Does the Obama administration care about small-business credit? It certainly says it does. A typical press release from the Treasury Department avows as much.
But is this for real? Or it this simply rhetoric? As a business banker, I sit in my office each day and deal with small business owners, which I define as those with annual revenue up to $10 million, but often less than $1 million. I see their worried faces as they come into the bank, letter in hand, wondering why their credit lines were frozen. These people need help, and so far as I can tell, they’re not getting it from the administration.
I took a random sampling of approximately 360 lines that received letters similar to the one described in the Business Week article. These 360 accounts represented $20 million in potential money loaned out, which actually owed just over $12 million. About seventy accounts had no balances outstanding and represented $4 million in potential credit. This particular bank (and I’m sorry I can’t identify it for our readers) froze all these lines to any further draws, with an intent to term them out. Based on this sampling, the average credit facility was just over $50,000.
At first glance, these numbers don’t appear devastating, especially when the new buzz words being bandied about are in the billions and trillions. But my sampling is just a drop in the bucket. Imagine that this is happening not to 360 businesses but to 36,000 businesses in one bank. That results in $2 billion in cancelled credit lines. Now imagine that each of the five largest banks (and I’m being gracious) have taken similar action, resulting in the systematic cancellation of 180,000 lines. That would mean that more than $20 billion of working capital has been taken away from the U.S. small business community. I personally believe that the results are much larger than even this.
I understand the need for all banks to recognize the quality or deterioration of loans they hold on their books and their need to effectively reserve for losses, particularly in these trying economic times. But it has been my experience that many of these borrowers never even missed a payment and have met their commitments as agreed.
And what about the prospect of converting credit lines to term loans? Business Week points out, “Business owners who accept the conversion to a term loan will likely see dramatically higher monthly payments.” Once again, a good point; and once again, a drastic understatement. Working capital lines of credit often have monthly payments equal to interest only. They may, in some cases, carry a minimum principal payment equal to 1% of the outstanding loan amount (it depends on the bank and their rules under the original loan agreement).
Take a $50,000 loan at a rate of Prime +2%. Under the interest-only scenario, the monthly payment would be $218.75. If a principal payment of 1% is required, the monthly payment would be $718.75. However, the same $50,000 loan termed out over five years (and with an increase in rate to between 7.5% and 10%) would now carry a monthly payment of just over $1000! So the end result of converting lines to term loans is that the banks have increased the monthly payments for the small business owner by at least 40% across the board while cancelling their access to future working capital.
Let me make this clear to President Obama. Not only are the banks not making business loans to small business owners, they are systematically withdrawing billions of dollars in credit lines from the small business market.
While our president is rallying our Congressional leaders in support of his positions on credit card reform–reform that is likely to exempt small business owners, by the way–he may want to share these observations from the front lines of the banking world so that our leaders can begin to understand and focus their efforts on protecting our nation’s small business community.