As if it were right from Santa's workshop, positive economic news has been delivered by the bagful during December, and the presents are likely to pile up right into the New Year.

What a bagful! Inflation is barely noticeable, joblessness is down, housing and autos strong, consumers are spending again, confidence is rising, interest rates are low (though, of course, that's not good news for savers).The sack almost bursts when you consider that production is up, output per hour is strong, profits have been maintained, capital spending plans seem to be working their way higher, and inventories are low and must be replenished.

The latest confirmation of an economic spurt in the concluding weeks of the year comes in a surprisingly bright report from small business, which had been inclined to think nothing but taxes came down the chimney.

The report, from the National Federation of Independent Business, shows that small-business optimism rose in November, with the percentage of companies expecting the economy to improve doubling the record-low level of August.

The November survey, analyzed by economist William Dunkelberg, showed big gains in hiring plans and record-low plans to raise prices, and a feeling that inventories are too low and must be rebuilt.

It reflected growing optimism; in fact, the federation's business optimism index recovered virtually all of the ground lost since last January.

This is all a bit surprising, since small business attitudes and plans, as reflected in the monthly and quarterly surveys by the NFIB, have made fairly depressing reading. Small-business people have been wary and doubtful.

Yes, says Dunkelberg, they still are, in spite of the improvement. He, like so many economists, attaches asterisks and fine print to the recent good news, the qualification being that Christmas isn't forever.

While attitudes are more positive, said, Dunkelberg, they're coming from a very low level. While there was indeed a jump in the number of respondents expecting a better economy, even more companies expect it to be worse.

In other words, the good news, despite being extremely welcome, is still accompanied by little black asterisks, qualifications and warnings, amid all the bright lights and stars on the tree.

Consumers, for example, are buying, but on credit rather than with cash from an improved paycheck. Unemployment is dropping, but companies are terminating jobs. The savings rate, though up this month, is still very low.

Among small-business people the big concern is taxes. Twenty-seven percent of respondents - there are about 2,000 in the quarterly surveys - picked taxes as their most important problem. Second highest? Regulations, at 24 percent.

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These percentages assume greater significance when compared with others. Inflation was named by only 2 percent, labor costs by only 5 percent, labor quality by 5 percent, and "competition from large firms" by only 7 percent.

Dunkelberg, dean of Temple University's school of business and management, appears to have a few asterisks of his own, one being to suggest that Clintonomics is hardly a recipe for improvement.

The upturn, he suggests, may be little more than what should be expected from low interest rates and the recognition that even slow economic growth gradually puts demand on capacity and eventually means additions to it.

The news, that is, may be enough to put a few joyous sparkles into Christmas but, lest the lights blink out, nobody should take any bows. Well, maybe Santa, but that's all.

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