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SBA’s former chief: Small business lending hasn’t recovered — and that’s a big problem

Karen Mills sounds the alarm on commercial loan availability.

Karen Mills, the former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, says banks may never fully return to the small business market. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News)

Securing a bank loan isn’t as difficult for small businesses today as it was during the recession. However, it’s still not as easy as it was prior to the collapse — and that appears to be holding back the broader economic recovery.

In a nutshell, that’s the takeaway from a pair of research articles recently penned by Karen Mills, the former head of the Small Business Administration and now a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“There is no data that definitively measures either the credit gap for small business or the impact of that gap on the economy,” Mills writes in the first paper. “However, the information that exists paints a troubling picture.”

Mills, who during her tenure in Washington took several steps intended to expand access to capital to underserved groups of business owners, starts by pointing to a survey of loan officers by the Federal Reserve revealing that banks have in the past few years loosened their post-recession lending standards for large firms at a much faster pace than they have for small-business borrowers.

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business’s polling shows that both the percentage of small-business owners reporting that credit is getting easier to find and the percentage reporting that all of their company’s current credit needs are being met remain below levels reported before the recession began.

It doesn’t end there. Mills highlights reports by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. revealing that commercial loans of less than $1 million (the amount often sought by small companies) are down about 20 percent from the years leading up to the recession, even as bank’s total commercial loan balances have continued to grow.

Mills acknowledges that “for most banks, lending to small businesses, especially in the lower dollar range, is costly and risky.” Still, she says there appear to be other factors at play that “seem to be preventing banks, both large and small, from ever fully returning to the small business market.”

In the short term, the lingering effects of the recession have left many small-business owners suffering from fewer sales (consumer spending still hasn’t fully recovered), poor credit (often, entrepreneurs finance their small operations with personal assets), or both. A number of reports suggest that small-business credit scores are lower now than they were before the economy took a nose dive in 2008. Naturally, that will prevent many of them who might otherwise take out a loan from getting the stamp of approval.

Over time, though, those lingering effects will fade. However, other barriers, such as consolidation in the financial services sector, which has seen many community banks that often lent to small companies close down or get acquired, may leave small-business owners with fewer traditional bank loan options for the foreseeable future.

The same goes with the more-strict regulations placed on banks following the recession, which, for instance, have forced financial institutions to increase their capital reserves and hoard deposits. That, Mills noted in her second paper, “undermines their ability to underwrite small-business loans.”

“It appears unlikely that all the barriers to bank lending to small business will disappear,” said Mills, who took over the SBA during the depths of the recession in 2009 and resigned late last year.

Should banks or more-nimble competitors fail to find solutions to these challenges — which she says surely will require the deployment of new technology — the broader economic rebound will likely continue to lag.

“As the pace of the recovery continues to be slow, we need to ask whether the current credit environment is having a dampening effect on small business job creation,” she writes, arguing that policymakers in Washington are too wrapped up in debates over macroeconomic issues like deficit reduction and the appropriate size of government.

“These are important issues, and we’ve made progress,” Mills said. “But, if we’re going to raise the trajectory of job creation, we must focus on microeconomic strategies that give small businesses and entrepreneurs the resources they need to grow and create more well-paying jobs. One of the most critical of these is capital.”

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.



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