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Why Bank Lending to Small Businesses Isn’t Recovering

When you hear the words “small business lender”, you may imagine a calculator-clutching community banker who spends his time carefully scrutinizing entrepreneur’s financial statements. But increasingly these days that’s anachronistic. Banks have moved from being community-focused to being Fed-focused, and small business lending is less of a priority. That’s why if you talk to any small business owner about the biggest obstacles to their growth, it won’t take long for the conversation to turn to capital access.

In fact, about 80 percent of small business owners who apply for a bank loan get rejected. That’s a staggering number, and it’s easy to think that this is just a ripple effect of the financial crisis of 2008. After all, banks almost by definition tighten the credit spigot during a banking crisis, and there’s no question that the crash is partly responsible for the 20 percent decline in small-business lending from the pre-crisis boom. Moreover, terms on small business loans tightened during the crisis, and have loosened much less for small firms than for large firms during the recovery.

But, that’s not the whole story. The truth is that over the past two decades, small business loans have fallen from about half to under 30 percent of total bank loans. That secular decline is due to a multitude of factors, including high transaction costs of small business loans and regulators that push banks to hold more capital against business loans than consumer loans, further driving up the costs of small-business lending.

As a result, it’s increasingly difficult for small businesses to find banks willing to lend to them. One study, for example, noted that the average small business owner has to approach multiple banks and spend about three to four full days of man hours filling out applications before they can find a bank willing to lend to them. So, instead of catalyzing the recovery, bank credit markets are choking off growth and job creation for some small businesses. That’s a dangerous dynamic, and we need to arrest it.

I recently co-authored an independent Harvard Business School working paper entitled “The State of Small Business Lending: Credit Access During the Recovery and How Technology May Change the Game” that bifurcates the problem, which can be accessed here. Below we include an excerpt from the paper’s executive summary.

Excerpt from “The State of Small Business Lending: Credit Access During the Recovery and How Technology May Change the Game”

Small businesses are critical to job creation in the U.S. economy.

Small businesses create two out of every three net new jobs. Small firms employ half of the private sector workforce, and since 1995 small businesses have created about two out of every three net new jobs—65 percent of total net job creation. Most small businesses are Main Street businesses or sole proprietorships. Of America’s 28.7 million small businesses, half of all small firms are home-­based, and 23 million are sole proprietorships. The remaining 5.7 million small firms have employees, and can be divided up into Main Street mom and pop businesses, small-­and medium-­sized suppliers to larger corporations, and high-­growth startups.

Small businesses were hit harder than larger businesses during the 2008 financial crisis, and have been slower to recover from a recession of unusual depth and duration.

Small firms were hit harder than large firms during the crisis, with the smallest firms hit hardest. Between 2007 and 2012, the small business share of total net job losses was about 60 percent. From the employment peak before the recession until the last low point in March 2009, jobs at small firms fell about 11 percent. By contrast, payrolls at larger businesses shrank by about 7 percent. This disparity was even more significant among the smallest of small businesses. Jobs declined 14.1 percent in establishments with fewer than 50 employees, compared with 9.5 percent in businesses with 50 to 500 employees, while overall employment decreased 8.4 percent.

Financial crises tend to hit small firms harder than large firms. As the academic literature underscores, small firms are always hit harder during financial crises because they are more dependent on bank capital to fund their growth. Credit markets act as a “financial accelerator” for small firms, such that they feel the credit market swings up and down more acutely.

Small businesses are back to creating two out of every three net new jobs in the U.S., but there remains a significant jobs gap. Small businesses have created jobs in every quarter since 2010, and are back to creating two out of every three net new jobs. But, as Brookings data reveals, we are still well below the job creation levels that we need to see to fill the “jobs gap” left in the wake the recession.

Bank credit, particularly through term loans, is one of the primary sources of external financing for small businesses—especially Main Street firms—and is key to helping small firms maintain cash flow, hire new employees, purchase new inventory or equipment, and grow their business.

Bank loans have historically been critical for small businesses. Unlike large firms, small businesses lack access to public institutional debt and equity capital markets and the vicissitudes of small business profits makes retained earnings a necessarily less stable source of capital. About 48 percent of business owners report a major bank as their primary financing relationship, with another 34 percent noting that a regional or community bank is their main financing partner for capital.

In the current lending environment, where you sit often determines where you stand on the question of, is there a gap in access to bank credit for small businesses? Most banks say they are lending to small businesses, but major surveys of small business owners point to constrained credit markets.

Bankers say they are lending to small businesses, but have trouble finding creditworthy borrowers. Banks today say that they are increasing their lending to small businesses but that the recession has had a lingering effect on the demand from small business borrowers. In addition, bankers note the dampening effect of increased regulatory oversight on the availability of small business credit. Not only is there more regulation and higher compliance costs, there is uncertainty about how regulators view the credit characteristics of loans in their portfolios, making them less likely to make a loan based on “softer” underwriting criteria such as knowledge of the borrower from a long term relationship. Jamie Dimon, CEO and Chairman of JP Morgan Chase, noted in 2013 that, “Very few (small businesses) say, ‘I can’t get a loan.’ Sometimes they say that, and it is true. I would say that happens more in smaller towns, where smaller banks are having a hard time making loans because the examiners are all over them”.

Small businesses claim that loans are still difficult to get during the recovery. Some level of friction in small business credit markets is natural, and indicative of a financial sector working to allocate scarce resources to their most productive ends. It is also difficult to assess whether or not small firms being denied credit access are in fact creditworthy. Nonetheless, every major survey points to credit access being a problem and a top growth concern for small firms during the recovery, including national surveys conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) and regional surveys led by the Federal Reserve.

The data on the small business credit gap is limited and inconclusive, but raises troubling signs that access to bank credit for small businesses was in steady decline prior to the crisis, was hit hard during the crisis, and has continued to decline in the recovery as banks focus on more profitable market segments.

Small business lending continues to fall, while large business lending rises. In an absolute sense, small business loans on the balance sheets of banks are down about 20 percent since the financial crisis, while loans to larger businesses have risen by about 4 percent over the same period.

The banking industry in the aggregate appears increasingly less focused on small business lending. The share of small business loans of total bank loans was about 50 percent in 1995, but only about 30 percent in 2012. Moreover, small business owners report that competition among banks for their business peaked in the 2001 to 2006 period, and has sharply declined from 2006 to the present.

During the 2008 financial crisis, small businesses were less able to secure bank credit because of a ‘perfect storm’ of falling sales, weakened collateral and risk aversion among lenders. There are some lingering cyclical factors from the crisis that may still be constraining access to bank credit.

Small business sales were hit hard during the crisis and may still be soft, undermining their demand for loan capital. Income of the typical household headed by a self-­employed person declined 19 percent in real terms between 2007 and 2010, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances. And, the NFIB survey notes that small businesses reported sales as their number one problem for four straight years during the crisis and subsequent recovery.

Collateral owned by small businesses was hit hard during the financial crisis, potentially making small business borrowers less creditworthy today. Small business credit scores are lower now than before the Great Recession. The Federal Reserve’s 2003 Survey of Small Business Finances indicated that the average PAYDEX score of those surveyed was 53.4. By contrast, the 2011 NFIB Annual Small Business Finance Survey indicated that the average small company surveyed had a PAYDEX score of 44.7. Moreover, the values of both commercial and residential real estate which represent two-­thirds of the assets of small business owners, and are often used as collateral for small business loans, were hit hard during the financial crisis.

Banks are more risk averse in the recovery. Measures of tightening on loan terms including

the Federal Reserve Senior Loan Officer Survey, increased at double-­digit rates during the recession and recovery for small businesses, and have loosened at just single-­digit rates over the past several quarters. Loosening has been much slower and more tentative for small firms than for large firms.

Community bank failures increased and few new banks have started up. Troubled and failed banks reached levels not seen since the Great Depression during the financial crisis of 2008, with the failures consisting mostly of community banks—the most likely institutions to lend to small firms. This environment—where troubled local banks appear unable to meet re-­emerging small firm credit needs—would be an ideal market for new banks to emerge, but new charters are down to a trickle. A year recently went by with no new bank charters—the first time in 80-­year history of the FDIC.

Regulatory overhang may be hurting small business lending. Banks continue to raise capital levels to appease risk averse bank examiners and other regulators post-­‐‑crisis, undermining their ability to underwrite small business loans, which are inherently riskier than consumer and large business lending. Federal Reserve economists have recently modeled that additional regulatory burdens are forcing banks to hire additional full-­‐‑ time employees focused on oversight and enforcement, which can hurt the return on assets of some community banks by as much as 40 basis points. Moreover, other studies have found that an elevated level of supervisory stringency during the most recent recession is likely to have a statistically significant impact on total loans and loan capacity for several years—approximately 20 quarters—after the onset of the tighter supervisory standards.

There also appear to be structural barriers that are impeding bank lending to small businesses, including consolidation of the banking industry, high search costs and higher transaction costs associated with small business lending.

A decades-­long trend toward consolidation of banking assets in fewer institutions is eliminating a key source of capital for small firms. Community banks are being consolidated by big banks, with the number of community banks falling to less than 7,000 today, down from over 14,000 in the mid-­1980s, while average bank assets continues to rise. This trend was exacerbated by the financial crisis. The top 106 banks with greater than $10 billion in assets held 80 percent of the nation’s $14 trillion in financial assets in 2012, up from 116 firms with 69 percent of $13 trillion in assets in 2007.

Search costs in small business lending are high, for both borrowers and lenders. It is difficult for qualified borrowers to find willing lenders, and vice versa. Federal Reserve research finds that small business borrowers often spend almost 25 hours on paperwork for bank loans and approach multiple banks during the application process. Successful applicants wait weeks or, in some cases, a month or more for the funds to actually be approved and available. Some banks are even refusing to lend to businesses within particular industries (for example, restaurants) or below revenue thresholds of $2 million.

Small business loans, often defined as business loans below $1 million, are considerably less profitable than large business loans.

  • Small business lending is riskier than large business lending. Small businesses are much more sensitive to swings in the economy, have higher failure rates, and have fewer assets to collateralize the loan.
  • Assessing creditworthiness of small businesses can be difficult due to information asymmetry. Little, if any, public information exists about the performance of most small businesses because they rarely issue publicly trade equity or debt securities. Many small businesses also lack detailed balance sheets, use sparse tax returns and keep inadequate income statements. Community banks have traditionally placed greater emphasis on relationships with borrowers in their underwriting processes, but these relationships are expensive and have not in the past translated well to automated methods for assessing creditworthiness, which are favored by larger banks.
  • Costs of underwriting small business lending are also high due to heterogeneity of small businesses and lack of a secondary market. Heterogeneity of small firms, together with widely varying uses of borrowed funds, have impeded development of general standards for assessing applicants for small business loans and have increased costs of evaluating such loans. Moreover, the heterogeneity of small business loans has made it difficult to securitize and sell pools of small business loans in the secondary market.
  • Transaction costs to process a $100,000 loan are comparable to a $1 million loan, but with less profit. As a result, banks are less likely to engage in lending at the smallest dollar level. Some banks, particularly larger banks, have significantly reduced or eliminated loans below a certain threshold, typically $100,000 or $250,000, or simply will not lend to small businesses with revenue of less than $2 million, as a way to limit time-consuming applications from small businesses. This is problematic as over half of small businesses surveyed are seeking loans of under $100,000, leaving a critical gap in the small business loan market. Often times, the biggest banks refer small businesses below such revenue thresholds or seeking such low dollar loans to their small business credit card products, which earn higher yields.

Brayden McCarthy

Brayden McCarthy is Head of Policy & Advocacy at Fundera. He was previously a presidential appointee in the Obama administration, where he served as Senior Policy Advisor in the West Wing Office of the White House National Economic Council and the U.S. Small Business Administration.