Small businesses feel the pinch of tight credit

It's not easy being a small-business owner these days. Lenders' crack down on all-too-easy money has not only resulted in fewer home loans to those with risky credit, but also fewer loans to entrepreneurs either looking to start or further expand their businesses.

That's problematic given the current state of the economy because Americans more than ever need jobs. And with half of U.S. workers employed by small businesses -- those with 50 or less employees -- reversing job losses and putting more people to work will be a challenge for the Obama administration.
Not only are small-business loans hard to find, credit-card lines, often used as a source of funding by many small businesses, have been cut by a quarter this year, says Meredith Whitney in Friday's Wall Street Journal. What's worse, she says, the problem of tight credit is likely to get worse.

In part, that's because another customary source of funding, home equity loans, can no longer supply many business owners with their cash needs since nearly a third of U.S. homes are worth less than their mortgages.

Also likely to further crimp small businesses' access to credit is the recently passed federal legislation that has placed stricter rules on credit-card issuers. That likely will lead to reduced credit lines, further winnowing an already stingy pool of available liquidity.

Tight credit isn't only affecting economic growth in the U.S.; it's a worldwide phenomenon. And it's caught the attention of the International Monetary Fund, which is bracing for huge "financing gaps" in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.

"Our scenarios envisage the supply of bank credit falling for the remainder of 2009 and into 2010, both in the United States and Europe," according to an IMF financial stability report to be released next week at the fund's meeting in Istanbul.

The IMF credited policymakers at the Federal Reserve and in government for helping to avert a 1930s-style depression through their actions, but said tight credit is keeping constraints on economic recovery.

Lack of credit is one reason the Fed decided to keep interests rates at near zero for the foreseeable future, following a meeting last month of the Federal Open Market Committee. The Fed also moved to purchase more than $1 trillion in mortgage-backed securities and $200 billion in debt, in part "to improve overall conditions in private credit markets."

So how do small businesses keep the money flowing amid the credit crunch? The best sources are from sales and savings, according to planning expert Rhonda Abrams, writing in USA Today. Money from sales doesn't have to be paid back, and investors don't have to be answered to.

When it comes to savings, using that money, instead of credit, can lead to reduced debt and headaches. But it also reduces cash-on-hand for other uses, such as personal and home expenses, Abrams said. Absent those resources, business owners can apply for loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration through their bank or seek outside investors.
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