While the U.S. economy is gradually gaining momentum, the economic outlook in the U.S. among small-business owners has retreated over the past six months amid concerns about local economic growth.

A survey by HSBC in the fourth quarter of 2010 found that the bank’s index of small-business confidence in the U.S. remained positive at 108, a slight increase from the fourth quarter of 2009 when the index was 106. But the confidence index declined compared to the second quarter of 2010, when it was 120.

Eighty percent of small businesses expect the economy to remain the same or increase in the next six months. The number of respondents expecting the local economy to grow dropped to 14 percent from 32 percent in the second quarter of 2010. The HSBC Confidence Monitor also found that few U.S. small businesses plan to undertake any hiring in the next six months, with 76 percent of those surveyed expecting to keep the number of staff unchanged, versus 74 percent in Q2 2010.

Waning confidence in the U.S. economy is in sharp contrast to U.S. small businesses’ view of their global opportunities for growth. The number of U.S. businesses that indicated they will be involved in cross-border trade and international activities two years from now jumped from 11 percent to 16 percent—an expected increase of 45 percent.

U.S. businesses are likely to encounter potential business partners in emerging markets who are more optimistic about their domestic economies, with 43 percent of emerging-market respondents anticipating an increase in local economic growth, and 33 percent planning to hire in the first half of 2011.

“We have seen an increase in small businesses expressing interest in expanding their business overseas,” said Mark Luppi, executive vice president and head of business banking for HSBC North America. “While many businesses postponed their growth plans during the market downturn, they are beginning to demonstrate greater interest in growth opportunities offered in overseas markets.”

The survey also found that small business’ top three priorities in 2011 are: (1) staying the course (no change in strategy), (2) entering new markets, and (3) attracting and retaining talent.

Thirty-two percent of U.S. small businesses anticipate an increase in capital expenditure plans over the next six months, versus 33 percent in Q2 2010.

U.S. small and midsized businesses cited an increased demand for services and products, opportunities in new markets, and economic stimulus funds and grants as the main factors that would encourage them to increase capital expenditures or hiring.

The top barriers cited by U.S. businesses include lack of demand for goods and services in overseas markets, lack of knowledge about matters such as taxation and regulation, contacts and experience in overseas markets, and local regulations and legal complexities.

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