Confidence among UK small firms has tumbled to its lowest level since the wake of the EU referendum.
The latest Small Business Index (SBI) by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) stands at +1 in Q3 2017, sharply down from +15 in Q2, and close to the -3 seen immediately after last summer's Brexit vote.
Amid what the FSB describes as "unprecedented political and economic uncertainty", one in eight small businesses (13%) now expects to downsize, hand on or close their business. This figure is at its highest since the SBI launched in 2012.
The research shows that a majority (70%) of small firms are reporting a rise in operating costs compared to the same period last year. Labour costs (42%), taxation (21%) and rent (19%) are key factors.
Small businesses most frequently identify the domestic economy (63%) and consumer demand (35%) as barriers to growth. Consumer-facing firms in retail (-20%) and entertainment (-30%) report some of the lowest levels of confidence.
Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman, said: "Rising inflationary pressure and a weakening domestic economy are the twin drivers of plummeting confidence among small firms and consumers alike. A record proportion of business owners currently expect to downsize, sell or shut up shop, while rent and taxation are frequently mentioned as causes of increased costs.
"Small firms will be looking to the chancellor to extend a lifeline at the Budget. In such a difficult trading environment, any new tax grabs or loss of reliefs for entrepreneurs would exacerbate existing challenges."
However, the findings also show that exporting small firms are optimistic about their prospects. The proportion reporting an increase in overseas sales is at a three-year high (39%) and a similar proportion (35%) expect export growth to continue over the coming quarter.
"It's encouraging to see that small firms which export are still bullish about the future," said Cherry. "While growth falters here in the UK, it's accelerating across the Eurozone and US. The right Brexit deal, including a transition period of at least three years and a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, will be critical to ensuring small firms can access key overseas markets."