Loan squeeze thwarts small-business revival

Loan squeeze thwarts small-business revival

Despite government intervention, many companies still struggle to find financing.

  • March 16, 2010
  • The Wall Street Journal
YPSILANTI, Mich.—Thomas Harrison, chief executive of Michigan Ladder Co., has a plan that would contribute to the U.S. economic recovery: Expand the 108-year-old company, adding at least 20 jobs in the process. His chances of getting the loan of $300,000 or more he needs to do so, though, depend in part on what happens to folks like home builder James Haeussler.
Both are customers of the same community bank, the Bank of Ann Arbor. Mr. Haeussler is struggling to repay $8.3 million he and a partner borrowed to build a residential community in nearby Saline, Mich. In this economic environment, the bank doesn't want to take a chance on what it sees as a risky new loan to Mr. Harrison.
"In a world where Jim Haeussler makes it, Tom Harrison will make it," says Timothy Marshall, the bank's president. "But it's not prudent to do both loans at this point in time. We're in a more risk-averse mode."
Mr. Marshall's reluctance sheds light on a problem looming over the economy. A year and a half after the financial crisis hit, the U.S. credit machine is still malfunctioning. During the boom, credit was too abundant. Now the pendulum has swung. With an eye toward limiting such swings, Sen. Christopher Dodd is expected to unveil a bill Monday that would be especially tough on big banks while preserving the Fed's regulatory role, but the bill's prospects remain uncertain.
Tom Harrison wants to create jobs at his ladder company. But his chances of getting the loan he needs to do so depend in part on what happens to folks like home builder Jim Haeussler. See how their stories connect.
For a recovery to take hold, hundreds of thousands of small businesses must find the confidence to expand and create jobs. But when they get to that point, the local banks they depend on—worried about borrowers' financial strength, scrutinized by regulators and slammed by souring real-estate loans—might not be willing or able to provide the credit they need.
While big companies have been able to borrow in bond markets, smaller companies rely mainly on bank credit, which has been shrinking. In 2009, total lending by U.S. banks fell 7.4%, the steepest drop since 1942. In all, the credit pulled out of the economy by banks since the downfall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 amounts to about $700 billion, more than double the amount so far distributed under President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus program.
"It's a dismal situation," says Diane Swonk, chief economist at Chicago-based financial-services firm Mesirow Financial. "Banks won't lend to businesses because they're afraid they'll go bad, but that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
The dearth of credit for small businesses could have a big effect on prospects for restoring the 8.4 million jobs lost since the recession began. From 1992 through the beginning of the latest recession, companies with fewer than 100 employees accounted for about 45% of net job growth, according to Labor Department data.
Policy makers have been looking for ways to reopen the spigot. President Obama has proposed creating a $30 billion fund to support small-business lending. Last month, in an unusual show of solidarity, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other state and federal regulators issued a joint statement urging banks to continue lending to credit-worthy small enterprises.
Making sure small firms get access to credit "is crucial to avoiding a Japan-type scenario of persistent stagnation," says Mark Gertler, a New York University economist who has done seminal research with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, then a Princeton University professor, on how troubles with bank lending can aggravate economic downturns.
Getting banks to lend more won't be easy, given the rising tide of defaults on loans made to finance housing developments, office buildings, shopping malls and other commercial real estate. Deutsche Bank expects banks to suffer at least $250 billion in losses on such loans, with about half coming in the next few years. Together with an estimated $250 billion in further charge-offs on home mortgages, that's more than double banks' current reserves against losses on all types of loans.
The stakes are particularly high for community banks, which tend to be much more active in commercial real estate than their larger counterparts. As of December 2009, such loans comprised about 42% of all loans held by the 7,344 banks with less than $1 billion in assets, compared to about 17% for the hundred or so banks with more than $10 billion in assets.
Some bankers say policy makers' desire to encourage lending isn't always reflected on the ground, where they say bank inspectors are getting tougher about lending standards. "For the first time in my 37 years in banking, we're having to say to our clients that we're not sure this will pass muster with the regulators," says Larry Barbour, president and chief executive of North State Bank in Raleigh, N.C. "That's not healthy."
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