– Jeff Stibel is the chairman and CEO of small business credit rating agency Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. The views expressed are his own. –

What is a small business owner to make of the headlines?

Right now, leading indicators – like lending, hiring and optimism – paint a conflicting picture of the direction of the country’s small business sector. It’s no wonder we’d be confused. It seems one index rises, while another falls.

Take, for example, small business optimism.  There’s no doubt we’ve come a long way from where we were at the bottom of the recession. But, the leading optimism index, calculated by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), still looks like a seismometer in the days following an earthquake.

For the first two months of 2011, the numbers looked promising; optimism didn’t just rise slightly – it lunged forward. On a scale with 100 being the best and 0 being the worst, the index jumped from 92.6 in December 2010 to 94.5 by February this year. It’s a substantial gain from where we were at the bottom of the recession, when the NFIB reported numbers in the low 80s – 81.0 being the lowest.

But just when things looked up, numbers from March, April and May showed a drop – back more than 3 points – all but erasing recent gains and dropping to a level not seen since late last summer.