Saturday, January 31, 2009

Broke Banks

If ever there was an industry that needs some positive public relations, it is banking. Bank failures have become common place. In Georgia, for example, there have been five bank failures in the last five months and the hits just keep on coming. Another fifteen banks are expected to go under this year, more than twice the number that collapsed there during the savings and loan crisis twenty years ago. Until last year, California had seen only 3 bank failures during the previous decade – in 1999, 2000 and 2003. According to the FDIC, California suffered 5 bank failures in 2008 alone.

Banking is a highly regulated business. Despite news commentaries that bankers got greedy as banks were deregulated and became corrupt, bank consumers have protection. In the recent case of IndyMac Bank, the third-largest bank to fail in American history, a run on deposits and rising defaults made Federal regulators seize it.

The mortgage loan portion of the banking business earned derision for being lax and, in some cases, predatory in its lending practices. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says that a sustained economic recovery may require additional bailouts of financial institutions. However, the business loan portion of banking has become the collateral casualty that threatens the country’s economic recovery.

As a business management consultant experienced in dealing with bankers on behalf of my clients, it is clear to me that business loan criteria are in flux. Even clients with excellent credit, strong assets and positive history are being denied new loans and are incurring decreased credit lines. New financing does not seem to be happening. Does that mean banks are not lending money to small businesses? They say that they are but that assertion is inconsistent with my clients’ are experiences.

Banks make money by selling the use of money, right? “If the borrower provides the bank with both a belt and a pair of suspenders,” Joe Nocera wrote in the New York Times, “the loan is being granted.” However, “[i]n addition to not making new loans, the banks are systematically withdrawing commitments and capital from the economy.”

So what about the Economic Stimulus Package of 2008? It is about tax breaks for businesses that spent money on property and vehicles last year while their credit lines were getting trashed. According to the Package’s press release, “This new legislation will not only benefit small businesses in a variety of ways, but it will also provide an economic boost to the entire nation.” Bold words in that generalization do not change the fact that “there are exceptions and additional requirements.” Tax credits for small businesses that create jobs sound fine, but it takes money to make the payroll to pay for the jobs to qualify for the tax credits.

Bank accountability is about to change with the new administration. Specifically, the government might force banks to make loans they would otherwise avoid. It is certain that the Obama administration wants to avoid more stupidity, such as those of the Bush Treasury secretary, Henry Paulson “who sold Congress on an elaborate strategy for shoring up banks and then shifted to an entirely different approach before he even got started.”

Meanwhile, forces for the benefit of small business—the largest aggregate employer in the United States -- are seeking the administration’s ear. The National Development Council wants a $75 billion small business stimulus package and a Cabinet-level position to coordinate federal resources for small businesses. Additionally, the National Small Business Association is seeking congress’s ear, asking for 25 percent of TARP funds to be aimed at small business lending and a mandate that 23 percent of stimulus infrastructure funds be contracted out to small businesses. Both are debatable requests.

Small business needs direct financial help to grow our pillaged economy and to create the jobs promised by the new administration. Tax credits alone cannot make job growth happen. The new congress and administration need to hear from us. We will have to make prosperity happen. They will have to help us.

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