Like most of us, I have no doubt at all that you've been hearing for months about the way the current credit crunch is really hurting small businesses. In fact, if you listen to some of the pundits, small business owners don't have any problems with the economy that a loan or two wouldn't solve.
Without getting into the relative merits of that opinion, you might be wondering by now just how hard it is for a small business owner to get a loan or a line of credit right now.
The answer depends on who you ask. So, let's paint the picture.
Thanks in part to the collapse of the housing market and, in greater part, to the collapse of the financial services market, underwriting standards of all kinds have tightened, making it more difficult for almost everybody to get a loan.
In that sort of situation, the Small Business Administration is supposed to come to the rescue with its portfolio of guaranteed loan programs.
But that's not what has happened; just yesterday, the SBA Office of Advocacy's chief economist, Dr. Chad Moutray, told a group of business women meeting in Washington that SBA loan volume was down a whopping 57% for the first four months of fiscal 2009.
In short, according to the numbers the banks aren't lending. That is largely what the policy makers are yelling about.
On the other hand, not all banks rely on the secondary market to replenish their loan funds and not all of them were trading in exotic financial instruments, either. Independent community banks make 20% of the nation's small business loans, even though they amount to only 12% of the nation's banks, according to the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).
And they are in surprisingly good shape right now. "While community banks did not cause the current turmoil, they are well-positioned and willing to get our economy back on track," ICBA chief economist Paul Merski told the House Small Business Committee earlier this year.
For that matter, not all the entities that make loans to small businesses are banks. The usually very low-key microenterprise development industry, comprised primarily of small non-profit outfits modeled on the successful Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, has suddenly found itself in the spotlight.
According to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), the microenterprise development industry trade organization, demand for microcredit has increased "dramatically" over the past year.
Then, too, there are a lot of small business owners that don't use bank loans or SBA loans or even bank lines of credit to cover their capital or cash flow needs. They turn instead to personal savings and to credit cards.
Which brings us to the next chapter of Tales of the Credit Crunch: Plastic.
We have all heard horror stories about small business owners who have had their credit card accounts abruptly canceled or their lines of credit suddenly and substantially reduced. But just how often is that sort of thing happening?
According to Treasury Department survey data, we know that banks have tightened both commercial and consumer credit. Information on small business credit card usage is sketchy but it is worth noting that consumer revolving credit was down by 5.4% in the fourth quarter of last year. Since we also know that many small business owners also use personal credit cards for their business needs, it looks like there may be a grain of truth to tales of limits on plastic.
So, where does that leave us? Possibly not as badly off as it seems. Previous research from the SBA Office of Advocacy has found that small business owners don't respond to stimulative monetary policy (reduced interest rates) by dashing out and borrowing to take advantage of cheaper credit.
The data show that, instead, they tend to interpret that low-cost borrowing in the context of the broader economy and to decide that, if the economy stinks, they could do worse than to batten down the hatches and until things are better before they seek expansion or working capital, no matter how low interest rates fall.
That may be what we're seeing among small business owners right now.
Perhaps the most interesting factoid about the small business credit situation, and the one you hear the least about, is that many small business owners don't seem to want a loan right now. According the U.S. Department of the Treasury, small business loan demand was down by 63% in the fourth quarter of last year.
It could be that small business owners have surveyed the situation and decided to lay low and borrow nuffin'. That would be consistent with their previous behavior and makes a certain kind of sense.
If that is indeed the case, then 2009 is likely to be remembered as the Year of the Bootstrapper.
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About the Author: Dawn Rivers Baker, an award-winning small business journalist, regularly reports and analyzes small business policy and research as the editor and publisher of The MicroEnterprise Journal. She also blogs at The Journal Blog.