Published: Jan. 4, 2021 By
A sign on a business in Denver restricts entry to anyone but authorized employees.

A Denver business restricts entry during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Credit: Andrew Sorensen)

Buoyed by positive COVID-19 vaccine news, Colorado business leaders are seeing signs for optimism looking ahead to 2021, according to the latest report from the Business Research Division at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business.

The quarterly Leeds Business Confidence Index (LBCI), produced by the Leeds Business Research Division (BRD) at the Leeds School of Business, reflects Colorado business leaders’ expectations for the state and national economies, industry sales, industry profits, hiring and business spending.

Moving into the new year, panelists report mostly unchanged sentiment from the final quarter of 2020. The 328 business leaders surveyed for the report gave an overall LBCI score of 47.9 for the first quarter of 2021. An LBCI score of 50 indicates a neutral outlook. Scores below 50 indicate pessimism and scores above 50 indicate optimism. Looking further ahead to the spring, however, those numbers show a sharp uptick to 59.5. 

“While the Colorado and national economy will likely continue to struggle for many months, there seems to be reason for optimism in the year ahead,” said Richard Wobbekind, senior economist at the Leeds School of Business.

As in the fourth quarter of 2020, industry sales expectations were the most positive LBCI segment among panelists at the start of 2021, with an LBCI score of 51.5. Panelists remained downbeat about the national economy, giving it a score of 43.5.

COVID-19 vaccine rollouts are the biggest factor behind the optimistic sentiment for the second quarter of 2021 and beyond, according to the report. Roughly one in five panelists cited the vaccines, two of which have received emergency authorization from the federal government, for their positive outlooks. In general, the pandemic remains a driving force in business optimism, with one in four panelists citing it as the key consideration in shaping their outlooks.

Panelists were also split on how worker productivity had been affected in 2020. Roughly 30% of respondents claimed that productivity had not changed from March to December, while 33.8% suggested that it had improved, and 36.3% reported that it had taken a hit. A plurality of respondents also do not expect to return to in-person offices until the second or third quarter of 2021.

Slowing economic rebound

National employment has recovered from the recession lows reached in April, but jobs are coming back at a slower rate, indicating a stalling in the recovery. The unemployment rate in the U.S. was 6.7% in November.

Colorado nonfarm employment increased by 8.5% from April to November, equating to roughly 209,600 jobs. The rebound stalled in November, however, with the state adding just 6,900 jobs from the previous month.

While all of Colorado’s metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) lost jobs in 2020, the Boulder MSA recorded the largest year-over-year employment decline (-7.2%). The only MSA to show an increase in jobs was Grand Junction, which posted a year-over-year gain of 0.3%.

The Leeds Business Research Division’s newest Colorado Business Economic Outlook forecasts Colorado will gain 40,500 jobs (1.5%) in 2021, which replaces less than one-third of the state’s estimated 2020 job losses.