Small business loans: $10 billion evaporates

Reports to the Treasury confirm what small business owners have known all year: Banks are cutting back on Main Street lending.

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By Catherine Clifford, CNNMoney.com staff reporter

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Ingrid Brown co-owns several retail stores in Auburn, Ala., with her husband Frank. They've had little luck landing the loans they need to grow.
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This is the stack of paperwork the Browns filled out for their ARC loan. They got $14,000, less than half of what they applied for.
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With bank lending to small businesses nearly frozen, these 8 entrepreneurs are among the thousands fighting for the credit lines and loans they need to keep their companies alive.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Eight months after President Obama began prodding the nation's banks to increase their small business lending, the loan numbers continue to move in the opposite direction.

The 22 banks that got the most help from the Treasury's bailout programs cut their small business loan balances by a collective $10.5 billion over the past six months, according to a government report released Monday.

Three of the 22 banks make no small business loans at all. Of the remaining 19 banks, 15 have reduced their small business loan balance since April, when the Treasury department began requiring the biggest banks receiving Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funding to report monthly on their small business lending.

Over the six months that the reporting requirement has been in effect, the banks have cut their collective small business lending by 4%. Their cumulative balance stood at $258.7 billion as of Sept. 30, according to a Treasury Department report.

The bank with the biggest lending drop was Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500), which cut its loan balances by $3 billion. However, Wells Fargo also remains by far the biggest small business lender, with $73.8 billion lent out to small companies. No other bank comes close to that tally.

Some banks are unapologetic about their cutbacks. Small business defaults are soaring, and banks are under pressure to shore up their balance sheets and reduce their exposure to risky loans. Two key small business lenders, CIT Group and Advanta, filed for bankruptcy this month.

But other banks downplay their dwindling loan numbers.

JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500) made headlines last week by announcing that it would increase its small business lending by $4 billion this year. But there's no sign of an increase so far in the reports the bank has been filing to the Treasury. JPMorgan's small business lending total has declined every month since April, falling 2.5% over the period. As of Sept. 30, the balance stood at $25.4 billion, down $664 million from six months ago.

JPMorgan spokesman Tom Kelly said the bank will ramp up its lending as the economy improves. The bank is already starting to see healthier, better-qualified applicants, he said: "Some of the businesses are better than they were six months ago."

He also pointed to JPMorgan's recent move to hire additional small business specialists. "We are going to have 325 more bankers talking to customers, so that means there is going to be more applicants for loans," Kelly said. "We have 325 more people knocking on doors."

Credit crunch: Obama administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Small Business Administration head Karen Mills, will host a forum Wednesday in Washington to discuss the lending challenges small businesses face. Bankers, members of Congress, and a selection of small business owners will participate.

While credit conditions have improved in some parts of the financial system, lending remains very tight for businesses that rely on banks for their financing, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged on Monday.

"Many small businesses have seen their bank credit lines reduced or eliminated, or they have been able to obtain credit only on significantly more restrictive terms," Bernanke said in a speech at the Economic Club of New York. "The fraction of small businesses reporting difficulty in obtaining credit is near a record high, and many of these businesses expect credit conditions to tighten further."

Those in the field back that view. Susan Carlson is president of The International Center for Assistance, a nonprofit organization in Richmond, Va., that assists small businesses seeking capital. Lenders remain very skittish, she said.

"They will look at me and say, 'Susan, we would love to help you, but right now we can't take the risk,'" she said.

Jobs on the line: Frank and Ingrid Brown are a prime example of what happens when entrepreneurs can't get financing. The couple would like to expand their businesses in Auburn, Ala., which currently employ 20 people, but can't land the loan they'd need to do it.

The Browns own two retail art and gift shops, The Villager and AuburnArt.com, as well as a collection of online stores. First they applied at the bank for a loan targeting businesses in underutilized urban areas, but were denied because their sales exceeded the cap for the loan. So they applied with the bank for a Small Business Administration-backed 7(a) loan, but were again rejected.

Next the Browns turned to the America's Recovery Capital (ARC) loan program, a stimulus measure launched this year to get government-backed bridge loans to struggling but viable businesses. After filling out mountains of paperwork, the couple got a bank loan for $14,000 -- less than half the $35,000 they applied for.

"We couldn't get any answers for why we didn't get the full amount, but that is what they came up with. It was kind of like 'take it or leave it,'" Frank said. "By the time you get through everything, it is not even worth it."

The Browns also applied at their local bank, BBVA Compass in Birmingham, for a $50,000 credit line. They were approved for $10,000.

The frustration is taking its toll. "People like us go out and hire people," Frank said. But without the capital it needs to grow, The Villager isn't bringing on new staffers.

That's the nightmare scenario for policymakers as they try to fan the flames of the nation's fragile economic recovery. As long as bank vaults stay slammed shut, fewer startups will launch, successful businesses will have trouble expanding, and struggling businesses are more likely to fail.

"Difficulties in obtaining credit could hinder the expansion of small and medium-sized businesses and prevent the formation of new businesses," Bernanke said on Monday. "Because smaller businesses account for a significant portion of net employment gains during recoveries, limited credit could hinder job growth." To top of page

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