Wall Street Journal: The Small Business Credit Crunch

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Washington, May 17, 2010 | comments
By Meredith Whitney; Wall Street Journal

The next several weeks will be critically important for politicians, regulators and the larger U.S. economy. First, over the next week Capitol Hill will decide on potentially game-changing regulatory reform that could result in the unintended consequences of restricting credit and further damaging small businesses.

Second, states will approach their June fiscal year-ends and, as a result of staggering budget gaps, soon announce austerity measures that by my estimates will cost between one million to two million jobs for state and local government workers over the next 12 months.

Typically, government hiring provides a nice tailwind at this point in an economic recovery. Governments have employed this tool through most downturns since 1955, so much so that state and local government jobs have ballooned to 15% of total U.S. employment.

However, over the next 12 months, disappearing state and local government jobs will prove to be a meaningful headwind to an already fragile economic recovery. This is simply how the math shakes out. Collectively, over 40 states face hundreds of billions of dollars in budget gaps over the next two years, and 49 states are constitutionally required to balance their accounts annually. States will raise taxes, but higher taxes alone will not be enough to make up for the vast shortfall in state budgets. Accordingly, 42 states and the District of Columbia have already articulated plans to cut government jobs.

So the burden on the private sector to create jobs becomes that much more crucial. Just to maintain a steady level of unemployment, the private sector will have to create one million to two million jobs to offset government job losses.

Herein lies the challenge: Small businesses, half of the private sector (and the most important part as far as jobs are concerned), have been heavily impacted by this credit crisis. Small businesses created 64% of new jobs over the past 15 years, but they have cut five million jobs since the onset of this credit crisis. Large businesses, by comparison, have shed three million jobs in the past two years.

Small businesses continue to struggle to gain access to credit and cannot hire in this environment. Thus, the full weight of job creation falls upon large businesses. It would take large businesses rehiring 100% of the three million workers laid off over the past two years to make a substantial change in jobless numbers. Given the productivity gains enjoyed recently, it is improbable that anything near this will occur.

Unless real focus is afforded to re-engaging small businesses in this country, we will have a tragic and dangerous unemployment level for an extended period of time. Small businesses fund themselves exactly the way consumers do, with credit cards and home equity lines. Over the past two years, more than $1.5 trillion in credit-card lines have been cut, and those cuts are increasing by the day. Due to dramatic declines in home values, home-equity lines as a funding option are effectively off the table. Proposed regulatory reform -- specifically interest-rate caps and interchange fees -- will merely exacerbate the cycle of credit contraction plaguing small businesses.

If banks are not allowed to effectively price for risk, they will not take the risk. Right now we need banks, and particularly community banks, more than ever to step in and provide liquidity to small businesses. Interest-rate caps and interchange fees will more likely drive consumer credit out of the market and many community banks out of business.

Clearly, the issue of recharging the securitization market as an alternative source of liquidity is one that needs to be addressed over time, but politicians should not force rash regulatory reforms when significant portions of our economy remain fragile. The very actions designed to "protect" the consumer, such as rate caps and interchange fees, will undoubtedly take more credit away from the consumer.

It is important now to support any and all lending activities that would enable small businesses to begin hiring again. If the regulatory reform passes with rate-cap and interchange regulation amendments incorporated, small businesses will be hurt rather than helped. Politicians and regulators need to appreciate the core structural challenges facing unemployment in the U.S.

Elected officials know better than most that an employed voter is better than an unemployed voter. They should improve their odds of re-election and do the right thing on regulatory reform.

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