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NFIB Small Business Economic Trends

NFIB Small Business Economic Trends – February


Embargoed Tuesday, March 13 at 6 a.m.


(Based on 642 respondents to the February survey of a random sample of

NFIB’s member firms, surveyed through 2/28/18)





The Index of Small Business Optimism increased 0.7 points in February, rising to 107.6, the second highest level in its 45-year history, second only to the 108.0 reading in 1983.  February results produced several mentionable accomplishments:


  • Taxes received the fewest votes as the #1 business problem since 2006.
  • Reports of few qualified workers remained the #1 problem, highest since 2000.
  • Reports of improved earnings trends were the highest since 1987.
  • Inventory investment was the strongest since 2000, fueling GDP growth.
  • Reports of actual capital outlays rose to the highest level since 2004.
  • Reports of compensation increases held at the highest level since 2000.


The net percent of owners reporting higher selling prices continued to inch upward, reaching the highest level since 2014.  Job creation posted another solid gain, hiring plans remained strong, and reports of labor quality as a top business problem reached record levels.  Borrowing activity was flat, even though capital spending increased substantially, likely financed by improved profits instead of debt.  Overall, the small business sector is very encouraged by the economic policies of the administration and the strength of the economy, willing to invest more and hire more if workers can be found to fill their open positions.



Small Business Optimism and Ten Components



 [Column 1 is the current reading, column 2 the change from the prior month, column 3 the percent of the total change in the Index accounted for by each component; “*” means the percent <0.5% or not a meaningful calculation.  Index is based to the average value in 1986, components are not. The term “net” means that the percent of owners giving an unfavorable answer has been subtracted from the percent of owners giving a positive or favorable response.  For some questions, there is no “unfavorable” response category]




Job creation remained solid in the small business sector as owners reported a seasonally adjusted average employment change per firm of 0.22 workers, a strong showing and a repeat of last month.  Fourteen percent (up 1 point) reported increasing employment an average of 2.0 workers per firm and 10 percent (up 1 point) reported reducing employment an average of 3.5 workers per firm (seasonally adjusted).



Fifty-two percent reported hiring or trying to hire (down 3 points), but 47 percent (90 percent of those hiring or trying to hire) reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill.  Twenty-two percent of owners cited the difficulty of finding qualified workers as their Single Most Important Business Problem (unchanged), exceeding the percentage citing taxes or the cost of regulation.  Construction and transportation are the industries most affected with 37 percent of owners in each industry claiming labor quality as their top problem.



Thirty-four percent of all owners reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, unchanged from January.  Fifteen percent reported using temporary workers, up 3 points and the highest reading since November 2016.  Reports of job openings were most frequent in construction (49 percent), manufacturing (32 percent) and non-professional services (37 percent).  Labor shortages are serious and slowing the growth in output and employment.



A seasonally adjusted net 18 percent plan to create new jobs, down 2 points from January but at historically high levels.  Not seasonally adjusted, 27 percent plan to increase employment at their firm (up 2 points), and 3 percent plan reductions (unchanged).  Hiring plans were strongest in construction (net 33 percent), manufacturing (net 26 percent), transportation and communication (net 30 percent) and professional services (net 26 percent).  Historically an exceptionally strong outlook for job creation.  The availability of qualified workers will undoubtedly moderate actual job growth.



Labor markets are very tight, for both skilled and unskilled workers. To address this problem, a net 22 percent plan to raise worker compensation, historically high. Thirty-one percent reported raising compensation to attract or retain employees, the highest since December 2000, the peak of the last expansion.  Only an increase in the size of the labor force can provide relief from the impact of labor shortages.  Firms will be hiring workers with less than the desired skill levels, forcing them to invest more in training.





Sixty-six percent reported capital outlays, up 5 points from January and the highest reading since 2004.  Of those making expenditures, 45 percent reported spending on new equipment (up 1 point), 30 percent acquired vehicles (up 2 points), and 15 percent improved or expanded facilities (down 1 point).  Six percent acquired new buildings or land for expansion (unchanged) and 15 percent spent money for new fixtures and furniture (up 2 points).



Twenty-nine percent plan capital outlays in the next few months, unchanged from January.  Plans were most frequent in construction (35 percent), professional services (37 percent), and manufacturing (39 percent).  Improvements in productivity depend crucially on investment spending in the labor intensive small business sector.  Improved earnings trends and lower taxes increase the pool of capital available for firms to invest in their businesses.  About half of the firms making capital expenditures focused on equipment, most though are upgraded versions of equipment already in use, not necessarily major “hi-tech” switches.





A net 8 percent of all owners (seasonally adjusted) reported higher nominal sales in the past three months compared to the prior three months, a 3 point gain following two prior months of strong readings.  Consumer spending continues to provide solid support to economic growth.



The net percent of owners expecting higher real sales volumes rose 3 points, to a net 28 percent of owners, one of the best readings since 2007.  Positive expectations surged to over 30 points in December 2016, after the election and have remained historically high since then, reaching 34 percent in November 2017.  Very positive sales expectations are undoubtedly behind the continued strength in hiring plans and capital investment plans.







The net percent of owners reporting inventory increases rose 3 percentage points to a net 7 percent (seasonally adjusted) on top of a 6 point rise in January.  Inventory stocks are building in anticipation of strong sales, at the strongest pace since January 2000.  This is very supportive of GDP and employment growth.



The net percent of owners viewing current inventory stocks as “too low” (positive number means more think stocks are too low than too high, a positive for inventory building) was a net negative 3 percent, 2 points better than January.  With historically high numbers of owners reporting inventory building, stocks may be able to keep up with growing sales.  If not, more owners will start reporting current stocks as “too low”.



However, the net percent of owners planning to add to inventory rose a point from January to a net 4 percent – a solid number.  Plans averaged 4 percent in the last six months of 2017 as firms geared up for increasing demand.  Inventory investment was a major contributor to the growth in GDP in the second half of last year, and it appears that this momentum will continue into the first quarter.





The net percent of owners raising average selling prices rose 2 points to a net 13 percent seasonally adjusted, after a 3 point increase in January.  This is the highest reading since July 2014.  Gradually, the Federal Reserve may be getting its wish for more inflation.  Unadjusted, 9 percent of owners reported reducing their average selling prices in the past three months (unchanged), and 22 percent reported price increases (up 3 points after a 4 point gain last month).  Still far short of the record 67 percent of owners raising selling prices in 1974.  That was inflation!




Seasonally adjusted, a net 24 percent plan price hikes (up 1 point), although far fewer will report actually doing so in the following months.  This is the highest reading since 2008.  With reports of increased compensation running high, there is more pressure to pass these costs on in higher selling prices, although the tax cut and growing operating profits alleviate some of this pressure.




Reports of higher worker compensation remained at a net 31 percent, the highest reading since 2000 and among the highest in survey history.  The Federal Reserve is hoping this will result in inflation as owners pass these costs on in the form of higher selling prices, but to date, their wish has not been granted yet.  Tight labor markets are historically associated with high percentages of owners raising worker compensation.


Owners complain at record rates of labor quality issues, with 90 percent of those hiring or trying to hire reporting few or no qualified applicants for their open positions.  Twenty-two percent (unchanged) selected “finding qualified labor” as their top business problem, more than cited taxes, weak sales or the cost of regulations as their top challenge. This is the highest reading since 2000.


Plans to raise compensation fell 2 points to a net 22 percent but still among the highest readings since 2000.  Small firms are raising compensation to attract and keep the employees they need.




The frequency of reports of positive profit trends improved one percentage point to a net negative 3 percent reporting quarter on quarter profit improvements, the best reading since 1987.  This followed an 11 point improvement in January.  Although the new tax law will impact profits this year, much of the current improvement is due to gains in operating profits and stronger sales.  Small business owners have lived with austerity for eight years, their costs were well under control and the recent surge in sales bolsters the bottom line first before costs catch up.




Two percent of owners reported that all their borrowing needs were not satisfied, down 1 point and at the record low. Thirty-two percent reported all credit needs met (up 1 point) and 51 percent said they were not interested in a loan, down a point.  Only 2 percent reported that financing was their top business problem compared to 15 percent citing taxes, 15 percent citing regulations and red tape, and 22 percent the availability of qualified labor.  Weak sales garnered 11 percent of the vote.  Three percent reported loans “harder to get’, unchanged and at historic lows.  In short, credit availability and cost are not issues and haven’t been for many years.  Loan demand has not returned to its pre-recession levels.





Thirty-one percent of all owners reported borrowing on a regular basis (unchanged).  The average rate paid on short maturity loans was down 20 basis points at 5.7 percent.  If the Federal Reserve raises rates the anticipated three times this year, variable rate loan costs will respond immediately, although longer term rates are not likely to reflect the full hike.  Overall, loan demand remains steady, even with cheap money.  Small businesses have been restructuring over the past ten years and profit trends are improving, leaving owners in a good position to borrow once they need financing beyond the resources provided by their firm’s operations.




Growth in the fourth quarter was revised down to 2.5% after 3.2% in the third.  This is misleading because consumer spending grew at 3.8 percent, and this is 70 percent of GDP.  Business investment grew 6.6 percent.  However, the mathematics of GDP subtract from spending all demand that is satisfied with inventory made in prior periods (GDP measure output in the current period).  Thus, 0.7 percent was deducted from the growth rate.  Additional reductions resulted from a rise in imports (spending money on goods made in other countries does not increase our GDP).  All that to say that underlying spending in the economy was much stronger than our GDP math indicated.


The Federal Reserve is expected to raise rates again at the March meeting, the first of three expected raises for the year.  It also continues to let some of its $4 trillion dollar portfolio mature without reinvesting the proceeds.  This reduces the demand for bonds, putting upward pressure on interest rates.  On top of this, the Treasury will be selling a lot of bonds to finance the deficit, which imposes additional pressure on rates.  Rising rates will, of course, not be a positive force for equity prices or asset prices in general.  Interest rates on variable price loans will rise.  Less clear is the impact on long term rates, but they are likely to ease higher.


The small business sector is on fire.  The pickup in capital spending is a very favorable sign, as capital spending (crucial for improved productivity) fell way behind from 2009 to 2016.  Improved capital spending  signals increased confidence in the future of the economy.   Hiring is excellent and would be stronger if the labor market were not so tight.  This is and will be a major constraint on growth.  Inventory investment is strong and will add to GDP this quarter, hopefully it will be purchased later in the year by customers.  Inflationary pressures from Main Street are minimal although reported hikes in average selling prices have been edging up.  After years of small businesses sitting on the sidelines and not benefiting from the so called recovery, Main Street is again on fire.



NFIB began surveys of its membership in October 1973.  Surveys were conducted in the first month of each quarter through 1985 when monthly surveys were instituted.  The first month in each quarter is based on between 1,200 and 2,000 respondents, while the following two monthly surveys contain between 400 and 900 respondents.  The term “net percent” means that the percent of owners giving an unfavorable response has been subtracted from the percent giving a favorable response.  If, for example, 20 percent reported that they were going to increase the number of workers at the firm and 5 percent reported an intention to reduce the number of workers, the “net percent” would be 20 percent – 5 percent  or a net 15 percent planning to expand employment.  These figures are seasonally adjusted unless noted.  The graphs show quarterly data (first survey month in each quarter), updated when available by subsequent monthly surveys.



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US Manufacturing Stays Strong in November


The manufacturing sector continued to grow at an above-average rate in November, as the impact of back-to-back hurricanes over the summer recedes, according to an industry survey released on Dec. 1.

Output spiked and employment remains strong to produce “a really strong report” on the sector, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said.

The ISM’s purchasing managers index slowed to 58.2% from 58.7% in October, but remained well above the average for the past year, with 14 of the 18 industries surveyed reporting growth.

However, the decline actually reflects an improvement in conditions following the hurricanes, as transportation issues from storms are being overcome, Timothy Fiore, chair of ISM’s Manufacturing Business Survey Committee, explained.

The supplier deliveries index fell nearly five points to 56.5%, which indicates shipments are speeding up.

Manufacturers expected to see three months of transportation difficulties in the wake of the hurricanes — especially Hurricane Harvey’s hit to the key chemical and oil production facilities in Houston — as well as six months of impacts on prices, Fiore said.

He noted that only 5% of comments from the manufacturers surveyed mentioned the hurricanes, down sharply from the prior two months.

The report showed a three-point jump in the production index to 63.9%, and a more than half-point rise in new orders to 64%, while employment slipped a tenth to a still-strong 59.7%.

The only industries reporting contraction were wood and petroleum and coal.

Fiore said industries reported that “price pressures continue,” with 16 of the 18 sectors surveyed reporting increases. The price index slipped three points to 65.5%.

The comments from the companies surveyed indicate a strong surge into 2018, with many noting they are not seeing the usual year-end slowdown in orders.

“We are just coming off a record sales year. We expect to continue in 2018 robust activity,” one manufacturing firm said.

Meanwhile, a metal producer noted, “We are seeing steady, consistent demand for end of year. We usually see a slowdown, which we haven’t seen yet.”

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2017

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IIoT ( Industrial Internet of Things)


The IIoT is part of a larger concept known as the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a network of intelligent computers, devices, and objects that collect and share huge amounts of data. The collected data is sent to a central Cloud-based service where it is aggregated with other data and then shared with end users in a helpful way. The IoT will increase automation in homes, schools, stores, and in many industries.

The application of the IoT to the manufacturing industry is called the IIoT (or Industrial Internet or Industry 4.0). The IIoT will revolutionize manufacturing by enabling the acquisition and accessibility of far greater amounts of data, at far greater speeds, and far more efficiently than before. A number of innovative companies have started to implement the IIoT by leveraging intelligent, connected devices in their factories.

What are the Benefits of IIoT?

The IIoT can greatly improve connectivity, efficiency, scalability, time savings, and cost savings for industrial organizations. Companies are already benefitting from the IIoT through cost savings due to predictive maintenance, improved safety, and other operational efficiencies. IIoT networks of intelligent devices allow industrial organizations to break open data silos and connect all of their people, data, and processes from the factory floor to the executive offices. Business leaders can use IIoT data to get a full and accurate view of how their enterprise is doing, which will help them make better decisions.

IIoT Protocols

One of the issues encountered in the transition to the IIoT is the fact that different edge-of-network devices have historically used different protocols for sending and receiving data. While there are a number of different communication protocols currently in use, such as OPC-UA, the Message Queueing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) transfer protocol is quickly emerging as the standard for IIoT, due to its lightweight overhead, publish/subscribe model, and bidirectional capabilities. You can read more about MQTT here.

Challenges of the IIoT

Interoperability and security are probably the two biggest challenges surrounding the implementation of IIoT. As technology writer Margaret Rouse observes, “A major concern surrounding the Industrial IoT is interoperability between devices and machines that use different protocols and have different architectures.” Ignition is an excellent solution for this since it is cross-platform and built on open-source, IT-standard technologies.

Companies need to know that their data is secure. The proliferation of sensors and other smart, connected devices has resulted in a parallel explosion in security vulnerabilities. This is another factor in the rise of MQTT since it is a very secure IIoT protocol.

The Future of the IIoT

The IIoT is widely considered to be one of the primary trends affecting industrial businesses today and in the future. Industries are pushing to modernize systems and equipment to meet new regulations, to keep up with increasing market speed and volatility, and to deal with disruptive technologies. Businesses that have embraced the IIoT have seen significant improvements to safety, efficiency, and profitability, and it is expected that this trend will continue as IIoT technologies are more widely adopted.

The Ignition IIoT solution greatly improves connectivity, efficiency, scalability, time savings, and cost savings for industrial organizations. It can unite the people and systems on the plant floor with those at the enterprise level. It can also allow enterprises to get the most value from their system without being constrained by technological and economic limitations. For these reasons and more, Ignition offers the ideal platform for bringing the power of the IIoT into your enterprise.

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The Three Disruptive Technologies Driving Change In Enterprise Asset Management

First, the Internet of Everything

Businesses are reaping the rewards of IoT — by 2020, the number of connected devices worldwide will top 50 billion. IoT is allowing organizations to collect more information, quickly respond to changes and act on new business intelligence. But as we move into a world where everything is connected, a new ‘smart infrastructure’ will need to be put into place, with planning and asset management tools capable of dealing with the scale and lifecycle of dispersed – but connected – assets.

The Connected EAM Proactive Accident Avoidance

This is where modern enterprise asset management shows its worth. For example, IP-enabled remote cameras are starting to make their way into the cockpits of large earthmoving vehicles used in mining. These cameras can be connected to centralized software which uses facial recognition to monitor for signs of tiredness and either trigger an audible alarm to alert the driver or a produce a response from HR to pull the operator from active duty.

While this will minimize the risk of serious accidents, it will of course have knock-on effects on operations with increased downtime as a machine sits unmanned. With the right EAM in place however, a dynamic scheduling tool can automatically adapt and quickly reschedule a suitably qualified and available alternative employee. This is the type of scenario that will play out across the entire enterprise. With more real-time data facilitating real-time operational decisions, it’s the EAM’s job to produce business actions to minimize the disruption to operations.

The New Formula: CBM+IoT

IoT is taking this approach one step further with condition-based maintenance (CBM), enabling the EAM solution to automate intelligent responses to potential faults. CBM monitors the health of assets to determine if any maintenance is required and create a maintenance history for ongoing analysis. Sensors in the asset monitor for specific indicators which signal asset deterioration or performance decrease.

This data can be captured, shared and analyzed before being fed directly into the EAM to get an enterprise wide view of asset status and automatically schedule work-orders — all in real-time. In addition to this, it allows organizations to build up aggregate data sets on performance and operations which can be analyzed to inform repair or replace and other asset lifecycle decisions.

Second, We Have Machine Learning and Predictive Analytics

IoT is expanding rapidly, but the important question decision makers need to ask is ‘what actionable intelligence is it producing?’. If IoT is the capture, exchange and storage of information, then it is the analytics capabilities of enterprise solutions which will be providing the answers to that question. EAM software today must not only accept incoming data from connected devices. But it must put executives in control of that information, enable them to drill through to actions taken as a result in the IFS software, and configure observation workflows.

IFS IoT Business Connector puts asset management executives in a position to maximize the value of data from connected devices.

The Rise of the Machine… Learning

Condition-based maintenance was designed to combat entire production lines grinding to a halt by providing real-time maintenance indicators, allowing quick responses to faults that are happening right now. But machine learning is taking condition-based maintenance one step further to ask ‘can we predict what maintenance will be required ahead of time?’

Unlike CBM, machine learning doesn’t rely on pre-programmed algorithms but enables ‘the machine’ to learn from huge aggregate data sets to identify new trends and insights. Because machine learning systems use data collected from IoT-enabled sensors, they can constantly refine models to make analytical predictions on asset performance and efficiency.

Machine Learning in Action

For example, an operating motor creating its own vibrations can monitor and feedback this data in real-time. If vibrations suddenly spike outside a set threshold, an engineer might be scheduled to perform maintenance. But what if the spike was caused by a truck driving too close to the machine rather than a fault in the asset?

With machine learning, the analytics software will know to ignore such spikes and only dispatch an engineer for maintenance when it receives signals of asset degradation that fits the data. EAM will automatically schedule a work order for an available engineer with the right skill set to perform maintenance work as well as identify the right tools and parts for the job. These advanced warnings will allow organizations to efficiently leverage global supply chains, streamline resource allocation for maintenance operations and reduce local stock levels for spare parts.

Third, Future Mobility

Mobile technology has been benefiting businesses for some time now, with improved communication, field access to computing functionality and documents, accurate data recording and more. But there are a couple of technologies starting to make their way into the enterprise which are set to have a significant impact.

Can Augmented Reality Solve Resource Shortages?

A common problem facing asset heavy organizations is having people with the right skill-sets in the right place at the right time — even with the right scheduling tools, workers can’t be in two places at once. Companies are working to bring forward a remote expert to assist in complex maintenance — ‘augmenting’ worker’s skills with virtual over-the-shoulder coaching. With these solutions, not only can the expert engineer see the issue at hand, but with augmented reality, can guide a technician through even the most complex of tasks using visualized hand gestures and tools.

This is just the type of technology which could be extended to provide mechanics and technicians virtual ‘sight’ of components hidden from view behind other systems or structures, or pin-point exactly where a fault lies by augmenting reality with reference plans and drawings. The key benefit of context-aware AR technology will be reducing the time it takes to complete complex maintenance tasks in difficult environments.

Interactive Voice Control

The role of a maintenance engineer is very much a hands-on job, and it’s not uncommon for them to work in confined spaces or challenging environments. It is for this reason that the list of potential benefits from interactive voice systems in mobile apps should make strategic planners take notice. Productivity, accuracy and efficiency would all rise as engineers no longer need to sacrifice wrench time to input data at the end of a shift or even manually interact with EAM on a mobile device. In some cases, voice-driven computing for hands-free operation could mean techs could interact with EAM software in situations where they need use of both hands, increasing both productivity and safety.

This technology has the potential to transform how engineers work, with an engineer asking their mobile device to report the status of an IoT-enabled asset, requesting parts data or accessing instructional or asset documentation.

Prepare for Change

EAM software is now taking advantage of disruptive technologies like IoT, augmented reality and hands-free computing. But the fundamental fact remains that executives need to manage assets in a safe and reliable way which guarantees their availability, safe operation and productive capacity. These human and machine interfaces for EAM software must make asset data usable for decision support, and be configurable and agile enough to adapt to changing business needs.

Patrick Zirnhelt is Vice President of Enterprise Service & Asset Management at IFS North America.

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2015 saw nearly 1,000,000 international students coming to the United States

The world is crossing borders at record speeds. International tourism receipts are increasing, on the back of a strongly growing global middle class and a steady rise in visa-free travel: above average growth for six years straight; and for the fourth year in a row, global tourism spend has grown much faster than merchandise trade. The rise of China is dominant here, with 120 million Chinese now traveling abroad every year; a trend showing no sign of slowing (interestingly, around the world, only tourism from the former Eastern bloc is significantly shrinking). It’s also developed world interest in ever-more global destinations: even North Korea’s repeated arrests of visitors has not deterred westerners from reaching as far as the hermit kingdom.

The same trend holds for international students. 2015 saw nearly 1,000,000 international students coming to the United States (by far the most important destination for higher education); a 10% year-on-year increase, and the fastest rate of growth since 1979. The rise of China again drives the trend; making up 31% of the total foreign student count (India has 14%, Korea 7%, and Saudi Arabia 6%).


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