Small Business Finance – The Next Big Banking Problem?

For the past year, most banks and lenders have been subject to both disastrous operating results and negative publicity. Actual commercial lending activity reported by banks conflicts with the usual attempt by politicians and bankers to portray banks as normal and healthy. Most bank financial results have been disappointing after working hard to solve massive residential loan problems. It is reasonable to ask if commercial banking has more potential disasters about to emerge based on what has been seen and reported so far.

Based on a number of business financing statistics, commercial lending to small businesses is already on life support. In many cases, without government bailouts many commercial banks would have already failed. As bad as that perspective might sound, this report will provide an even more negative outlook for the future of small business finance programs. Unfortunately for banks and lenders, it does appear that business loans will be the next big problem.

During the past year or so, several banking problems have received significant publicity. The largely avoidable difficulties were primarily tied to increasing home foreclosures which in turn caused various investments tied to home loans to decrease in value. Such investments lost value so rapidly that they became known as toxic assets. When banks stopped making many loans (including small business financing), the federal government provided bailout funding to many banks to enable them to keep operating. While most observers would argue that the bailouts were made with the implicit understanding that bank lending would resume in some normal fashion, the banks seem to be hoarding these taxpayer-provided funds for a rainy day. By almost any objective standard, commercial lending activities have all but abandoned small business finance needs.

Small business financing appears to already look like the next big problem based on commercial finance statistics recently released by many banks. The general decline in commercial real estate values during the past several years is a major factor in this conclusion. Because many large commercial real estate owners could not make their commercial mortgage loan payments or refinance business debt, this has resulted in some significant bankruptcies. The resulting bank losses are clearly having an impact now on commercial lending to small business owners even though these difficulties were primarily happening with large real estate owners and did not usually involve small businesses.

Bank losses on large commercial real estate loans have caused many banks to reduce or stop their small business financing activities, and this has clear similarities to the earlier situation of residential mortgage loan toxic assets causing banks to stop normal lending because of capital shortages. The bank losses from large commercial property investors are producing a ripple effect that has caused small business financing to effectively disappear until further notice. While small business owners did not cause this problem, they are suffering the immediate consequences when banks are unable or unwilling to provide normal levels of commercial financing to them. This bad situation is made even worse when we learn that many banks are hoarding cash and approving fewer commercial loans to allow them to quickly pay bailout funds back to the federal government. The primary logic for this approach is that it will allow banks to resume excessive bonuses and compensation to their executives.

Unfortunately one problem will lead to another, as is common with complex circumstances. The failure to obtain normal business financing will most likely lead to an increasing number of commercial loan defaults by small businesses. Prudent business owners should begin to take action now in a timely manner to avoid such negative consequences. The most serious small business finance problems can be anticipated and avoided with appropriate action.

Even if they do nothing else, business owners should have a straightforward conversation with a small business finance expert to assess how exposed their business might be to the brewing commercial banking problems. If recent events are any indication, the banks themselves will not be very forthcoming about problems with their commercial lending practices. For many small businesses, the most objective business financing expert is not likely to be their current banker. To increase the chances that they receive sufficient small business loans in the face of ongoing lending problems, a healthy amount of skepticism and caution will be helpful for business owners.