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Small Business Confidence Ticks Up in February

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U.S. small business optimism edged up in February amid signs of tightening labor market conditions, bolstering the view that a recent slowdown in economic activity will be temporary.

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The National Federation of Independent Business said on Tuesday its Small Business Optimism Index gained 0.1 point to 98 last month, the third highest reading since early 2007.

The survey of 716 small business owners found 29 percent could not fill open positions, the highest level since April, 2006. Fourteen percent of them cited the shortage of skilled labor as their top problem, the highest since September, 2007.

"There are fundamental domestic economic currents leading owners to add workers and these should bubble up in the official statistics and support stronger growth in domestic output," said William Dunkelberg, chief economist at the NFIB.

The government reported on Friday that nonfarm payrolls increased 295,000 in February, marking the 12th straight month of job gains above 200,000, which is the longest such stretch since 1994.

Economic growth in recent months has been chilled by harsh winter weather as well as a now-settled labor dispute at West Coast ports and softer growth in Asia and Europe.

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First-quarter growth estimates for the U.S. economy are currently running below a 2 percent annualized pace.

The NFIB survey found a modest increase in the number of small businesses increasing inventories, a good omen for growth. Businesses were slightly downbeat on prospects for the next six months and the outlook for sales.

There was little change in business owners' perceptions of earnings and expansion plans. (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)