Recent survey data from both small business owners and consumers indicate that Americans entered the New Year with a surge of optimism and confidence about their economic prospects in 2017. According to the latest data compiled and reported by the National Federation of Independent Business, the Index of Small Business Optimism skyrocketed in December. The Index value for the latest month was 105.8 (seasonally adjusted to 1986 =100) which was an unprecedented gain of 7.4 points from the November reading. This surge pushed the Index to its highest monthly reading since 2004.
Most of the time I do not put a lot of stock in the month-to-month changes in this type of indicator because the idea of asking people for their opinions about the present and future economic conditions is a little fuzzy for me. This does not mean that peoples' expectations do not play crucial roles in the decision-making process for buyers and sellers in the marketplace. They most certainly do. Confidence and optimism about the future make up the foundation upon which all investment decisions are based.
But trying to measure the changes in market sentiment every month with an index that is based on a survey is not an exact science. People can change their minds quickly, and often their actions do not match the intentions they stated on the surveys. These types of surveys represent the most natural and basic forms of market research that I can imagine, but they are at times misleading. I am grateful for the effort that the members put in every month to answer these questions, but most of the time the month-to-month changes are rather mundane, or even unreliable. I tend to pay more attention to the trend in the data over a period of time.
This predilection notwithstanding, the recent spike in small business confidence is worth a closer look. The latest jump in the NFIB Index is the largest one-month change — up or down — that I have ever seen. It is also a sharp reversal of the downwardly drifting, two-year trend that had prevailed in this index since the end of 2014. The jump was mostly due to outsized gains in the components that measure respondents' expectations about an improved economy and an increase in sales. There was also a substantial increase in the number of respondents who believe that now is a good time to expand.