Main Street left out of recovery

By Catherine Clifford, staff reporter

NEW YORK ( -- The economy may be showing halting signs of recovery, but the turnaround hasn't reached Main Street yet: A pair of recent small business surveys found that most owners are skeptical or downright gloomy about their business prospects this year.

"Something isn't sitting well with small business owners," Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a written statement accompanying the latest edition of his organization's monthly "Small Business Optimism" report. "Poor sales and uncertainty continue to overwhelm any other good news about the economy."

Capital expenditures remain near record lows, sales are still weak, and credit lines are hard to find, according to the around 950 business owners NFIB surveyed in March. While job cuts have slowed, few businesses say they plan to hire new workers within the next three months.

NFIB's findings dovetail with those from American Express, which recently polled owners of firms with 100 or fewer employees. One in five businesses said their companies are "sinking ships," while more than half said they were merely "staying afloat." Just 21% reported that their business was healthy or growing.

Business owners continue eying their payroll for cost cuts. While 28% of those Amex surveyed said they're planning to hire new workers, most of those creating jobs said they're looking for part-time or freelance help. Among that group, 62% said they're avoiding taking on new full-time workers to save on the cost of benefits.

"The economy has certainly taken its toll on business owners, and with only one-in-four characterizing the economy as 'recovering' based on their own business performance, the recent upturn has eluded many of them," Susan Sobbott, president of American Express OPEN, said in a written statement.

Hitting bottom?: Main Street may be suck in low gear, but there are a few indications that at least conditions aren't continuing to deteriorate.

Businesses may not be hiring, but the torrent of pink slips has tapered off.

"This sets the stage for job creation -- if owners become optimistic enough to think new hires can generate enough additional business to pay their way," said Dunkelberg of the NFIB.

The credit market could also be starting to thaw., an online marketplace that connects lenders with business borrowers, recently polled 100 banks ranging from small community banks to large national lenders. More than 80% said they plan to do more small business lending this year than last year -- and only 4% intended to do less.

But those same lenders think finding qualified borrowers will be tough: 41% said they think they'll have to work harder this year than last year to find creditworthy candidates. With sales slow and the value of assets like inventoried goods and commercial properties falling, business owners have had trouble through meeting banks' ever-tightening underwriting guidelines.

There are dozens of surveys that aim to take the pulse of Main Street in recent months, and they all find slightly different points of weakness. But among them, a consensus is clear: Main Street's recovery is still limping along. To top of page

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