As President Biden begins to more forcefully build a reelection case citing Bidenomics, Wall Street forecasts and actual GDP data are supportive, as are recent improving sentiment scores from consumers and CEOs. But on Main Street, small business owners remain a difficult group for Biden to win over.
Small business confidence is back at an all-time low, according to the just-released CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey for the third quarter. That’s nothing new for Biden, as small business confidence has hung around a low throughout his presidency. In fact, the latest decline in the confidence index to a score of 42 out of 100 matches the all-time low from exactly one year ago.
With a business owner demographic that skews conservative, the twin economic issues of inflation and rising interest rates have compounded the general concerns about a Democratic administration. But at a time when signs are pointing to progress in the fight against inflation and a potential though by no means certain end to Federal Reserve interest rate hikes, the Q3 data presents more specific — and potentially more troubling — concerns for the president.
Even with a resilient economy, with interest rates at a multi-decade high, the number of small business owners who say they can easily access the capital needed to operate their firms continues to decline, now at under half (48%) versus 53% last quarter. This should not come as a surprise, as higher interest rates make banks stricter when it comes to lending requirements, a dynamic that tends to disproportionately punish small businesses, and linger or even intensify the longer a higher rate environment persists. Even for businesses that can secure loans, double-digit percentage rates are a cash flow challenge.
Data released on Monday from small business trade group NFIB reported similar difficulty among business owners attempting to access capital, with over half (58%) who borrowed or tried to borrow reporting high interest rates as their biggest complaint, and 40% of owners saying interest rates were a significant issue in the ability to access capital.
Wall Street banks and Main Street lending
The latest monthly report from alternative lending firm Biz2Credit from earlier this month shows small business loan approval percentages at banks with over $10 billion in assets at 13.3% in July, an approval rate that has been falling steadily and, pre-pandemic, had been as high as 28.3% in February 2020.
Rohit Arora, CEO of Biz2Credit, noted in a release on his firm’s data that as regulators raise capital requirements at some large banks in the years ahead, steps being taken today to prepare include more hesitancy to lend to smaller companies, since these loans can often range from five to seven years in term length.
Beyond recent concerns about the stability of regional banks, rating agencies say that even the largest Wall Street banks are on downgrade watch, not a situation in which banks are likely to be more accommodating to the capital needs of small firms, and in fact, the CNBC|SurveyMonkey data recorded a sharp drop in financial system confidence among business owners who work with large banks.
When it comes to accessing capital, small firms that hold accounts with large banks recorded the largest drop quarter-over-quarter, a 10% decline, from 59% saying it was easy for them to access business capital down to just 49% now. That was a much larger decline than among business owners who bank with a regional bank (down 2% quarter over quarter) and those who work with a community bank (down 4%). The largest group of small businesses (41%) conduct their business with large banks.
SurveyMonkey’s analysis of the data pointed to a gap between business owners who express confidence and a lack of confidence in banks that has widened from just 1 percentage point in Q2 (49% confident, 50% not confident) to 9 points now (45% confident, 54% not confident) this quarter.
“These data are a good reminder that the general economy for small business owners can often be very different from the economy that consumers on one side or large corporations on the other are experiencing,” said Laura Wronski, research science manager at SurveyMonkey.
The CNBC|SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey was conducted among over 2,000 small business owners across the U.S. between August 7-August 14.
While concerns across the economy about the banking crisis have lessened since the last quarter, that is not reflected in the conditions that small businesses are facing.
“Banking concerns have become even more top-of-mind for small business owners now, with their confidence in the U.S. banking system weakening and their ability to access needed capital hampered,” Wronski said.
Biden’s business supporters are increasingly negative
The CNBC|SurveyMonkey quarterly confidence index includes a series of core sentiment indicators related to policy that contributed to the decline back to the all-time low, with more small business owners saying they expect immigration policy and tax policy to be a negative.
That’s notable, according to SurveyMonkey analysis of the results, with these index components that had the largest drag on the overall scores not those tied to hiring or economic conditions, but “two factors that fall squarely within the remit of the president and Congress.”
Business owner expectations for revenue and hiring were largely unchanged, and the percentage that describe economic conditions as “good” changed only slightly, from 40% to 38%. More describe conditions as “middling,” up from 43% to 46% this quarter. But only 15% describe business conditions as “bad.”
“Small business owners seem to be more heavily factoring the political environment into their confidence estimations than the economic environment. The economy has shown promising growth over the last quarter, with fewer concerns about a recession economy-wide now and less immediate threat from a banking crisis,” Wronski said.
In the confidence index scoring, rather than broader survey questions, there was a notable drop for Biden. According to SurveyMonkey, overall approval of the president now matches the same level as Q3 2022 survey, with 31% saying they approve and 68% saying they disapprove of the way Joe Biden is handling his job as president. The small business survey data matches the overall trend in the recent FiveThirtyEight polling average.
But Wronski said, “What’s really surprising is that general confidence among small business owners is falling now for the first time among Biden’s supporters.”
With the overall confidence index back at the all-time low of 42, the gap in confidence index scoring specifically between Biden’s supporters and his detractors is now a record-low 18 points, according to SurveyMonkey (55 versus 37). Among survey respondents who identify as Democrats, the quarterly confidence score declined from 58 to 52, the lowest it has been since Biden became president. Among independents, the decline was from 49 to 42, the lowest it has been among these respondents since the first quarter of 2021. Republican confidence moved the least, declining from a score of 39 to 37.