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The nation's small-business owners are not expecting a recession this year, but they're keeping a close watch on their bank accounts just the same. They're pulling back from capital-spending and hiring plans, according to the latest monthly survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

Those planning capital spending over the next six months fell to 33% of the members polled, down 5 points from February. Those planning to hire in the next six months fell a point, to 12% of companies, and the number of employees per business fell by 0.4%, indicating that both jobs and job openings are being cut.

The figures on hiring plans and staffing levels portend a jump in the jobless rate, possibly to 5% from the current 4.3%, says William C. Dunkelberg, the federation's chief economist.

SOFT LANDING? Profits, the necessary precursor to buying and hiring, are rising for only 15% of NFIB members and falling for 46%, the worst results in eight years. Weaker sales were the main problem, but higher labor costs were cited, too.

As a whole, the March survey indicates neither an upturn nor a recession in the next two quarters, says Dunkelberg, who for now is in the "soft landing" camp. A question mark, though, is "the extent to which the decline might feed on itself." That's something many small-business owners seem to have in mind as they ratchet down their spending. Theresa Forsman in New York

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