Small businesses’ outlook for the new year: Somewhere between “eh” and “blah”


The hostile political climate in the nation’s capital is holding back optimism levels on Main Street. (Jay Mallin/BLOOMBERG)

On Main Street, some business owners seem worried about the coming year, according to a new poll. Then again, nearly a quarter think business is looking up.

Nearly one in four small business owners (23 percent) are more optimistic about the future of their firms now than at this time last year, while slightly more (28 percent) say their outlook has dampened. Nearly half say they feel about the same as they did at the end of last year, according to the poll, which was conducted by Gallup and Wells Fargo.

“Although there are some generally positive economic signs going into the new year, including the rise in the stock market and the general uptick in consumer confidence, small-business owners evince mixed feelings about what 2014 will bring,” researchers wrote in a joint press release outlining their findings.

Related: A look back at the biggest small business stories on 2013

More than 600 employers with less than $20 million in revenue responded to the survey, which has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Interestingly, the readings are almost identical to those taken two years ago, the last time researchers posed the question, which measured small employers’ sentiments heading into 2012. In hindsight, the year lived up (or rather, down) to expectations, as the economic recovery failed to pick up any sustainable momentum.

So, what’s holding back the mood on Main Street? According to the poll, small business owners are chiefly concerned with the overall health of the economy (12 percent), the health care law known as Obamacare (11 percent) and the brinkmanship in the federal government (11 percent).

“We take issues to the brink of the precipice, make a deal and expect everyone outside of the beltway to accept it as the way business in Washington is done,” Cap Willey, who owns a small accounting firm in Providence, R.I., wrote in an e-mail to On Small Business.

“The reality is that small businesses are struggling to survive,” he added, pinning some of the woes to the health law and the nation’s ever-changing tax rules. “We need a consistent and dependable environment in which to operate that helps them grow and create jobs.”

For others, though, the top challenges are rooted inside their firms, not in Washington. One in eight said their biggest problem heading into the new year is finding new customers and business opportunities, while many said cash flow is their number one challenge.

Nevertheless, there was at least one bright spot in the report, as small business owners seem to be having an easier time accessing the capital they need to get started or expand. Only four percent now say credit availability — which has been sparse for the past few years — is currently the biggest hurdle for their business.

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

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