msnbc.com news services
updated 6/14/2011 1:53:33 PM ET 2011-06-14T17:53:33

Two reports on the sentiment of business owners and leaders show a sharp difference in the outlooks of large companies and their smaller brethren.

More than half of the chief executives of large U.S. companies said they expect to spend and hire more over the next six months despite slower economic growth, according to the latest Business Roundtable survey, released on Tuesday. The report showed 51 percent of CEOs polled expect to increase hiring. Last quarter's level of 52 percent had been the highest since the trade group began surveying its members in 2002.

More than 60 percent plan to buy more goods such as computers, software and machinery.

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Most CEOs seem confident about their own company's prospects — nearly 90 percent forecast higher sales. But they expect the economy to grow a modest 2.8 percent in 2011, down from an earlier forecast of 2.9 percent.

Business Roundtable represents CEOs from the nation's 200 largest companies. The poll, from May 16-June 3, received 135 responses.

A separate survey released on Tuesday, however, showed small business sentiment in the United States fell for a third straight month in May, landing squarely in recessionary territory due to consumer reticence, high unemployment, and inflation worries.

"The most apparent reason for the weak optimism is the weak recovery," the National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group, said in its May report.

Indeed, U.S. economic growth is likely to remain soft for the foreseeable future, but the economy is unlikely to slip back into recession, according a survey of bank economists conducted by the American Bankers Association. The group sees growth picking up in the second half of the year following an anemic first quarter that has seen employment growth grind lower.

Consumer spending is weak, especially for services, an area in which small business plays a major role, the NFIB said. It cited weak job market indicators and investment plans that are at recessionary levels.

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Smaller firms have not experienced the same profitability as their larger siblings.

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"Only the big banks and the big manufacturers are winning," the NFIB said. "Earnings trends for small business are distressingly negative and the recovery is two years old."

Almost two-thirds of business owners polled view the current period as a bad time to expand, and 71 percent of those blamed the weak economy.

Rising prices contributed to the gloom, with one in 10 businesses citing it as their most pressing business problem.

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For 25 months, more owners reported cutting average selling prices than raising them, the NFIB said. In February, this changed, with a net 5 percent reporting raising average selling prices. That increased to 15 percent in May, the group said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: CEO economic outlook survey

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