It’s time to dial down all the fuss about SBA loans.
First, there are the reports about increases in SBA loan dollar volume, thanks to the stimulus bill. For example, according to the SBA, over a period of about a year, average weekly loan dollar volumes increased more than 90 percent in the two most popular programs, 7(a) and 504, from the average before the passage of the stimulus bill. 7(a) loans can be used for such purposes as working capital and the purchase of equipment, while 504 provides long-term, fixed-rate financing for buying real estate and other fixed assets used for expansion or modernization.
But, a recent analysis by Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve, shows this conclusion should be taken with a big pitcher of salt. According to Shane, the level of growth is only impressive when compared to the previous year’s poor results. That is, in 2009, the volume was about $180,000,000. So, the approximately $300,000,000 for the first 27 weeks of the 2010 fiscal year represents a big jump. But compared to, say, 2006 and 2007, it’s about the same.
Then, there’s the more important matter of just how many small businesses get SBA loans in the first place. The answer is: Not many. Take the 7(a) program, which comprises 90 percent of SBA loans. According to Shane, last year, less than one percent of small businesses with employees received one of these babies. If you look at non-employer businesses, which comprise the majority of all small companies, their share was between one tenth and one twentieth of one percent–about 50,000 small businesses out of 29.6 million.
Of course, 2009 was a lousy year. But, the data still suggests that all the attention being given to the SBA-loan program may not be warranted. That, in turn, has some pretty serious implications for government policy. Those businesses that got SBA loans undoubtedly were helped, possibly increasing their sales and, perhaps, their hiring. But, to reach more companies, the programs just aren’t enough. Another approach is needed to help the vast majority of businesses that don’t use these loans at all.
With all the news about President Obama’s proposals to increase bank lending to small business, there’s one obvious question that needs to be addressed: Why not have the Small Business Administration take a more aggressive role? Why not allow the agency to lend directly to small businesses?
The issue came up at a recent hearing held by the House Financial Services and Small Business Committees.
Turns out, the Small Business Act creating the SBA allows the agency to do direct financing of companies, as the You’re the Boss blog recently pointed out. And through at least the 1980’s, they did so, lending to companies rejected by banks.
Plus, in the past year, the Senate has introduced legislation to help the SBA make direct loans. And the House has passed two bills creating programs aimed at direct lending. That legislation would create a program which would exist only in a recession, through which the SBA would help small businesses fill out loan applications. Then, if no bank were willing to lend, the agency would step in.
But the Obama administration is against any and all such proposals. The reasons: 1) The agency doesn’t have the staff or the resources; 2) It would take as long as a year to get such a program up and running; 3) Administrative costs would be in the billions of dollars; and 4) Historically, SBA direct loans have had higher cumulative loss rates than other SBA-backed loans.
Those, in fact, are pretty convincing arguments.
It might just be that, while it sounds good on paper to give the SBA the power to lend directly, the reality is very different. Sure, drastic action is needed to increase bank lending. But this one might be thoroughly impractical.
The bottom line: Ultimately, it’s bankers who probably are more qualified than anyone at the SBA to make these decisions. In a time of scarce government resources and a need for fast action, the most efficient approach is for the SBA to do whatever it can to encourage banks to lend.
Of course, whether the steps proposed by the Obama administration are likely to do that is the $64,000 question.