Business optimism among U.S. business leaders has plummeted to its lowest level yet, according to a survey by Grant Thornton.

The firm's quarterly Business Optimism Index dropped to 35.6 in November 2008 from 57.3 in August 2008. The drastic drop pushed the index almost 20 points beneath the previous low of 54.7, setting a new record since the index's inception in 2002.

The survey found that U.S. business leaders' sentiments toward the U.S. economy are extremely pessimistic, with 63 percent saying in November they expect conditions to worsen over the next six months, compared to 23 percent who felt the same way in August.

The outlook for their own businesses had a similar tone, with 57 percent in November feeling pessimistic about their company's growth over the next six months, compared to 19 percent who expressed pessimism back in August. The proportion who said that they have plans to decrease staffing in the next six months increased from 9 percent to 43 percent.

Only 15 percent now say they plan to increase staff, compared to 37 percent last quarter. Only 44 percent are now optimistic about their own businesses, compared to 81 percent last quarter.

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