Today's Fed and Treasury Action Could Actually Jump-Start Small Business Lending

Today's Fed and Treasury Action Could Actually Jump-Start Small Business Lending

I don’t often write about government policies that I like. It’s not that I’m crabby; it’s because they are so scarce. But today I will make an exception. Today, the Fed and the Treasury, along with several other financial regulators, correctly identified the cause of the small business lending problem–themselves–and took steps to fix it. It’s about time.

Today the financial regulators passed the grown man test by “manning up” to what we have known all along; banks have been effectively redlining loans to small businesses due to fears of regulatory reprisal. You can read the statement by clicking here.

They have made a start at addressing the problem by instructing banks to look at the health of the borrower, rather than computer models, when assessing loans. And they have gone on record that banks who do their homework and make loans to healthy small businesses will not be subject to criticism from the regulators.

The purpose of the directive is “to ensure that supervisory policies and actions do not inadvertently curtail the availability of credit to sound small business borrowers.”

minus $300B in loans last 12 months

Banks have loaned U.S. small businesses minus $300B over the past 12 months

As you can see from the chart above showing bank lending to business borrowers. it would have been helpful if they had started ensuring that this wouldn’t happen 15 months ago when banks slammed their doors shut for business borrowers. But let’s not quibble. I’m happy they are taking action now.

Longtime readers will know that I believe non-price credit rationing to be the principal trigger for downturns in employment. It happens when regulators get over-zealous and lay their heavy hands on lending standards. I called it a credit crunch in a series of articles I wrote for the Wall Street Journal in the early 1990’s and again in 2001, which prompted a vicious response from the then Comptroller of the Currency, who denied it ever happens. The fact is, business customers don’t decide how much money to borrow based upon the interest rate; it’s the availability of credit that matters.

This time around, non-price credit rationing has fallen especially hard on small businesses–the source of almost all new jobs. In the dotcom bust, only 15% of the drop in loans hit small businesses. This time it is almost half.

The facts are simple. Employment can’t increase until small businesses can borrow the money to meet payroll. Today’s step just might be a nudge to make that happen.

Bravo to the regulators for taking steps to fix the problem they created in the first place. Now it’s time for banks, large and small, to respond to this statement by giving small business owners the loans they need to do what they always do best–make more jobs for people who want to work.


John Rutledge


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