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Business confidence in Colorado remains negative, but business leaders are beginning to see some optimism as 2021 begins.

The Business Research Division at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business released its quarterly business confidence index Monday. The prospect of more widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines have buoyed the mood of business, the research division said.

The quarterly Leeds Business Confidence Index reflects Colorado business leaders’ expectations for the state and national economies, industry sales, industry profits, hiring and business spending.

The 328 business leaders surveyed for the report gave an overall confidence 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,” Richard Wobbekind, senior economist at the Leeds School of Business, said in a statement.

As in the fourth quarter of 2020, industry sales expectations were the most positive segment among panelists at the start of 2021, with an 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.

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, the report said.

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 lost jobs in 2020, the Boulder metropolitan statistical area recorded the largest year-over-year employment decline at minus 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, or 1.5%, in 2021, which replaces less than one-third of the state’s estimated 2020 job losses.

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