Main Street reaches for a comeback

Help wanted jobs employment jobless claims small business
Scott Mlyn | CNBC

By a growing stack of indicators, 2015 may be the year Main Street finally reaches a comeback.

Small business trends are heading positive, including more job creation, higher wages and an improved overall sentiment among small business owners—which recently reached an eight-year high. While lending among start-ups remains relatively tight, recent joint data from the Federal Reserve Banks of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Atlanta show pockets of businesses seeking capital with plans to grow.

Among smaller businesses seeking credit under $100,000, nearly 40 percent said the primary purpose was business expansion, according to the banks' small business credit survey released Thursday.

More business owners are feeling buoyant, too. The small business optimism index rose 2.3 points to 100.4 in December—the highest reading since October 2006. The latest sentiment reading was released last week by the National Federation of Independent Business.

The optimism index has 10 components, with eight showing gains—a sign Main Street could finally be shaking off the Great Recession. Smaller employers plan to hire more workers, invest in capital outlays and anticipate higher sales.

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Another Main Street positive is higher wages. NFIB Chief Economist William Dunkelberg told CNBC that compensation is trending upward among small business owners, rising by an average of 20 percent over the past several months. December showed a 25 percent increase in compensation, and November recorded a 21 percent uptick.

The wage gains may reflect additional health-care benefits. "The thing to remember is that compensation includes wages and benefits," Dunkelberg said. "That increase could be due to Obamacare."

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers with 100 or more full-time workers have to offer coverage or face a penalty of $2,000 per worker per year for failing to comply.

Robert and Fanny Davidson are co-founders of Fanrod Group, a software boutique based in New York City.
Source: The Fanrod Group
Robert and Fanny Davidson are co-founders of Fanrod Group, a software boutique based in New York City.

The banks' credit survey also found most credit applicants were experienced borrowers and planning for expansion.Twenty-seven percent of firms said they would apply for financing this year.

For entrepreneurs like Robert Davidson, the timing to invest in growth couldn't be better.

Davidson is co-founder of the New York-based Fanrod Group. The company helps build start-ups based on the product innovations of Davidson and his co-founder Fanny Davidson.

"Corporations are deciding they can get innovation from [small] companies for less—it's a great way for entrepreneurs to get started," Davidson said.

Dunkelberg adds that this optimism may be tied to post-midterm positivity, with a new Republican-led Congress in place, giving small businesses some hope that policies may be friendlier toward their cohort.

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Small business optimism may also be benefiting from a Republican-led Congress in session after last year's midterm elections, NFIB's Dunkelberg said. Some upstarts are betting on less red tape and a friendlier business environment.

But a broader Main Street recovery is far from a slam dunk.

While Davidson is almost entirely self-funded, he's in the minority, and many entrepreneurs who need capital remain on the sidelines. The credit survey found that in the first half of 2014, only 22 percent of businesses reported applying for credit, and there was weaker demand from firms with less than $1 million in annual revenues.

Despite the potential risks, small business owners like Davidson are taking the plunge. "The market is hungry for the next great idea," he said.