Lending drought impairs small businesses

Robert Stopanio’s new medical-device manufacturing plant was supposed to open eight months ago and employ about 75 workers in a state that desperately needs jobs. But Stopanio hasn’t been able to find the financing.

While the federal government pours billions of stimulus dollars into the economy and bails out some of the country’s biggest banks, local businesses say they are ready to grow ? if only they could get a loan.

“I am a growth mongrel, I love growth. But there is no money. There is no working capital,” said Stopanio, the owner of Scorpion Performance of Fort Lauderdale.

Instead, Scorpion is building its new Ocala plant from the profits it pulls in from its primary business making high-end automotive parts.

“We have to build as we earn,” Stopanio said. With a little luck the new plant will be open by Christmas.

Commercial and industrial lending across the United States fell 8 percent from December through June, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and the lending drought has hit small business even harder.

The Small Business Administration, which encourages commercial lending by providing banks with hefty guarantees, said total loan volume was down 70 percent in Miami and 64 percent in Broward County, Fla., during fiscal year 2009, which ended in September.

The agency has been trying to spur lending by providing 90 percent guarantees on some loans, but there’s only so much the government can do, said SBA spokeswoman Hayley Matz.

“We can guarantee the loans, but we need the institutions to make the loans,” she said. The agency has been pushing small community banks to take up the slack and is asking Congress to raise SBA loan limits and allow the agency to back more loans.

President Barack Obama has acknowledged that the recovery is being jeopardized by the credit crunch and has asked Treasury and the SBA to meet with business leaders to craft a solution.

The issue is a prickly one for the administration, which is being tarred for pumping billions into banks even as some of those institutions are turning off the taps.

For years Bank of America was one of South Florida’s largest SBA lenders. And the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have put $45 billion into the institution to prop it up since the financial crisis began.

But during fiscal year 2009, the bank granted only $3 million worth of working capital 7(a) loans in the SBA South Florida District. That’s an 86 percent decline from the previous year. Part of the drop is due to tighter lending standards and the bank’s need to remix its loan portfolio, said bank spokesman Don Vecchiarello. But he also attributed the decline to flagging demand.

“Small businesses are concerned about taking on more debt, and many have decided to control their costs,” Vecchiarello said. “In addition, declining economic conditions have impacted small businesses’ ability to get credit.”

Ken Thomas, a Miami banking analyst, said demand is down but banks are also reluctant to extend loans. “A lot of banks had a lot of problems with past loans and they don’t want to make new loans right now,” he said.

Bank of America isn’t alone in scaling back lending. Of the 133 SBA lenders in South Florida District, 71 cut their 7(a) lending by double-digit percentages in fiscal 2009.

Rafael Cruz, the head of the Small Business Development Center in Broward County, said even solid companies with 10- to 15-year track records are getting denied. “These are companies that are moving, selling stuff, paying bills and need access to a line of credit to get over the hump and start rolling again,” he said. “But it has become impossible for small businesses to get loans.”

Ann Fierro is the chief executive of Fort Lauderdale-based Omega Technology Solutions, which produces software used to audit hospital billing. Just days after Bank of America received its first $25 billion from the federal government, Fierro said the bank froze Omega’s $1 million line of credit. When she started covering operating expenses on her personal credit card, Bank of America canceled her cards and began holding all deposits to the company for 10 working days. Fierro said neither she nor Omega had ever been late on a payment and her customers ? all hospitals ? had never bounced a check. “It froze us in place,” Fierro said. “We could only do what we could pay for.”

Omega eventually found another bank, but Fierro said the cash crunch has slowed it down and put new product development on hold.

Bank of America said it would not comment on individual cases.

While there are multiple state and federal initiatives to try to jump-start business lending, that’s only part of the equation, said Jim Swift, the chief executive of Cortera, a Boca Raton-based firm that helps business owners assess customer credit risk.

Cortera research has found that small businesses are 25 percent slower in paying their suppliers and other companies than they were a year ago. This gumming up of trade credit, as it’s known, could be a major obstacle to a recovery, Swift said. “We gave all the money to the banks with the hope that they would extend more credit and there is not a lot of evidence they did,” he said. If the government pours money into small businesses and they don’t speed up their trade credit, it would dampen the government’s efforts.

“The whole idea of business lending is to free up money,” Swift said. “You have to get the money flowing.”

Banco Popular of North America, another traditional SBA lender, cut its volume of 7(a) loans in the South Florida District by 93 percent from fiscal year 2008 to 2009. Like Bank of America, Banco Popular said the decline was largely due to lack of demand. But the bank said it is also going back to basics, spending more time with individual clients and trying to create long-term relationships.

“The reality is that the No. 1 criteria we are looking for in borrowers is character,” said Israel Velasco, the Florida region executive for Banco Popular. “Banking is going back to its roots.”

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.