President Barack Obama has signed a bill that aims to increase small business lending. But it’s not exactly popular among Arizona’s small companies and community banks. They question whether a multibillion-dollar loan fund created by the legislation will achieve its goal.
The Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010 will establish a $30 billion Small Business Lending Fund within the U.S. Treasury. The Treasury will use that money to purchase preferred shares in small- to medium-size banks that voluntarily participate in the program, injecting new capital that the banks would be encouraged to lend to small businesses. The more loans the banks make, the lower the dividend rate they pay the Treasury.
“As a small business owner, I am allergic to government intervention,” says Charlie O’Dowd, president of Westcap Solar, a Tucson company that sells and installs solar photovoltaic and solar hot-water systems. “I don’t think that this legislation is going to be any more effective than the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) legislation. In this economy, it’s not that there isn’t money to be borrowed. It’s qualifying for the loan that’s the problem.”
The new law also gives John P. Lewis a bad taste in his mouth. Lewis is president and CEO of Southern Arizona Community Bank in Tucson, and a member of the FDIC’s Advisory Committee On Community Banking.
“Last January, the committee had a robust discussion (on the legislation),” Lewis says. “The committee said, ‘We don’t want to be a part of this.’ Community banks don’t need the additional capital. I have more money than I know what to do with. I need qualified borrowers.”
O’Dowd and Lewis describe a situation that is frustrating for both and that neither believes government policy will resolve. O’Dowd says small businesses’ sales are slow, impacting their ability to qualify for loans. Lewis says his loan demand is flat because there are fewer qualified borrowers.
The Arizona Small Business Association points to a wary small business community that’s in no mood to take on more debt. Earlier in the recession, small businesses tried in vain to obtain bank loans, but now they are in survival mode, says Donna Davis, the association’s CEO.
“Bank loans are not at the top of their list now,” Davis says. “Some businesses have lending fatigue. They just gave up (trying to get loans). Now they are focused on lack of sales. If sales don’t pick up, if work doesn’t pick up, they won’t seek credit. If they can boost sales and profits, then they can justify hiring and expanding.”
One outside observer sees a triumvirate of doubt that the legislation will not mitigate. Dennis Hoffman, professor of economics at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, says this recession has caused consumers, businesses and banks to lose their confidence. Lacking the good credit risk they saw five years ago, banks have “pulled in their oars,” Hoffman says. Creditworthy businesses fret so much over the economy, they don’t even apply for loans. Recession-scarred consumers remain stingy.
“We need to climb this wall of worry to get out of this morass,” Hoffman says. “This is a market-based, private-sector issue that will have to work itself out.”
Gail Grace, president and CEO of Sunrise Bank of Arizona headquartered in Phoenix, doesn’t sense much support for the legislation among Arizona’s banks, and wonders how many community banks would be able to participate.
“Community banks in Arizona are stressed and many may not even qualify for this program,” Grace says. “You will still have to have a fairly healthy bank to qualify for this.”
Not everyone has a dim view of the law. Robert Blaney, Arizona’s Small Business Administration district director, notes that the law will increase the SBA’s loan guarantee from 75 percent to 90 percent, easing banks’ risk on those loans. The law also will lower fees and raise the SBA’s maximum loan amount from $2 million to $5 million. There are thousands of small business owners nationwide that were waiting for the lending bill to become law, Blaney says.
One of those is Benefits By Design, a Tempe company that sets up health benefit plans for small businesses. The company’s president, Kristine Kassel, says there is a need for loans and it would be helpful if just two community banks expanded their small business lending. She adds that any amount of new credit that can be extended to small businesses is a good thing.
Banks interested in acquiring low-cost capital might be attracted to the Treasury fund and they might be enticed by the built-in incentives to direct new-found capital into small business lending, says Dan Stewart, Arizona market president for Mutual of Omaha.
But then he echoes what others say: “The (law) doesn’t encourage banks to take on more credit risk, so qualified borrowers are the key.”
By the Numbers
The Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010
- Establishes a $30 billion Small Business Lending Fund within the U.S. Treasury
- Treasury will use money to purchase preferred shares in small- to medium-size banks that voluntarily participate in the program
- SBA’s loan guarantee would increase from 75 percent to 90 percent
- The SBA’s maximum loan amount would increase from $2 million to $5 million