The Washington Post

Small-business groups ‘cautiously optimistic’ about economic recovery

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke speaks during a news conference in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2013. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Coming out of a brutal recession, small-business owners have for years lamented an economic recovery that seemed to deliver help to Wall Street faster than Main Street.

Now, Main Street is no longer feeling so left behind.

“It’s been a tough four years, and we’re by no means out of the woods,” John Arensmeyer, president of advocacy group Small Business Majority, said during an event at The Washington Post on Thursday, which brought together small-business owners, lobbyists and policymakers to talk about some of the challenges facing firms on Main Street.

Still, the group’s most recent polling shows “cautious optimism among small-business owners about the future,” Arensmeyer said, adding that many can at least “see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

But just how far away is the light?

Jean Card, an executive at the National Federation of Independent Business, a research and lobbying group, agreed that the economy is heading in the right direction — but not nearly fast enough.

She toned down the outlook for small businesses, arguing that a sense of uncertainty about Washington, paired with rising tax rates and health care costs, have bogged down the recovery.

“We’re still not seeing the same kind of recovery and the same kind of numbers in our economic trends report that we are seeing in the overall economy,” Card said at the event.

The NFIB last month reported that employment at small firms shrank last month for the first time this year, a step backwards for a sector that had been gaining ground since last November. However, a few days later, the group reported that small-business optimism had jumped to its highest level in a year, a sign the hiring numbers may soon rebound.

A similar trend is happening on the lending front.

Last week at the Treasury Department, small-business leaders complained that banks have been hesitant to make small-dollar loans to entrepreneurs, while banking executives said they simply cannot find enough qualified borrowers.

However, in the past month, a number of reports have shown small-business credit health and loan demand are rising — exactly what experts say both sides need in order to get more capital flowing back into Main Street.

Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Small Business Committee, said during the forum that there was “no question” the economic climate for small firms will improve by next year. How much improved, he said, will depend largely on whether elected officials stop putting onerous rules and regulations in the way.

On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke struck a fairly optimistic note about the direction of the overall economy. Despite lowering the central bank’s top-end economic growth estimate from 2.8 percent this year to 2.6 percent, the Fed raised its projection for annual growth in 2014, up from 3 percent to 3.5 percent.

Bernanke added that unemployment will likely drop to 6.5 percent next year, earlier than previous forecasts, driven in part by a rise in consumer spending.

Meanwhile, the majority of Fed officials expect to keep interest rates at their current levels until at least 2015, hoping to encourage more borrowing by both homeowners and business owners.

“It was a rough time, and it’s not over, but it is not where it was either,” Michael Chodos, who heads the Office of Entrepreneurial Development at the Small Business Administration, said of the lending difficulties facing small businesses. He noted that business starts doubled from 2011 to 2012 and that SBA loan volume reached record levels during both years.

“Small-business owners are starting to think very differently than they did four years ago,” Chodos said.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.



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