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Banks urged to help small businesses

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Small businesses looking to grow say they’re running into challenges when they seek financing: Loans are harder to secure, and sometimes are more expensive than before the recession.

Lending is picking up around the country. But it hasn’t thawed enough to spark meaningful job growth, and business owners and advocates say that’s a drag on the economic recovery.

Lenders say they want to do deals but many businesses are hesitant to take on more debt. They acknowledge their standards are strict in the wake of a devastating financial crisis and tougher regulations. And some say they’re taking fewer risks.

One recent study found just 30 percent of small businesses that wanted credit would qualify for traditional or Small Business Administration-backed loans, with interest rates below 8 percent. Nearly half would have to turn to alternatives, such as unsecured credit, that can cost as much as 31 percent, according to the survey from MultiFunding, a Pennsylvania startup that helps businesses find the right lender.

Charlotte printing company Classic Graphics is familiar with the hurdles. When the company needed a $6.5 million loan for three new printing presses in 2005, owner David Pitts worked out the entire deal via e-mail.

These days, “things I used to do in three weeks are taking 2 months to get done,” he said. “While we’re dramatically stronger, banks and other lenders … are so skittish, so cautious.”

Small businesses power the economy, with firms smaller than 500 workers employing half the country’s private-sector workforce. Those businesses experience greater job losses when the economy sheds jobs, partly because of their dependence on the larger firms they serve. But when the economy gains jobs, small businesses tend to lead.

Firms with fewer than 500 employees have seen gross employment rise an average of 8 percent since the recession ended, compared to 3 percent for larger companies, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show.

Fueling that job growth is especially important these days, given the sense, among many, that the recovery is losing steam. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned last month that some of the problems slowing the U.S. economy, from a weak financial sector to a struggling housing market, could persist into next year.

“Lending and access to capital is really the crucial element,” said Chuck Bamford, an entrepreneurship professor at Queens University of Charlotte, who predicts lending will gradually pick up in coming months. “The controlled approach means that we’re not going to roar out of this recession.”

MultiFunding Chief Executive Ami Kassar said banks should be doing more to help small businesses expand.

“If you’re one of the fortunate few who has equity left in your house, buildings, equipment, you can get some really wonderful, super-cheap loan rates,” he said. “Unfortunately, if you’re one of the most not in that situation, there are options, but it’s pretty expensive.”

MultiFunding’s first-quarter study, which surveyed 250 small businesses, found 15 percent wouldn’t qualify for any financing. That’s keeping some companies from borrowing money, Kassar said.

“I don’t think it’s for lack of demand,” he said. “That’s baloney.”

The SBA is pushing banks to make more loans to underserved communities and those who want smaller loans – and it’s ramping up its own efforts to help, introducing new programs such as a streamlined lending process, officials there said.

SBA-backed loans are more popular among lenders in a down economy, as they help mitigate risk. The agency’s N.C. district director, Lynn Douthett, said lenders aren’t necessarily partial to particular sectors but that the SBA has noticed more loans going to professional and technical services businesses, as well as health care and social assistance firms.

Studies suggest others are being left behind: Minority-owned businesses have a harder time accessing capital, which has made it harder to stay afloat during the recession, according to a report last year from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency.

Those firms were found to pay higher interest rates on loans, were more likely to be denied credit and were less likely to apply for loans for fear the application would be denied, the report said.