Amid a steady stream of grim economic news, a large majority of small-business owners are optimistic about their company’s financial future, according to two nationwide surveys sponsored by UPS.

In the first UPS Business Monitor United States, conducted between September and October last year, 91 percent of small-business owners or managers said they expect their company to be in the same or better financial shape in a year than it is today. A follow-up survey, conducted in mid-December after economic conditions worsened, showed only a small decline in the first survey’s optimism, with 86 percent of small-businesses owners expecting their company to be in the same or better financial shape in one year.

“Despite incredible changes in the economy, small businesses still see vibrant opportunities,” said Jim Beach, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee. “That eternal optimism and entrepreneurial spirit in the face of adversity is an asset that bodes well for the future of our economy.”

Importantly, this optimism is rooted in realism as small-business owners surveyed do not project a speedy economic recovery. In the first survey, almost half (47 percent) of small-business owners said they believe that the U.S. economy will begin to improve in 2010 or later. That number climbed to 67 percent in the December survey.

Small-business leaders also are optimistic about their workforce prospects. Two-thirds (66 percent) of respondents in the first survey said they plan to keep the same size workforce for the next 12 months. Almost one-quarter (24 percent) said they will increase their workforce; only 10 percent said they plan to reduce it. A greater number of small-business owners in the second survey expect their workforces to remain the same. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) said they expect their workforce to remain the same this year, 13 percent expect to increase their workforce and 12 percent said they plan to cut staff.

“Small businesses are the key to capitalism and to the job market,” noted Prof. Jeff Rosensweig of Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. “These UPS Business Monitors give us a great finger on the pulse of small business and these latest surveys give us reason to lighten the prevailing mood of ‘gloom and doom.’”

Small-business owners may be particularly optimistic for one important reason: they love what they do. When asked in the first survey what else they would do if money were no object, more than one-third (37 percent) said they would continue running their businesses and 12 percent said they would invest more money in their companies. Only 13 percent said they would retire.