High hopes: Small business is becoming optimistic

Small business owners are joining consumers and investors in showing some cautious optimism about the economy.

An index that measures owners' optimism rose last month, boosted by expectations that business conditions will improve in the future. And there's anecdotal evidence from owners in a variety of industries who say they have reasons to feel a little more upbeat.

The National Federation of Independent Business, which surveys its members each month, said its index of business owner optimism rose 2.1 points to 88.6 in August, an increase that NFIB chief economist William Dunkelberg called "a big gain." The optimism, though, is about the future, as owners still have a dim view of current economic conditions. Dunkelberg noted that small businesses generally aren't planning big capital expenditures or to start hiring again.

"First you have to feel better before you'll spend your money," Dunkelberg said.

Dunkelberg makes the same caveats that other economists do: If consumer spending doesn't pick up, the budding optimism is likely to wither. But, he said, having watched decades of economic cycles, "every recovery begins with an improvement in the feel good stuff, and that's followed by an improvement in the hard spending numbers."

Several small business owners interviewed by The Associated Press reported that their own optimism, as well as that of their clients and customers, has started to improve recently.

"It's still tough, but people are at least starting to speak in normal terms again," said Michael Frenkel, president of New York-based M Frenkel Communications Inc.

Like many other public relations firms, Frenkel's business was hurt when clients slashed their marketing budgets, often the first casualties when companies cut costs. Now, he said, with his hotel and real estate clients putting their budgets together, "things are looking a bit looser for the fourth quarter and they're looking even looser for the beginning of 2010."

But Frenkel said business owners have been forced to adapt to a new reality: The booming economy of two and three years ago, when a company like his could find business almost anywhere, isn't likely to return soon. So, he said, "you just try to go out there and make it happen."

Ian Ford, whose company sells discount tickets to Orlando, Fla., tourist attractions, has become more optimistic as his sales, which dropped off last September and fell as much as 20 percent, started to rebound this summer. Part of the improvement followed Walt Disney World's discontinuing some of its deep discounts, which in turn lifted demand for the tickets sold by Ford's company, Undercover Tourist. Also, more people are willing to travel now.
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High hopes: Small business is becoming optimistic
High hopes: Small business is becoming optimistic
Reviewed by Merlyn Rosell
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