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Stormy weather ahead for small businesses

5 October 2021

The latest survey by the Institute of Directors reveals that SME confidence plummeted in September and the Federation of Small Businesses has warned that small firms may be facing an "autumn storm".

From a high in June-July, the IoD Directors' Economic Confidence Index has taken a significant tumble in September. The Index, which measures the net positive level of optimism in the UK economy amongst business directors, recorded a value of -1% in September, down from +22% in July and +27% in June 2021. The last time an Index score of close to zero was recorded was in early February, at the height of the third lockdown.

The IoD Index asked its members "How optimistic are you about the wider UK economy over the next 12 months?". The results show that just 5% are very optimistic, 33% are quite optimistic, 23% are neither optimistic or pessimistic, 28% are quite pessimistic and a worrying 11% are very pessimistic.

Drilling down into specifics, the findings show that 46% of directors expect their revenues to be somewhat higher in the next 12 months (compared to the past 12 months). However, 59% say they expect costs to be somewhat higher and 56% expect wage costs to rise.

Kitty Ussher, IoD chief economist, said: "The business environment has deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks. Following a period of optimism in the early summer, people running small and medium-sized businesses across the UK are now far less certain about the overall economic situation and the IoD Directors' Economic Confidence Index fell off a cliff in September."

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has also raised concerns about the challenges facing small businesses, including inflation, staff and supply shortages, energy price rises, increased VAT and the prospect of major tax rises.

With furlough ending last week, the FSB has highlighted the fact that small businesses have been "far heavier users of furlough than large firms" and it says the gap has grown as the scheme has neared its end.

"It's potentially a dangerous moment," said Mike Cherry, FSB national chair. "As the weather turns colder, so too will the operating environment for many firms. With recent economic growth numbers having fallen below expectations, the upcoming festive season may not provide as much of a boost as hoped to many small businesses' bottom lines.

"We all know that the unprecedented support to businesses and individuals which the government provided to forestall a full-on economic collapse could not last forever, and that some sort of 'business as usual' would need to be resumed. But the government needs to think carefully about the signals it wants to send to the business community. The memory of how National Insurance and dividend tax rises were pushed through Parliament with no time for proper scrutiny is fresh in every business owner's mind, and has dealt a significant blow to stores of goodwill."

He added: "It seems bizarre that at a time when we should be starting the long road to recovery, the government is making employment more expensive, making it harder to start a new business, and making apprenticeships less attractive and accessible."

Written by Rachel Miller.

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