Gus Faucher said he expects the Federal Reserve will begin cutting interest rates later this year as inflation continues to ease.

“Business owners continue to feel confident that good days are ahead,” Faucher said. “This time around though, the economy is seen as a supporting factor to that optimism instead of a limitation.”

Calming Inflation

Easing inflation pressures are among the biggest factors reported in the survey. Last spring, 55 percent of respondents reported that they expected to raise prices in the ensuing six months — that dropped to 47 percent this round. Similarly, 40 percent expect prices from suppliers to increase over the next six months, that’s down from 47 percent last spring.

Inflation overall has been gradually easing since a mid-2022 high of nine percent — its highest level since the 1980s. By January 2024, inflation was reported at 3.1 percent, with continued easing projected in the months ahead. Still, inflation remains above its pre-pandemic pace and Faucher says more progress is needed before the Fed likely cuts rates later in 2024.

“We’ve come a long way from 2022, as supply chain issues driven by the pandemic have largely dissipated,” Faucher said. “But more progress will probably be necessary before we can expect the Fed to start easing rates.”

Labor Challenges Easing

One such challenge has been the tight labor market, which has made hiring difficult for business leaders. Consistent with PNC’s Fall 2023 survey, respondents say the lack of overall applicants remains their primary hiring issue. Respondents cite lack of experience (22 percent) and high salary/benefit and flexibility requirements (9%) as other barriers.

The nationwide unemployment rate for January 2024 was 3.7 percent — below what is considered “full employment” in the U.S. economy. Faucher said he expects the shortage of available labor to ease as consumer demand softens and the effect of slower job growth across the economy becomes more visible.

Despite the trend across the broader U.S. landscape, few survey respondents anticipate workforce reductions over the next six months. Only four percent report anticipating a reduction, while 74 percent expect no change to their workforce numbers and 21 percent project an increase in their workforce over the next half of the year.

“Employers have been under pressure despite the improving conditions because the economy has been at or near full employment for an extended period,” Faucher said. “We expect some slack in the labor market in the coming months, which will likely further ease inflation.”

Courtesy StatePoint