A number of federal officials, entrepreneurship advocates and economists agree that the government can and should do more to foster small business development across the country, but they don’t see eye to eye regarding which problems are of paramount concern.

Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke opened the conference by urging policy makers to think carefully about how to support small businesses and entrepreneurs. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG)

“Small businesses have played an important role in fueling past economic recoveries,” Bernanke said. “We need to think carefully about how, in the current economic environment, our nation can best provide small businesses and entrepreneurs with the support they need to expand job opportunities.”

However, there appears to be little consensus on what steps should be taken, largely because there’s little consensus on the most critical problems facing small business owners. Speaking directly after Bernanke, William Dunkelberg, the chief economist at The National Federation of Independent Business, labeled declining consumer demand (and by extension, declining sales) as the number one problem facing the nation’s smallest employers. He pointed to a recent NFIB survey released earlier this week that showed “poor sales” was the top concern of small business owners last month — and many of them don’t foresee improvements in the near future.

“More firms think sales will be lower over the next three months than think they will be higher,” he said, citing the same report and later urging policy makers to implement a stimulus plan to help boost consumer spending. “If [small business owners] have no confidence in the future, its hard to get people to spend money and expand.”

On the other hand, Dunkelberg said credit availability does not appear to be a significant problem, noting that only four percent of respondents said financing was their biggest problem and that a large majority reported no current interest in seeking additional loans. But others at the conference disagreed, including University of Maryland (College Park) economics professor John Haltiwanger, who said credit may not be a major problem for some companies, but that accessing capital is still a major challenge for the most rapidly expanding small businesses.

“Credit markets are still adversely affecting high-growth firms,” he said in response to Dunkelberg’s presentation. “And those are the firms that historically create the most jobs in our country.”

Alicia Robb, a senior research fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, emphasized the same problem in her presentation later, going so far as to say Dunkelberg “misspoke” when he downplayed small businesses’ credit concerns.

She noted that just because owners aren’t seeking loans doesn’t mean they don’t need them, later calling attention to a recent survey that showed 11 percent of owners who needed loans this year did not apply out of fear of being turned down. She added that one third of successful loan applicants reported that they applied for less than they needed because they thought their requests would be denied.

Sales may be the most recognized problem for business owners, Robb said, but “that doesn’t mean credit isn’t still a problem.”

The two-day conference will reconvene Thursday with panels scheduled to discuss entrepreneurship opportunities in urban and rural communities as well as the importance of access to capital for business innovation. The sessions will be streamed live online.