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Wells Fargo Survey: Small Business Optimism Inches Upward in Q3

Small business optimism improved slightly in the latest Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, yet overall it has remained relatively stable throughout 2016.

In the quarterly survey, which measures the optimism of small business owners and was conducted July 6-12,, the overall Index score increased slightly to 68 from 64 in April. This represents the highest optimism reading since January 2015 following several quarters of incremental shifts. Small business owners also reported an increase in the ease of obtaining credit, with 36% saying that it was somewhat or very easy for their company to obtain credit over the past 12 months – the highest reading on this measure since the fourth quarter of 2008. While other measures saw minor incremental shifts, small business owners’ rating of their company’s cash flow over the past 12 months improved in July as 60% rated their company cash flow as very or somewhat good, compared to 55% last quarter. This measure has stayed reasonably consistent, hovering within an eight-point range since the first quarter of 2014 when it jumped from 46 to 52.

“The latest Small Business Index score shows that while small business owners are more optimistic today than a year ago, many remain uncertain and cautious about what lies ahead,” said Lisa Stevens, Wells Fargo’s head of Small Business. “After several years of slow, gradual improvement in business owner perceptions of cash flow, revenue and financial situation, this trend seems to have plateaued. In this election year, business owners are reporting little change in most metrics, including their hiring and capital spending plans.”

In the July survey, small business owners were asked follow-up questions to the April survey about the 2016 presidential election campaign. When asked how well they understand the candidates’ positions on issues that would affect small businesses, 54% said extremely or very well, up slightly from 47% in the April survey. When it comes to the issues being discussed, 33% say they feel the candidates are discussing the issues most important to them as a small business owner, compared to 28% in April.

A majority of small business owners (57%) report following the election very closely. This is a much higher percentage than average. According to a national survey of adults conducted by Gallup in mid-June, only 40% of Americans were following the election very closely. Among small business owners, 92% plan to vote in the November election, matching the responses found in April.

Small business payment trends

Small business owners also were asked about the types of payments their businesses accept, with check and cash being the top methods (90% and 72%, respectively.) Other top payment methods accepted include:

  • Mailed payment via printed check from a bill-pay service (53%)
  • Credit or debit card at point of sale terminal (42%)
  • Digitally, via Electronic Funds Transfer (42%)
  • Credit or debit card via a mobile point-of-sale terminal, such as Square Reader or PayPal Here (30%)

Similarly, when it comes to paying bills for their business, most small business owners pay by check, either in person or by mail (91%), by credit or debit card at a point of sale terminal (69%) or digitally via Electronic Funds Transfer (63%.)

In the July survey, business owners who currently use point-of-sale credit card systems also were asked about their acceptance of EMV chip-enabled cards. The survey found that a majority of these business owners (51%) now report that their systems are EMV chip-enabled, compared to 31% when the question was first asked a year ago and 48% when it was asked in January 2016.

Small Business Challenges

When business owners were asked to identify the most important challenges facing their business today, 14% cited attracting customers and finding new business as the top concern. Government regulations was the second most frequent mention at 12%, followed by the economy (12%), and hiring and retaining quality staff (11%). These challenges have been consistently reported as the top concerns of small business owners since early 2013, although the order of concerns shifts from quarter to quarter.

Small Business Index Key Drivers

Wells Fargo and Gallup survey small business owners across the nation each quarter to gauge their perceptions of their present situation (past 12 months) and future expectations (next 12 months) in six key areas: financial situation, cash flow, revenues, capital spending allocation, hiring, and credit availability. The present situation score improved to 29 in July from 24 in April, while the future expectations score was relatively unchanged, decreasing one point to 39.

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