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The Atlanta Fed's macroblog provides commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues.

Authors for macroblog are Dave Altig, John Robertson, and other Atlanta Fed economists and researchers.

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May 11, 2017

Are Small Loans Hard to Find? Evidence from the Federal Reserve Banks' Small Business Survey

The Federal Reserve Banks recently released results from the nationwide 2016 Small Business Survey, which asks firms with 500 or fewer employees about business and financing conditions. One key finding is just how small the financing needs of many businesses are. One-fifth of small businesses that applied for financing in the prior 12 months were seeking $25,000 or less. A further 35 percent were seeking between $25,001 and $100,000.

The data also show that firms seeking relatively small amounts of financing (up to $100,000) receive a significantly smaller fraction of their funding than firms who applied for more than $250,000. Chart 1 shows the weighted average of the share of financing received by the amount the firm was seeking.

So what explains this variation in financing attainment across the amount requested? We've heard reports from small business owners that smaller loans are relatively more difficult to obtain, especially from traditional banks. One often-cited rationale is that the administrative burden associated with originating and managing a small loan is often just not worth the bank's time. However, this notion is not entirely consistent with data  on the current holdings of small business loans on the balance sheets of banks. As of June 2015, loans of less than $100,000 made up about 92 percent of the number of business loans under $1 million.

So it seems originating a loan for less than $100,000 is not uncommon for a bank after all. So why, then, do business owners say that smaller loans are more difficult to get? Using data from the 2016 Small Business Survey, we can investigate the reason for this apparent disconnect.

Much can be explained by looking at the characteristics of those who borrow small amounts versus large amounts. Firms seeking $25,000 or less are more likely to be high credit risk and younger, have fewer employees, and have smaller revenues than firms applying for more than $250,000. The table below summarizes the differences:

Of particular importance is the credit risk associated with the firm. Controlling for differences in this factor, it turns out that smaller amounts of financing are not more difficult to obtain. Charts 2 and 3 show the weighted average share of financing received by amount sought for low credit risk firms and for middle to high credit risk firms separately.

As charts 2 and 3 demonstrate, low credit risk firms are able to obtain a similar share of the amount requested, regardless of how much they applied for. The same is true for higher risk firms. We also see that medium and high risk firms get less of their financing needs met than low credit risk firms that apply for similar amounts.

From this evidence, it seems that credit approval has more to do with the attributes of the firm than the amount of financing for which the firm applied. These results also highlight the potential importance of alternatives to traditional bank financing so that riskier entrepreneurs—including important contributors to the dynamism of the economy such as startups—have somewhere to turn. A later macroblog post will explore how low and high credit risk firms use financing differently, including where they apply and where they receive funding.

March 2, 2017

Gauging Firm Optimism in a Time of Transition

Recent consumer sentiment index measures have hit postrecession highs, but there is evidence of significant differences in respondents' views on the new administration's economic policies. As Richard Curtin, chief economist for the Michigan Survey of Consumers, states:

When asked to describe any recent news that they had heard about the economy, 30% spontaneously mentioned some favorable aspect of Trump's policies, and 29% unfavorably referred to Trump's economic policies. Thus a total of nearly six-in-ten consumers made a positive or negative mention of government policies...never before have these spontaneous references to economic policies had such a large impact on the Sentiment Index: a difference of 37 Index points between those that referred to favorable and unfavorable policies.

It seems clear that government policies are holding sway over consumers' economic outlook. But what about firms? Are they being affected similarly? Are there any firm characteristics that might predict their view? And how might this view change over time?

To begin exploring these questions, we've adopted a series of "optimism" questions to be asked periodically as part of the Atlanta Fed's Business Inflation Expectations Survey's special question series. The optimism questions are based on those that have appeared in the Duke CFO Global Business Outlook survey since 2002, available quarterly. (The next set of results from the CFO survey will appear in March.)

We first put these questions to our business inflation expectations (BIE) panel in November 2016 . The survey period coincided with the week of the U.S. presidential election, allowing us to observe any pre- and post-election changes. We found that firms were more optimistic about their own firm's financial prospects than about the economy as a whole. This finding held for all sectors and firm size categories (chart 1).

In addition, we found no statistical difference in the pre- and post-election measures, as chart 2 shows. (For the stat aficionados among you, we mean that we found no statistical difference at the 95 percent level of confidence.)

We were curious how our firms' optimism might have evolved since the election, so we repeated the questions last month  (February 6–10).

Among firms responding in both November and February (approximately 82 percent of respondents), the overall level of optimism increased, on average (chart 3). This increase in optimism is statistically significant and was seen across firms of all sizes and sector types (goods producers and service providers).

The question remains: what is the upshot of this increased optimism? Are firms adjusting their capital investment and employment plans to accommodate this more optimistic outlook? The data should answer these questions in the coming months, but in the meantime, we will continue to monitor the evolution of business optimism.

March 15, 2016

Collateral Requirements and Nonbank Online Lenders: Evidence from the 2015 Small Business Credit Survey

Businesses can secure a bank loan by offering collateral—typically a business asset such as equipment or real estate. However, the recently released 2015 Small Business Credit Survey (SBCS) Report on Employer Firms,conducted by seven regional Reserve Banks, found that 63 percent of business owners who had borrowed also used their personal assets or guarantee to secure financing. Surprisingly, the use of personal collateral was common not only among startups. Older and relatively larger small firms (see the following chart) also relied heavily on personal assets.

160315a
Source: 2015 Small Business Credit Survey
Note: "Unsure", "None", and "Other" were also options but are not shown on the chart.

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Alternative lending options also exercised
Not every small business owner has sufficient hard assets, such as real estate or equipment, that can be used as collateral to secure a traditional bank loan or line of credit. For these circumstances, there are options such as credit cards and products offered by nonbank lenders (mostly operating online) that have less stringent underwriting requirements than banks. Many online nonbank lenders advertise unsecured loans or require only a general lien on business assets, without valuing those business assets.

In the 2015 SBCS, 20 percent of small firms seeking loans or lines of credit applied at nonbank online lenders. These lenders have a good reputation for quick application turnaround, and the collateral requirements can be looser than those applied by traditional lenders. But when borrowers were asked about their overall experience, only a net 15 percent of businesses approved at nonbank online lenders were satisfied (40.6 percent were satisfied and 25.3 percent were dissatisfied). In contrast, small banks received a relatively high net satisfaction score of 75 percent (see the chart).

160315b
Source: 2015 Small Business Credit Survey Report on Employer Firms
1 Satisfaction score is the share satisfied with lender minus the share dissatisfied.
2 "Online lenders" are defined as alternative and marketplace lenders, including Lending Club, OnDeck, CAN Capital, and PayPal Working Capital.
3 "Other" includes government loan funds and community development financial institutions.

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The survey also showed that high interest rates were the primary reason for dissatisfaction at nonbank online lenders (see the chart).

160315c
Source: 2015 Small Business Credit Survey Report on Employer Firms
Note: Respondents could select multiple options. Select responses shown due to low observation count.

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Merchant cash advances make advances
Most applicants to nonbank online lenders were seeking loans and lines of credit, but some were seeking a product that tends to be particularly expensive relative to other finance options: merchant cash advances (MCA). MCAs have been around for decades, but their popularity has risen in the wake of the financial crisis. Typically a lump-sum payment in exchange for a portion of future credit card sales, the terms of MCAs can be enticing because repayment seems easier than paying off a structured business loan that requires a fixed monthly payment. Instead, the lender is paid back as the business generates revenue, in theory making cash flow easier to manage.

One potential challenge for users of MCA products is interpreting the repayment terms. Instead of displaying an annual percentage rate (APR), MCAs are usually advertised with a "buy rate" (typically 1.2 to 1.4). For example, a buy rate of 1.3 on $100,000 would require the borrower to pay back $130,000. However, a percentage of the principal is not the same as an APR. The table below compares total interest payments made on a 1.3 MCA versus a 30 percent APR business loan repaid over 12 months and over six months. With a 12-month business loan, a 30 percent APR would equal total interest payments of roughly $17,000. With a six-month business loan, repayment would include about $9,000 in interest.

Because an MCA is structured as a commercial transaction instead of a loan, it is regulated by the Uniform Commercial Code in each state instead of by banking laws such as the Truth in Lending Act. Consequently, the provider does not have to follow all of the regulations and documentation requirements (such as displaying an APR) associated with making loans.

Converting a buy rate into an APR is not straightforward for many potential users, as was made clear in a recent online lending focus group study with small business owners conducted by the Cleveland Fed. When asked what the APR was on a $40,000 MCA that required a repayment of $52,000 (the same as a 1.3 buy rate), their answers were the following: (Product A is the MCA type of product; see the study for exactly how it was presented to respondents.)

160315e
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland
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The correct answer is that "it depends on how long it takes to pay back." For example, if the debt is repaid over six months, the APR would be 110 percent (as this calculator shows).

Nonbank online lenders can fill gaps in the borrowing needs of small business. But there may also be a role for greater clarity to ensure borrowers understand the terms they are signing up for. In a September 2015 speech, Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard highlights one self-policing movement already well under way:

Some have raised concerns about the high APRs associated with some online alternative lending products. Others have raised concerns about the risk that some small business borrowers may have difficulty fully understanding the terms of the various loan products or the risk of becoming trapped in layered debt that poses risks to the survival of their businesses. Some industry participants have recently proposed that online lenders follow a voluntary set of guidelines designed to standardize best practices and mitigate these risks. It is too soon to determine whether such efforts of industry participants to self-police will be sufficient. Even with these efforts, some have suggested a need for regulators to take a more active role in defining and enforcing standards that apply more broadly in this sector.

Many, but not all, nonbank online lenders have already signed the Small Business Borrower Bill of Rights. Results from the 2015 Small Business Credit Survey Report on Employer Firms can be found on our website.


February 20, 2015

Business as Usual?

Each month, we ask a large panel of firms to compare their current sales with "normal times." In our February survey, the firms in our panel reported their sales were approaching normal. Indeed, on average, larger firms (those with 100 or more employees) tell us sales levels this month were right at normal. But smaller firms, although improving, are still lagging their larger counterparts (see the chart).


These qualitative assessments suggest a continuation of the trend we've seen in our quarterly quantitative data (these data are compiled at the end of each quarter). In December, our panel of firms reported sales levels about 2.7 percent below normal—virtually identical to the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of the output gap. Here, too, our survey data show that on average, sales of the larger firms in our panel were essentially back to normal, but smaller firms were still reporting ample slack (see the chart).


Our next quantitative assessment of slack in U.S. business is due for release on March 20.

photo of Mike Bryan
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist,
photo of Brent Meyer
Brent Meyer, economist, and
photo of Nicholas Parker
Nicholas Parker, economic policy specialist, all in the Atlanta Fed's research department