In a recent January survey of 70,000 small business owners, a glimmer of optimism for the economy emerged following a challenging 2023 marked by belt tightening, shelved growth plans, and an increased debt burden.
The January Freedom Economy Index, a joint survey by PublicSquare and RedBalloon, reveals that, after waves of economic turbulence, America’s small businesses seem to be in a “holding pattern,” securing expenses and adopting a wait-and-see approach.
This resilience is evident among small business owners who remain cautiously optimistic about a positive turn in their fortunes after navigating a period of economic strain.
The Good? Sentiment may be stabilizing. Wrong-track sentiment dropped ever-so-slightly to pre-November levels, and the number of business owners who believe we are headed into a recession is the lowest since our August survey.
The Bad? Businesses and employees are financially stressed. 1 out of every 3 businesses had to take on more debt in 2023 to survive, and 70% of business owners say their employees and/or contractors are falling behind financially. Additionally, 60% reported that Christmas economic activity was below expectations, and 77% say they believe consumer confidence is still poor or bad.
The Ugly? Inflation still lingers as 73% report that their supplier prices continued to increase in December, and 53% of businesses were forced to raise their prices yet again last month.
“Despite all of the bad news in 2023, Freedom Economy businesses stood firm,” Michael Seifert, PublicSquare CEO, said. “This is a good sign for the broader economy since many of these businesses are on ‘Main Street’, they’re integral to their communities, and are seen as the lifeblood of our American economic environment. Their resilience causes optimism in me as we kick off 2024.”
“There’s a glimmer of hope that 2024 will be better for small businesses,” Andrew Crapuchettes, RedBalloon CEO, said. “They’ve weathered high inflation, aggressive interest rates, and a tight labor market. Those that survived will be stronger moving forward.”
70% of small businesses report that their employees and/or contractors are falling behind financially in this current economy.
37% of employers reported they had to take on more debt in 2023 to survive, while 53% said they had to maintain the same level of debt. Only 10% were able to reduce their debt load in 2023.
80% of small business owners say they plan to hold back from making any major capital purchases this year, and 65% say they are neither hiring nor reducing their staff.
Here’s a sampling of employer verbatim responses:
“Holding steady unless we get increased business. Then, will add staff.”
“Desperately need to hire to operate effectively, but sales are so down that I don't know what to do.”
“No hiring. Just trying to keep the bottom line out of the red.”
“I just lost my last employee the week before Christmas. Now I do everything. I don't have the money after taxes & fees to buy materials, let alone hire someone.”
“Depending on outcomes, may have to lay off or close business.”
In another sign of locking down expenses, nearly half (44.3%) of small businesses say they are planning less business travel in 2024, while less than 10% say they are planning more.
When asked “How was the overall Christmas season economic activity,” 41.3% said it was “slower than normal,” while another 27.7% said it was downright “poor.”
Another 59.7% report that the Christmas season economic activity was below their expectations, while only 4.1% said it exceeded their expectations.
Small business owners’ optimism about their business’s future remained steady rather than declining from November yet and much lower from the mid-summer numbers.
And 76.3% say we are headed into a “major recession,” down 5 points from November, while another 14.69% believe we’re headed to a minor recession and 7.6% say we will avoid recession but not grow.
93% still believe the US is on the “wrong track,” down slightly from the September/October highs.
2023 was an exceedingly difficult year for America’s small businesses and employees. While inflation ate away profits and spending power, businesses were forced to rethink their growth and hiring plans, putting these things “on the shelf” until the economy picked back up.
Now, the economy is filled with survivors, waiting for some indication that stability and growth will be around the corner.
The Freedom Economy Index was created to tell the story of the American small business owner - the hard working, freedom-loving people who form the backbone of the American economy. Our monthly results have been extremely accurate in measuring current economic conditions and predicting future trends.
As we move forward into 2024, we will continue the effort to be the “truth-tellers” about our economy, broadcasting our findings above the ocean of noise emanating from political corners and the Wall Street echo chambers.
The Freedom Economy Index surveyed a universe of over 70,000 small business owners throughout the United States, fielding the questionnaire from January 4 to 10, 2024 with 964 respondents. The survey has a margin of error of +/-3.0% at the 95% confidence level. Download the January report here.