Small businesses, which employ the bulk of American workers, don't plan to hire additional staff, new data showed Tuesday, in another sign the job market is deteriorating again.
The National Federation of Independent Business said that confidence among small firms dropped, with its index dipping to 89.5 in March from 90.8 in February.
The share of firms planning to grow employment minus the share planning to shrink it fell to a net 0%, the lowest in a year, from 4% in the prior month.
Stocks advanced despite mixed economic data and corporate news. Alcoa (AA) topped Q1 profit expectations Monday but missed revenue views. First Solar (FSLR) surged xx% after guiding 2013 estimates sharply higher.
NFIB also found business owners were no more pessimistic on the economy, but the balance of sales expectations swung to -4% from 1%. Small firms also were more inclined to shrink inventories and less inclined to think now is a good time to expand.
The survey comes days after the Labor Department said nonfarm payrolls grew by just 88,000 in March, after averaging gains of more than 200,000 in the prior five months.
The latest jobs data seem to signal a pattern of strong winter hiring followed by a spring or summer slump will repeat this year.
Federal fiscal policy remains a drag on small businesses, which still face uncertainty despite the New Year's deal that lifted payroll taxes as well as rates on some higher earners, said Bill Dunkelberg, NFIB's chief economist.
"The president has said he wants more tax revenue," he noted, adding that tax deductions are in play. "There's a lot of other stuff still going on.
But NFIB also found business owners were slightly less pessimistic on current sales, profit trends and the credit outlook. Capital spending plans were unchanged.
The NFIB survey came before the Obama administration's decision last week to delay small-business health exchanges until 2015.
Separate data out Tuesday offered few signs of economic momentum. Job openings rose to a five-year high of 3.93 million in February, but actual hiring continued to improve at a slower pace, Labor said.
Quitting was flat and remained well below pre-recession levels, suggesting workers still see few opportunities.
Since the recession ended in mid-2009 to February, openings increased 65%, while hiring rose 22%. Hires still exceeded posted openings. But the improvement gap is feeding a debate on whether the job market is suffering from low labor demand or a long-term skills deficit.