Almost half of small-business owners are taking out loans because of inflation

Optimism among small-business owners is the highest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, but many are now struggling with the effects of inflation. 

More than seven out of 10 small-business owners say the rising costs of goods and services significantly impacted their operations within the past 12 months, according to the latest Small Business Index report released Tuesday. The quarterly analysis, conducted between Oct. 13 to Oct. 27, surveyed 750 small-business operators across the country. 

“Inflation has really become the new dominant issue for small businesses,” says Neil Bradley, chief policy officer for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Revenue, of course, is always top-of-mind, Bradley says, but inflation has eclipsed even COVID concerns.

To combat the effects of inflation on their bottom lines, 63% of small businesses increased their prices, and about 40% say they have decreased staff. But a surprising 45% of small businesses say they have dealt with inflation by taking out a loan over the past year. That’s a significantly higher percentage than was found in a similar survey released by the National Federation of Independent Business in October, which asked a different question and found that 23% of owners reported borrowing on a regular basis.

While taking out loans may seem dramatic, Bradley says it depends on the business and its needs. Many small-business owners try to avoid taking on debt as much as possible, but retailers, for example, need to be able to purchase goods.

“If they’re not acquiring the inventory, then they don’t have anything to sell,” he says. “It’s an expectation that they will be able to raise prices sufficiently to cover that.” The Chamber’s survey did not ask about the size of the loans this year, but last year the average small-business loan was $71,000. The average Paycheck Protection Program loan issued in 2021 was $46,000, according to the Small Business Administration.

A loan rate of 45% shows a real concern among many small businesses right now that the ongoing inflationary pressures won’t abate, Bradley tells Fortune. Because of the confluence of the worker shortage crisis and the supply chain crisis, the U.S. may have some inflationary pressures that become self-reinforcing.

“The level of concern among small-business owners about ability to retain employees and to find applicants for the open jobs that they have fuels some of the wage pressures that we’re already seeing—which then have to be offset by higher prices to offset the higher operating costs,” Bradley says. 

Overall, larger and midsize businesses—those with between five and 499 employees—are slightly more likely than solo operators and small businesses with fewer than five employees to say they have been impacted by rising prices. 

These new challenges come at a time when many small businesses are probably still in the recovery phase, Bradley says. “Small-business owners are now dealing with different headwinds,” he notes. “For the first part of the pandemic, it really was shutdowns, fear of COVID, and the economic disruption that the pandemic induced. Now the headwinds that they are facing are inflation, a worker shortage crisis, and supply chain disruptions.” 

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