The Wall Street Journal
By: Emily Maltby
June 30, 2011
Small businesses expected 2011 to be the moment a years-long credit freeze would finally begin to thaw. But borrowing has only gotten worse.
Loans outstanding to small businesses totaled $609 billion at the end of March, an 8.6% drop from a year earlier, according to the most recent data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which analyzes loans of less than $1 million.
Another lending analysis, by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, shows that big banks' outstanding loans to small businesses dropped 14% between March 2010 and March 2011, while loans by smaller lenders fell 3%.
Business owners rank access to capital as the most important issue facing privately held companies, according to a poll of 1,221 entrepreneurs released this month by Pepperdine University. In the past six months, only 17% of loan-seeking businesses with less than $5 million in annual revenue landed bank financing, the study found.
"This area of the economy is in such crisis," says John K. Paglia, a finance professor and senior researcher for Pepperdine's report. The lack of credit "is improperly penalizing companies that will be very successful down the road."
The situation is also quite different for larger companies. About 37% of respondents from privately held companies with revenue greater than $25 million have successfully secured bank loans in the last six months, according to the Pepperdine study.
The numbers for smaller businesses also stand in sharp contrast to what had appeared to be a recent rebound in lending.
Last summer, after years of tightening standards, a majority of banks reported they had eased underwriting criteria for small businesses, according to a quarterly survey of loan officers from the Federal Reserve.
In the 2011 first quarter, a majority reported stronger loan demand from small firms, reversing a multiyear trend.
But most of the loan recipients appear to be the largest of independent businesses--such as those with multiple revenue streams and ample loan collateral--rather than smaller companies. Commercial and industrial lending, an indicator of business-loan demand, totaled $1.26 trillion in May, up 3% from a year ago, according to the Federal Reserve.
However, March data from the FDIC shows that commercial and industrial loans of less than $1 million, which are generally issued to small firms, dropped 10% from a year earlier.
Rick Kimsey, 57 years old, is seeking to expand his business, a medical-clinic franchise called Doctors Express Urgent Care, but since January six banks have rejected his loan requests.
Mr. Kimsey says the business, open since late 2010, has done well enough for him to sign with the franchisor to open six new locations. The loan applications haven't passed muster, he says, because he rents office space in Sarasota, Fla., and doesn't have real-estate collateral.
Discouraged by the bank process, Mr. Kimsey says he has learned to "have a contingency plan in place" and is now trying to secure capital from a private investor.
For their part, banks say that they are trying to comply with federal regulators, who want to ensure that the financial collapse--in part caused by lenient underwriting--doesn't happen again.
"It's a misnomer that we don't want to make small-business loans," says Paul Merski, senior vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a lobbying group in Washington, D.C. "The role of banks is to take on risk. That's how banks survive. That's how banks make money."
The main issue facing lenders, Mr. Merski says, is that regulators are asking for proof that the loans will be repaid. That can be tricky with smaller, historically riskier businesses, particularly in an uncertain economy where property--often used as collateral for loans--keeps falling in value.
Further, he says, regulators are requiring banks to hold more capital in case loans default, leaving them with less to lend.
Indeed, according to the Pepperdine study, more than three-quarters of bankers said they felt increased pressure from regulators, and 61% of those bankers reported that they have rejected loans they otherwise would have made to please the federal overseers.
That's hampering many small-business owners' plans for growth. John E. Durante of Durante Rentals LLC, a Bronx, N.Y., construction-equipment rental company, got a $45,000 credit line two months ago. But it's far from what he ultimately needs.
Last year, five banks turned him down for a $1 million loan he sought to buy construction equipment.
Without the loan, Mr. Durante was forced to rent the machinery. "My competitors made $300,000 off of me because I couldn't get financing," says Mr. Durante, whose business had $2.4 million in 2010 sales and is on track to top $3 million this year. "That broke my heart."
In Yorkville, Wis., Skydive Midwest Skydiving Center Inc. hasn't seen any credit relief. Keith George, who bought the company in 2008, says he has boosted business 20% each year and topped $1 million in revenue in 2010.
Six banks in the past year have turned down his request for a $2.2 million loan to finance a new airport hangar, a plane and additional camping facilities.
After a year of trying, he says, he "kind of gave up" and sought funding elsewhere. Through alternative financing sources, he purchased the aircraft and the new hangar, but Mr. George is still having trouble getting a $390,000 property loan. Without it, he says, there won't be enough facilities to accommodate more customers.
"It's overwhelmingly frustrating," he says.
Write to Emily Maltby at firstname.lastname@example.org