No doubt, the lending environment has changed since 2007. Local bankers from the South Florida market discussed some of those changes at a roundtable event held last month at the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed. The discussion focused on small business lending activity and how the outlook and behavior of small business owners have evolved since the recession.
The bankers said they have a strong appetite for what they termed "qualified" small business loans and noted that they were competing against each other for good opportunities. This environment has helped put pressure on financial institutions to provide competitive loan terms for small business owners seeking credit. Most of the banks indicated that small business lending was part of a diversification strategy and an important component of their business. In a quarterly senior loan officer opinion survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board in the second quarter of 2014, loan officers reported easing lending standards and some improvement in small business loan demand relative to a year before (see the chart).
The roundtable attendees agreed with the survey's findings and noted that the pool of qualified borrowers is currently limited but may expand as banks continue to review their underwriting standards in an improving economic environment.
Although all of the participating bankers were actively engaged in making small business loans, they did indicate that businesses were generally hesitant to take on additional debt and in general were behaving very conservatively. In discussing why business owners were taking on less risk, it was noted that the effects of the recession were still fresh, and most of the bankers felt that uncertainty about the future weighed on the minds of business owners. In addition, findings from the Atlanta Fed's survey of business inflation expectations indicate that business activity for smaller companies is improving but remains below normal levels (see the chart). One banker noted that rising interest rates would indicate to business owners that the economy was strengthening and that rising rates may, in fact, prompt further borrowing.
Credit qualification often ultimately comes down to the fundamentals. From a credit perspective, the bankers indicated that they heavily rely on the "five C's" of credit to help evaluate loan applicants: character, capacity, credit, collateral, and capital. The roundtable participants described "character" as one of the most important variables when they consider a request. Companies that weathered the recession were viewed more favorably because it demonstrated the ability to manage a business through difficult times. An owner who has personal credit issues will generally imply potential problems in managing the financial aspect of a business. The bankers cited adequate cash flow and a good balance sheet as important credit qualifications. The lenders noted that they also analyze how businesses position their balance sheets and expenses incurred by the company not related to the business.
Overall, the sentiment among the bankers at the meeting was positive, and for the remainder of the year, they expect continued improvement in lending to small businesses.
By Karen Gilmore, a vice president and the regional executive at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch, and Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst, also at the Miami Branch