Small business hiring plans are at a record low.

A recruiter, right, greets a job seeker during a HIREvent job fair in San Jose this week. Small business hiring plans are at a record low. (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / December 6, 2012)

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The job outlook at America’s small businesses is the worst it’s ever been, according to new research.

Last month, 21% of small business owners said they expected to lower head count over the next six months — the highest percentage recorded by the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index since its launch in 2003. In July, the last time the data was compiled, just 10% of bosses said they planned to shrink employee ranks.

More than six in 10 owners said they would keep their workforce steady, while 17% said they intended to boost hiring. That’s down from the 20% of bosses who said the same in July.

On the Gallup index, the difference between the companies that plan to raise headcount and those that will lower it resulted in a score of -4. A score of 0 indicates equal percentages of businesses planning to increase and decrease hiring.

Historically, according to Gallup, the index tends to show a positive figure, even reaching double digits during good economic years. But a number of factors — including the looming "fiscal cliff," the effects of Superstorm Sandy and the recent election results — could be stoking Main Street’s pessimism.

Such a sour forecast suggests “the potential for a serious decline in jobs early next year,” according to Gallup, as well as capital spending reductions down the line.

More than a quarter of small business owners said they have cut back on the number of employees they have in the last 12 months, up from 21% who said the same in July and reaching the highest level in two years.

Just 14% of bosses said they increased head count.

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