Squeezing the SBA

Small-business borrowing may get more expensive.

For an Administration that likes to trumpet the “ownership” society, it’s a bit perplexing: President Bush wants to eliminate the federal subsidies that support the nation’s smallest businesses. The U.S. Small Business Administration’s most popular loan program, the 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program, accounts for 40 percent of all long-term loans to the country’s 25 million small businesses. In general, that universe encompasses companies with no more than 500 employees and maximum annual revenues, depending upon the industry in which they operate, of anywhere from $750,000 to $28.5 million. These companies serve as an important engine of growth — President Bush himself credits small businesses with creating two-thirds of the new private-sector jobs in this country, employing more than half of all workers, and accounting for more than half of the nation’s economic output. Yet start-ups and other small businesses often lack the experience or equity that lenders require before they’ll provide them with conventional long-term financing.

The proposed change is the subject of heated debate between the SBA and the lenders that actually make the loans. SBA administrator Hector Barreto describes the gambit as a way to save taxpayers money and free the program from dependency on the sometimes-disruptive congressional appropriation process. He has a point: this past January, for example, the program was temporarily shut down after it ran out of funding authority following Congress’s failure to pass a fiscal 2004 budget by the end of fiscal 2003.

Barreto’s critics argue that a self-funding program will require higher user fees, making loans unaffordable for some borrowers and potentially driving some lenders out of the program. They also question whether 7(a) would actually be more stable outside the appropriation process. Chris Lehnes, vice president of business development at CIT Small Business Lending, notes that even though the SBA’s smaller 504 real estate and capital equipment lending program is self-funding, “there are still battles every year over fees and how much that program can fund.”

This latest brouhaha comes at a time when the SBA is approving 7(a) loans at a record pace. It took the agency just over 10 months in the fiscal year ended September 30, 2004, to guarantee more loans — 67,493 — than it had in all of fiscal 2003. With fiscal 2004 winding down, the SBA was on pace to guarantee loans worth a total of $12.7 billion, versus $8.8 billion in fiscal 2003. The maximum loan amount is $2 million.

Lenders and Borrowers Both Benefit

The 7(a) program is popular with owners of small businesses because it allows them to put less equity into deals than conventional bank loans would require, and because it offers longer payback terms and access to financing for higher-risk ventures, such as fast-food restaurants and other small retail operations.

Lenders like the program because it helps them leverage their capital. The SBA guarantees 50 percent to 85 percent of the typical 7(a) loan, and lenders can sell the guaranteed portion in a thriving secondary market, which lets them write more loans than would otherwise be permitted.

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