Small Business

A new inflation reading shows the small business tipping point has been reached

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The latest Consumer Price Index reading, the highest in four decades, isn’t the only sign that inflation is extending rather than giving up its hold over the U.S. economy in 2022. An increasing number of American small businesses say they are now passing on higher costs to customers, or soon will be forced to make that decision.

While the 74% of small business owners who say they are experiencing rising costs of supplies is virtually unchanged from Q4 2021, according to a new CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Survey, the number of businesses passing on costs to customers has risen to 47% in the first quarter, up from 39% in Q4 2021. And another 32% indicate they will have to raise prices soon if inflation persists. Sticky inflation is their expectation. Over eighty percent of small business owners expect inflation to still be a problem six months from now (55% say that is “very likely”), according to the CNBC|SurveyMonkey data.

The Main Street concerns about inflation are connected to the small business outlook on the supply chain, with 75% saying these issues are likely to be a problem six months from now. And there is a lack of faith in policy makers, with 71% of small business owners not confident in the Federal Reserve’s ability to control inflation.

The CNBC/SurveyMonkey online poll was conducted January 24-30, 2022 among a national sample of 2,227 self-identified small business owners.

“The underlying problem with inflation is that there’s no end in sight,” said Laura Wronski, senior manager of research science at Momentive, which conducts the survey for CNBC. “We’ve become accustomed to rising and falling Covid waves, and businesses have had the time to rewrite their playbooks to accommodate. But no one knows how quickly or to what degree inflation will continue to rise, so that unpredictability is inducing some unease,” she said, with the lack of faith in the Fed adding to the uncertainty.

“I don’t think it is getting better. It has gotten worse,” said Michelle Pusateri, owner of San Francisco-based Nana Joes Granola.

Nana Joes Granola witnessed a boom in business during Covid as demand for packaged good skyrocketed, but the business situation has flipped, with the hyper-growth from earlier in the pandemic now overwhelmed by supply chain and pricing issues and its profit margins being squeezed.

Nana Joes Granola stocked up on ingredients and bought them at higher volumes to get lower pricing as demand outstripped supply and logistics issues worsened. The loading up on inventory is “more of a stopgap right now,” Pusateri said, but she expects it will probably become a long-term business issue. Her firm held $94,000 of inventory at the end of 2019, but by the end of last year, that had risen to $327,000.

“I think more and more businesses will have to sit on more inventory,” Pusateri said.

Losing leverage as buyers in a broken supply chain

In multiple ways, small business owners have lost leverage with suppliers. Large buyers are favored in transactions, and smaller buyers are no longer able to order in smaller batches (e.g. half-pallets) or rely on contract pricing.

“Lots of ingredients are in high demand, meaning farmers and vendors and brokers can name their price. They can wait until the last highest bidder,” said Pusateri, who is a member of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Voices community. Among that Main Street sample, 84% indicated in a recent survey that inflation has gotten worse for them since September, and only 13% see supply chain issues subsiding over the first half of 2022.

Nana Joes Granola’s main ingredient, oats, has seen a huge spike in price, and Pusateri does not expect any downward pricing pressure given the current level of supply and demand.

It’s not just an increase in input costs, but the magnitude of the increase which is walloping smaller companies. Eric Groves, co-founder and CEO at online small business platform Alignable, which has been tracking the impact of inflation, pointed to the percentage of businesses which indicate they are seeing the highest level of cost increases. Overall, 78% of small businesses say their costs are above pre-pandemic levels, but the largest block of small businesses (29%) say they are seeing price hikes of 25% or more for their business inputs.

All of the headlines about inflation will make it easier for small business owners to increase costs and not have customers react as negatively as they might expect, but while over 50% of businesses are passing along the cost increases to customers, only 9% tell Alignable they can do this at a level where it is above breakeven for them.

“Costs have gone up more than their ability to pass it on down, and that’s what is critical to recovery,” Groves said. “That’s where the feeling of stress is coming from. It’s the squeezing of margins, not just revenue … what’s going in their pocket,” he added.

It is a fraught situation for small businesses trying to figure out how much they can afford to charge without risking a decline in customer numbers and loss of recurring revenue, with many small business still not all the way back from Covid’s shock. Alignable’s data finds roughly 35%-37% of businesses saying that 90% or more of their customers from the pre-Covid period have returned.

Small business owners tend to be optimistic by nature, but Alignable’s data shows them more pessimistic now about their own recovery timelines. Last June, small business owners expected revenue to be back at pre-Covid levels midway through 2022. Now that has been pushed back by a full year to mid-2023.

Pusateri says inflation is beginning to eat into demand for her company’s granola, which is priced at the premium end of the product category. “People are starting to look at what they are spending on. For us, it’s more of people starting to really look at pocketbooks,” she said.

Small business says ‘stuck with inflation’

NFIB’s most recent quarterly survey found the percentage of small business owners having to increase prices rising to over 60%, the highest reading in the NFIB data since Q4 1974.

“They are getting squeezed by supply chain disruptions and inflation and workforce shortages and already had to reinvent themselves a few times over in the past few years, and are running out of options,” said Kevin Kuhlmann, who leads the NFIB’s government relations team. “They are continuing to adapt … but you can only increase prices so much before you might see a loss,” he said. 

Nana Joes Granola accessed a Covid economic injury disaster loan from the Small Business Administration to fund its higher level of inventory buying, but that financing program ended in 2021, and there is no indication the federal government will reinstate it. Pusateri said she is now being forced to contemplate business loans or taking on investors, a move she has not had to make previously.

“There aren’t many policy options for issues like inflation and the supply chain,” Kuhlmann said. And even if inflation is tamed, that does not mean prices will go down. “It’s sort of a new normal,” he said. “You want to slow down price increases. It’s frustrating business owners.”

Small business does tend to be a lagging rather than leading indicator for the economy, but the growing worries on Main Street are “a worrisome indication that inflation will be more persistent,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.

“Their pricing decisions tend to lag their bigger competitors, so if small businesses are raising prices more aggressively it could signal inflation becoming more endemic,” Zandi said. And since small businesses do not tend to think of themselves as having pricing power over the long-term, if they are “becoming more emboldened” it is an indication that inflationary pressures are broader-based, he added.

Main Street confidence and support for Biden

The CNBC/SurveyMonkey Small Business Confidence Index score continues to hover around all-time lows, holding at 44 out of 100, which was unchanged from Q4 2021 and nearly identical to the all-time low score of 43 from a year ago. Overall, the business outlook is mixed, with 46% of Main Street businesses saying they expect revenue to increase in the next 12 months, according to the CNBC|SurveyMonkey data.

Politics is a factor, with only 33% of business owners saying conditions are “good,” equal to the 33% of business owners who say they support President Biden.

The percentage of Democrats who expressed support for Biden remains very high, at 83%, but did decline this quarter by six percentage points. Just under half (49%) of Democratic small business owners described conditions as good. A majority of Democrats expect inflation to still be a problem six months from now (67%) but that is considerably less than the 92% of Republicans who see inflation sticking around. And Democrats are much more likely to believe the Fed can control inflation, at 61%, versus 11% of Republicans surveyed.

Certain sectors within the small business community that are more exposed to the global supply chain are facing greater pressures, and there are positive indicators across the business landscape. As a whole, companies are doing a good job of passing through costs to customers with corporate profit margins as wide as they’ve ever been back to World War II, but the benefits of pricing power are accruing more to the largest corporations.

Small businesses do not typically have high cash reserve levels — according to Alignable it is on average 34 days of cash on hand — leading to a situation in which any kind of financial hit is very difficult to recover from. “So as they are trying to build back to recovery from Covid, every little bit of extra margin they can eke out is critical, and with cost increases and the inability to pass along, we will see more and more businesses struggling with that,” Groves said.

A key measure of business health, business-to-business payment transactions, isn’t showing any signs of stress, with even companies of 500 employees or less paying bills on time. “At least so far, they are managing,” Zandi said.

Small businesses sentiment, similar to consumer sentiment, tends to be reactive and based on the most recent information or anecdote rather than longer-term forecasting, which means that current gas and fuel prices, which can be major inputs for small businesses, can lead to a sharper shift in sentiment in the short-term. But Zandi said if nothing else, the latest data from Main Street is “proof positive we have a problem.”

Pusateri described herself as “a lot less confident now” after having made it through Covid, and even having seen hyper-growth during the earlier part of the pandemic. “I thought getting through 2020, ‘oh my god, we did it.’ We were still profitable. And then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t find ingredients.”

Nana Joes Granola went from 135% profit growth during the packaged foods boom to currently operating at less than breakeven in a pricing environment hitting it from all sides. In addition to the supply issues, wage inflation and lack of leverage as a buyer, freight charges across the country have risen and the company has had to change its free shipping policy for its direct consumer business. “We’re getting steamrolled over. Everywhere I look getting price increases,” Pusateri said. 

The financial market and economists including Zandi expect inflation will moderate later in 2022, but if it doesn’t happen soon, he said, “the small business owners will be right.”

“I don’t think inflation is going away any time soon,” Puasteri said. “We will be stuck in this.”

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