Ask a banker about the weak state of small-business lending, and he's likely to point the finger at low demand from borrowers.
Ask a small businesswoman about it, and she'll probably blame banks for being unwilling to lend.
The truth, as the saying goes, lies somewhere in the middle.
Several recent surveys and public forums indicate that conditions may be improving for those small businesses seeking to tap credit. But it's far from normal, whatever that is.
In fact, William J. Dennis Jr., senior research fellow at the NFIB Research Foundation, told me he doesn't think anyone knows what a normal lending environment for small business is ever since banking deregulation occurred in the mid-1970s.
Here's how frothy things got: By 2006, the National Federation of Independent Business had data suggesting that 90 percent of business owners who wanted credit were able to obtain it. "That's an extraordinary number," said Dennis, reminding me that 10 percent of all small businesses die each year.
Something was bound to give, and the financial crisis gave it good. A survey that the NFIB's research arm released Feb. 2 found that demand for small-business credit remained weak in 2010. Of the 856 people interviewed, 52 percent said they did not try to borrow last year, up 7 percentage points from 2009.
This shift from a decades-long expansion of credit options for small-business owners is a crucial one. The NFIB Research Foundation's report states: "The change in momentum from constantly increasing competition and access to credit to an abrupt freeze, if not direction reversal, is tied to the current confusion exhibited by many owners and analysts when assessing small-business credit conditions."
Remember: Lack of access to credit isn't the biggest headache for small businesses. As the NFIB reminds us each month with its optimism index, lack of sales is, and they won't improve until economic growth heats up.
That recognition doesn't prevent government officials from holding forums such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. did last month called "Overcoming Obstacles to Small Business Lending." At that event, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke noted how important higher sales are: "If the sales come, that will make these businesses stronger, make them more creditworthy, and it will be a virtuous circle."
But from where Ami Kassar sits, we're a long way from dancing in virtuous circles. As chief executive officer of MultiFunding L.L.C., a loan advisory firm in Whitpain Township, he spends his days trying to find financing for small businesses. What hampers that is what Kassar calls a "collateral crisis."
While banks have been "loosening up a little bit," they are looking for new collateral from customers before extending credit, Kassar said. That's because the value of the houses, equipment, and inventory typically used as collateral for lines of credit have taken a beating.
In general, bigger banks appear to be easing their standards for commercial and industrial loans to companies with sales of more than $50 million, according to the January survey of senior loan officers by the Federal Reserve. But few bankers reported changing standards on such loans to small firms.
What concerns Dennis is that depressed real estate values are acting as an "anchor" on small businesses. "It's pulled down the balance sheets of these businesses," he said.
As a result, balance sheets won't recover as rapidly as sales will. "That could be a problem as we go forward," Dennis said.
Just as the unemployment rate tends to rise as more people join the labor force, hoping to find work in a strengthening economy, complaints about lack of access to credit could spike higher as small businesses seeking to expand try to borrow, Dennis said.
"The dust has not fallen," he said. "We're in a transition period."
Here are several publications worth a look for small-business owners who are trying to navigate the new world of credit.
The first is a guide published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that helps explain the borrowing process: go.philly.com/credit1
Next, check out the NFIB Research Foundation's latest survey of small business and credit access: go.philly.com/credit2
Finally, for an overview of what the Federal Reserve heard from small businesses and lenders over a series of 40 meetings during the first half of 2010, this 20-page summary discusses a laundry list of challenges: go.philly.com/credit3