Expectations are low. The year-end survey of owners by the National Small Business Association found that 38 percent anticipate growth opportunities for their companies this year. That's down from the 47 percent who predicted growth in 2012, the trade group says. Sixty percent expected to keep their staffing levels stable this year.
"I'm right in there with other small business owners â¿¿ I have no intention of hiring," says Mark Hagar, owner of Specialized Printed Products in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Hagar is cautious because his customers, who are also small business owners, aren't ordering as many printed brochures or running as many direct mail marketing campaigns as they did before the recession.
"There's this great big circle of gridlock," he says. "They're not going to buy anymore because they're uncertain about what their customers are going to do."
Hagar's sales were up about 2.5 percent last year, and he doesn't expect to do better this year. He doesn't need new equipment, so he has no plans to borrow money.
"We're not going to have any real growth," he says.
Owners are reluctant to hire or expand because their revenue is down, says Susan Woodward, an economist at Sand Hill Econometrics in Palo Alto, Calif., who tracks small business revenue for Intuit.
"They were all recovering for a while. Then in early 2012, their revenue began to flatten," she says.
The picture isn't completely dark. The housing market is recovering and the stock market is rallying. If that gets consumers to spend more, small businesses may pull out of their funk.
There are two key positive signs, according to Martin Regalia, chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents 3 million businesses:
â¿¿ The housing market is improving: Sales of new homes hit their highest level in four and a-half years during January, according to government figures. And previously occupied homes sold at their second-best level in three years, the National Association of Realtors reported. Sellers are getting higher prices for their homes, according to the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index.