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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Some Small Businesses in Fear after Election

story first appeared in The Wall Street Journal

The results of the presidential election dampened the spirits of many small-business owners who now worry that forthcoming federal policies, including potentially higher taxes and health-care reform, could stunt growth and hiring at their firms.

A November survey from Vistage International Inc. and The Wall Street Journal found a significant drop in optimism compared with the months leading up to the election, as respondents anticipated a worsening economy in 2013.

Julie Sanderson, owner of Vail Condo Rentals, a small business operating with a tight budget, says her main concern is health insurance. She believes that with rates already "sky high," she will be unable to keep her employees if her business costs go up.

The survey's overall confidence index, based on responses of 740 small-business owners, fell to 83.9 from 95.3 in October. That is the lowest in the survey's six-month history.

Specifically, the survey's index of expected economic conditions fell to 77 from 105, a result of 43% of the respondents anticipating worse U.S. conditions in the next 12 months. That is nearly twice as many as October's 23%. The index of business profits also fell to 122 from 135 as only 43% of owners anticipate higher profits in the coming year, down from 50% last month.

Some policies that Mitt Romney had proposed during his campaign were appealing to small-business owners, such as keeping taxes low and repealing President Barack Obama's health-care reform.

Anticipating higher taxes under President Obama, more business owners are preparing cutbacks to their payroll and other overhead expenses. November's employment index fell to 124 from 141 as 16% of owners are planning to reduce staff in the next year, up from 9% in October. And the fixed-investment index fell to 107 from 123, in part because 23% of owners plan to decrease their investment expenditures, up from 14% last month.

Terry Racciato, one business owner, said she was despondent in the days following the election. Ms. Racciato is president of Together We Grow Inc., a pediatric health day-care business for special-needs children in San Diego that she started in 1990.

The top issue for Ms. Racciato is rising health-care costs. She provides benefits to her 52 full-time employees and personally gets coverage through her company's plan. Because she and her husband are now over the age of 60, their deductible and copayment for medical care recently doubled to $37,000 annually. That is money she could have used to bring on another employee, she said.

What's deepening her worry, she said, is that if she opts to drop health benefits to save money, she will, in 2014, have to pay a penalty—a provision that kicks in for companies with 50 or more full-time employees under the federal health-care reform.

She reiterates the fears of Mrs. Sanderson, who fears both her Vail business and her Deer Valley Condo Rentals will be in jeopardy because they operate at low costs. She says keeping vacation rental costs low for her customers is her greatest value, but isn't sure how she'll be able to keep up if her health care costs increase.

Ed Trevis, president and chief executive of Corvalent Corp., an industrial-computer manufacturer in Cedar Park, Texas, says the uncertainty about potential tax hikes is hurting his 50-person firm because he can't plan for the future.

A tax increase on higher-income earners may come as part of an agreement to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff—a series of across-the-board tax hikes and government-spending cuts that will kick in at the beginning of 2013. But Congress has yet to come to a resolution and Mr. Trevis is nervous that any agreement could come down to the last minute and be only temporary.

Global economic conditions are most troubling to William P. Southard, founder and president of DST Controls in Benicia, Calif. Mr. Southard and his 38 employees set up and service computer systems and monitoring panels on five continents.