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Market fears trigger a new Main Street reality

Noni's Coffee Shop in New York's Bronx borough is far removed from Wall Street and deepening fears about China that have roiled global stock markets. But shop manager Ruth Tzanetatos has been watching and worrying about the recent stock market volatility.

The small business has weathered many economic ups and downs in its more than 40 years. Tzanetatos was hoping for a pickup in the fall after a slow summer. But now with uncertainty about whether a slowing China will trigger a broader slowdown, business owners like Tzanetatos are feeling less buoyant about the near-term future.

"It's been a very slow July and August. People go away for the summer, so we were hoping by September it would get a little better," Tzanetatos said. "No one is coming in for breakfast, lunch is not the same—after 1 o'clock we have to lock up, it's like a dead street."

Main Street can operate on its own trajectory. Volatile market swings rarely impact the day-to-day operations of mom-and-pop businesses. But historic stock market drops earlier in the week, followed by a more than 600-point rally into the close Wednesday, have some small businesses paying closer attention to the broader economy.

"If this [market volatility] continues, and the economy takes a hit, we won't be able to pay our rent, and it will look like we have to lock up the shop and go home," Tzanetatos said.

The market swings came as Main Street optimism was holding steady.

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The National Federation of Independent Business this month reported a gain of 1.3 points to 95.4 in its small business optimism index reading for July. This trend was mirrored in the Paychex/IHS Small Business Jobs Index for July, in which seven of the nine regions measured growth.

Ruth Tzanetatos manages Noni’s Coffee Shop in the Bronx section of New York.
Source: Alex Bedoya
Ruth Tzanetatos manages Noni’s Coffee Shop in the Bronx section of New York.

Main Street lending has also risen. The Thomson Reuters/ PayNet Small Business Lending Index hit its highest level since 2005 for June. The data was released earlier this month.

While market moves influence investors, market activity for now will have a short-term impact on consumer spending, says Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist for the NFIB.

"It will worry people if things continue to deteriorate," Dunkelberg said. "The key is that people keep spending, so small businesses will continue to watch this and there will be some hand wringing."

Tomohiro Ohsumi | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Entrepreneurs are more likely to feel the market swings in their 401(k) and IRA accounts. Many business owners self-fund their retirement plans.

"No one is being wiped out unless they put all of their money into those (retirement) plans," Dunkelberg said. "It's not the collapse we saw in 2008."

But some business owners like Tzanetatos—who took a massive hit to her 401(k) during the last downturn—are already feeling skeptical about near-term business prospects.

"I try to save here and there," said Tzanetatos, who has stopped trying to build up her retirement account. "No more."

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