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Business optimism high, survey finds

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New Jersey business owners are feeling increasingly optimistic, according to a new survey from the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

The organization today released its 54th annual Business Outlook Survey, based on responses from 1,470 companies across the state, most with fewer than 50 employees.

"Business is picking up, business confidence is rising and growing numbers of businesses believe New Jersey is on the right track," said Philip Kirschner, the association's president.

Seventeen percent of responding companies said they added staff in 2012. Twenty-two percent reported downsizing, but those numbers are improved from last year, when 15 percent of employers hired and 27 percent cut back — and much better than 2009, when 48 percent of companies reported staffing reductions and just 8 percent said they were hiring.

Going forward, 19 percent of companies said they plan to hire in 2013, while 11 percent expect to shrink their work forces.

The survey found current sales activity reached its highest point in five years, and 45 percent of companies said they expected profits to increase next year. Another 34 percent said profits will likely stay the same.

The survey was conducted in September, raising questions about whether optimism — and hiring — could be diminished in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and with the current uncertainty in Washington surrounding health care reform implementation and the so-called "fiscal cliff."

"There are a lot of uncertainties all coming together," Kirschner said. "What encourages me, though — the fiscal cliff and the health care (law) were known when this survey was done, and still the numbers are really relatively high compared to previous years."

The survey also showed the state's business climate and reputation appear to be improving. Twenty-two percent of respondents said New Jersey is a "good" or "very good" place to expand their business. That's up from 18 percent last year.

Most of the credit appears to be going to Gov. Chris Christie, whom 73 percent of respondents rated "good to excellent." Twenty-six percent of respondents said the state Legislature is doing a "good-to-excellent" job, while 50 percent said the Legislature was doing a "fair" job.

Tracye McDaniel, president and CEO of the business recruitment nonprofit Choose New Jersey, greeted the hiring and expansion numbers as a sign the state is headed in the right direction.

"Both of these survey findings arm Choose New Jersey with positive statistics and a clear message that New Jersey is good for business as we work to attract more companies, jobs and capital investment to our state," she said in a written statement.

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