Two recent indicators of small-business activity have found that the nation’s economic engine is chugging along with a more optimistic outlook than previously believed – developments that could expand the number of voluntary benefit plan participants.

More small businesses expect to hire new employees in the next six months, according to the latest monthly Office Depot Small Business Index, which found that number climb to 26% in October from 19% in September.

And as such, 65% of respondents last month thought their business was improving compared with 48% in the previous month. Greater economic certainty or stability also was seen within this timeframe (24% vs. 19%).

A more macro view comes courtesy of The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute, which found that slightly more than half of the 1,200 survey respondents across 12 key industry sectors anticipate their 2010 revenues will exceed last year’s sales.

Just 32% of small businesses expected better financial performance in 2009 than the prior year. In addition, 45% of small-business owners plan to expand their operation in the next one to two years compared with 38% a year earlier.

"Our research indicates that small-business owners are typically conservative in estimating the financial prospects for their companies, so this upbeat projection bodes well for the U.S. economy,"according to Mark Wolf, director of the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.

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