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The Atlanta Fed's SouthPoint offers commentary and observations on various aspects of the region's economy.

The blog's authors include staff from the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network and Public Affairs Department.

Postings are weekly.


February 3, 2015

Charting Employer Sentiment in the Southeast

In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart remarked, "Overall, there was more improvement in labor markets in 2014 than in any other year of the recovery. Employment conditions are improving, and improving faster, and prospects of continued progress are encouraging moving into the new year."

Although President Lockhart was referring to national labor market conditions in his speech, his assessment holds true for the Southeast as well. In 2014, the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) staff polled business contacts across the Southeast both at the beginning of the year and the end to get a sense of their hiring plans for the year ahead. Polling our contacts twice allowed REIN to gauge whether business hiring plans had changed during the course of the year, and we shared the January results with you. Fast-forward to last November, when we approached our contacts to ask the same set of questions. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the results were more upbeat.

The survey was conducted from November 10–19 and resulted in a total of 303 responses from a wide variety of firm types and sizes. In this post, we want to share the results as well as some comparisons over time.

The survey's first question asked contacts whether they expect to increase employment, leave employment unchanged, or decrease employment in 2015. The results showed that 59 percent of respondents said they planned to increase employment levels over the next 12 months; up from 46 percent in January and the highest reading in the six times we've conducted this survey. Another 31 percent indicated they planned to leave employment levels unchanged; down from 44 percent in January and the lowest reading since we began asking these questions in 2011. The remaining 10 percent of participants planned to decrease payrolls; unchanged from the beginning of the year. As the chart below shows, a noticeable shift in sentiment took place from January, when we last asked this question. It appears that firms that said they would leave employment levels unchanged are now saying they would increase employment.

Do-you-expect

Focusing on the 59 percent of firms that indicated that they planned to increase employment, we asked them to give us the top three motivating factors driving their decision. The most frequently cited reasons were similar to past results. The majority of firms cited high expected growth of sales as the most important reason for increasing employment. For the second most important factor, two selections garnered similar levels of response: current staff was overworked, and the firm needed skills not currently possessed by existing staff. Finally, the third factor was improvement in the firm’s financial position (see the chart).

Conversely, we also wanted to learn the top three factors restraining hiring. Similar to January, firms' primary concern remained their need to keep operating costs low. Other frequently selected reasons were the firms' inability to find workers with the required skills and uncertainties related to regulations or government policies. What stood out this time was that a larger share of firms said that they were unable to find workers with required skills: 13.8 percent in January compared with 21.0 percent in November. Also, fewer contacts said that expected sales growth was low: 15.2 percent in January compared with 9.7 percent in November. Additionally, uncertainty about health care costs subsided; a smaller share of firms noted this factor as a reason for not hiring (see the chart).

In short, it's clear that employment levels in the Southeast should improve this year, which is exactly what we said this time last year. Were we correct for 2014? Now that we have data in hand, let's see. According to the latest employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the district averaged 38,800 net payrolls per month for 2014, up from 33,600 net payrolls a month in 2013. So our contacts did, in fact, increase payrolls like they said they would last year. Let's see what happens this year!

Photo of Shalini PatelBy Shalini Patel, a REIN director in the Atlanta Fed's research department

November 25, 2014

Employment Momentum Grows in Florida and the Retail Sector

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published October 2014 state-level labor market data on November 21. For Sixth District states, a couple of factors stood out. First, after several months of anemic job growth, Florida employers added lots of jobs. In fact, Florida contributed 61 percent of October's net payrolls to the region. Second, although job gains were solid in a number of sectors, retail shined with 13,300 jobs added on net across the District, a figure that represents nearly half of the 27,100 jobs added to the sector in the entire United States in October. These regional retail job growth data confirm what the folks in our Regional Economic Information Network described earlier this month in their recap of economic intelligence gathered from business contacts across the Southeast: retailers anticipate strong holiday sales, and this anticipation translated into robust seasonal hiring in the retail sector in October.

A summary of the payroll and unemployment data for Sixth District states sheds more light on recent activity.

Payrolls flex some muscle
Employers in all Sixth District states except Mississippi added to payrolls: 56,600 jobs were added on net (see the chart). Florida dominated aggregate net gains in October, adding 34,400 jobs on net. Most of these gains came from the leisure and hospitality sector (up 9,300). Big contributors to Florida gains also included the educational and health services (up 9,000), professional and business services (up 6,100), and goods-producing sectors (up 5,100). (The good-producing sector was up 6,200 payrolls from construction alone but was reduced by losses in manufacturing.)

The sectors with payroll additions varied by state, though gains in the trade, transportation, and utilities sector were prevalent, with 16,800 net jobs added. Gains in this sector were dominated by retail trade (see the chart), which was the only sector tracked by all states that added jobs in every Sixth District state in October. This increase is typical for October, as retailers gear up for the holidays.

Employment momentum in the retail sector has been building for most of the region's states for a few months now (see the chart).

District gains in the professional and business services sector were also sizeable, with 13,100 jobs added. Momentum in this sector has been building in district states (see the chart). However, two states subtracted jobs from this sector in October: Louisiana (down 1,200) and Mississippi (down 1,500).

A few other facts about the Sixth District's October payrolls and sectors are noteworthy:

  • Alabama added 2,200 jobs on net. The leisure and hospitality (up 3,200) and professional and business services (up 1,400) sectors were the top contributors. The biggest losses occurred in the government (down 1,500); trade, transportation, and utilities (down 600); and financial activities (down 500) sectors.
  • In Florida, aside from job gains mentioned above, payrolls fell in the information (down 2,100) and financial activities (down 100) sectors.
  • Employers in Georgia added 11,600 jobs on net. The largest gains occurred in trade, transportation, and utilities (up7,900, with 4,700 of those payrolls from wholesale trade) and professional and business services (up 5,400). The biggest losses came from government (down 3,200) and financial activities (down 1,200).
  • Louisiana added 1,200 payrolls on net, most of which came from the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 1,500) sector. That sector was up 2,900 from retail trade, reduced by losses in wholesale trade) and educational and health services (up 1,200) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in leisure and hospitality (down 2,600) and professional and business services (down 1,200).
  • Mississippi was the only district state to subtract payrolls from the aggregate district figure. The largest losses came from the professional and business services (down 1,500) and government (down 700) sectors. The only gains occurred in the educational and health services (up 1,300), leisure and hospitality (up 500), and trade, transportation, and utilities (up 400) sectors.
  • Tennessee employers increased payrolls by 7,900 on net. The largest increases occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 3,500) and professional and business services (up 2,900) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in educational and health services (down 700) and leisure and hospitality (down 400) sectors.

Regional unemployment declines, if only slightly
The aggregate district unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in October, a decline of 0.2 percentage point from September (see the chart).

The rate fell in all states except for Louisiana, where it increased to 6.2 percent from 6.0 percent the previous month and was the sixth straight month of an increasing unemployment rate in that state. As I reported last month, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the short run, since the state added jobs yet appears to have increased its labor force participation rate.

The unemployment rate fell in all remaining District states. Alabama's rate fell 0.3 percentage point in October to 6.3, its lowest rate in nine months. Florida's rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 6.0 percent, the lowest it's been in more than six years. The unemployment rate in Georgia fell for the second month in a row, to 7.7 percent in October from 7.9 percent in September. Though Georgia's unemployment rate declined, it had the highest rate in the United States in October for the third month in a row, at 7.7 percent. Mississippi's rate declined 0.1 percentage point to 7.6 percent, the lowest it's been in six months. In Tennessee the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, a 0.2 percentage point decline from September.

So once again, collectively, the Sixth District states' labor market showed continued strengthening in October, particularly the state of Florida and the retail sector.

Hopefully, this progress continues for the month of November. We'll see when the data are released on December 19.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

November 20, 2014

Music City Is Playing Your Song

Nashville has long been synonymous with country music, and the local economy is closely tied to the music industry. It's not unusual to see a country music star dining in a restaurant or showing up at a local music club for a jam session. In short, music looms large over many aspects of life and culture here. But you might ask, what exactly is the music industry's economic impact on Nashville? Good question! Let's explore.

Music touches several sectors of the Nashville economy. Banking, construction, and hospitality all benefit from the music industry. The Nashville Chamber of Commerce put together a thorough study on the music industry's economic impact. The study revealed that Nashville stands toe to toe with—and in many ways surpasses—New York and Los Angeles for having a fully self-reliant music industry, which in layman's terms means you can write, record, produce, promote, finance, and distribute music without ever leaving the city. Of course, music starts with musicians, singers, and songwriters, but today's music business requires specialized talents that go beyond the stage. Creative, technical, and managerial skills are abundant in the Nashville metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The chamber's study found that relative to Nashville's size, the amount of talent in the music industry at all levels of the process is extraordinary.

The local music industry employs a vast array of people across a correspondingly vast array of sectors. In 2012, according to the chamber's study, the Nashville MSA employed almost 3,000 artists and musicians with an average annual pay of more than $85,000. Music publishing employed almost 1,500 people, with an average annual pay of nearly $75,000. The list goes on and on, including musical instrument manufacturing, musical supply stores, record stores, record production, radio networks, and recording studios. It's almost impossible to tell where the employment influence of the music industry begins and ends. Many jobs are directly related to music, but others are indirectly related and not classified in a way that shows up in a study of employment in the music industry. All in all, the chamber's study indicated that the density of activity in Nashville's music industry is some 10 times greater than New York or Los Angeles, and even greater than cities such as Atlanta, Austin, and New Orleans. Core music industry employment per 1,000 people exceeds all other U.S. cities by a large margin.

The chamber of commerce's report also found that some 56,500 people's employment was tied to the music industry, resulting in labor income of over $3.2 billion and contributing almost $5.5 billion to the local economy, with a total output of almost $10 billion, a large portion of the Nashville MSA's $85 billion gross domestic product.

But what about other areas of the economy that benefit from the music industry's contributions? According to a July 2013 article from the Atlantic CityLab, industries such health care, transportation, and food service benefit greatly. The article pointed out that work in Nashville's full-service restaurants has grown 10 percent since 2009, and the entertainment industry can be credited for a good bit of that growth. The article also pointed out the multiplier effect the music industry has on local employment. For every 10 jobs created in the music industry, another 52 positions are created in the broader economy.

Needless to say, the music industry is important to the Nashville region. Whether it's the entertainment talent, the history, or the culture, music thrives here. So put on your cowboy boots, your cowboy hat, and blue jeans. Nothing says "Welcome to Nashville" more. We are not called Music City USA for nothing!

By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

September 9, 2014

Small Business Lending in the Sunshine State

No doubt, the lending environment has changed since 2007. Local bankers from the South Florida market discussed some of those changes at a roundtable event held last month at the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed. The discussion focused on small business lending activity and how the outlook and behavior of small business owners have evolved since the recession.

The bankers said they have a strong appetite for what they termed "qualified" small business loans and noted that they were competing against each other for good opportunities. This environment has helped put pressure on financial institutions to provide competitive loan terms for small business owners seeking credit. Most of the banks indicated that small business lending was part of a diversification strategy and an important component of their business. In a quarterly senior loan officer opinion survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board in the second quarter of 2014, loan officers reported easing lending standards and some improvement in small business loan demand relative to a year before (see the chart).

Senior_loanofficers

The roundtable attendees agreed with the survey's findings and noted that the pool of qualified borrowers is currently limited but may expand as banks continue to review their underwriting standards in an improving economic environment.

Although all of the participating bankers were actively engaged in making small business loans, they did indicate that businesses were generally hesitant to take on additional debt and in general were behaving very conservatively. In discussing why business owners were taking on less risk, it was noted that the effects of the recession were still fresh, and most of the bankers felt that uncertainty about the future weighed on the minds of business owners. In addition, findings from the Atlanta Fed's survey of business inflation expectations indicate that business activity for smaller companies is improving but remains below normal levels (see the chart). One banker noted that rising interest rates would indicate to business owners that the economy was strengthening and that rising rates may, in fact, prompt further borrowing.

Percent_abovebelow

Credit qualification often ultimately comes down to the fundamentals. From a credit perspective, the bankers indicated that they heavily rely on the "five C's" of credit to help evaluate loan applicants: character, capacity, credit, collateral, and capital. The roundtable participants described "character" as one of the most important variables when they consider a request. Companies that weathered the recession were viewed more favorably because it demonstrated the ability to manage a business through difficult times. An owner who has personal credit issues will generally imply potential problems in managing the financial aspect of a business. The bankers cited adequate cash flow and a good balance sheet as important credit qualifications. The lenders noted that they also analyze how businesses position their balance sheets and expenses incurred by the company not related to the business.

Overall, the sentiment among the bankers at the meeting was positive, and for the remainder of the year, they expect continued improvement in lending to small businesses.

By Karen Gilmore, a vice president and the regional executive at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch, and Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst, also at the Miami Branch

February 3, 2015

Charting Employer Sentiment in the Southeast

In a recent speech, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart remarked, "Overall, there was more improvement in labor markets in 2014 than in any other year of the recovery. Employment conditions are improving, and improving faster, and prospects of continued progress are encouraging moving into the new year."

Although President Lockhart was referring to national labor market conditions in his speech, his assessment holds true for the Southeast as well. In 2014, the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) staff polled business contacts across the Southeast both at the beginning of the year and the end to get a sense of their hiring plans for the year ahead. Polling our contacts twice allowed REIN to gauge whether business hiring plans had changed during the course of the year, and we shared the January results with you. Fast-forward to last November, when we approached our contacts to ask the same set of questions. We were pleasantly surprised to see that the results were more upbeat.

The survey was conducted from November 10–19 and resulted in a total of 303 responses from a wide variety of firm types and sizes. In this post, we want to share the results as well as some comparisons over time.

The survey's first question asked contacts whether they expect to increase employment, leave employment unchanged, or decrease employment in 2015. The results showed that 59 percent of respondents said they planned to increase employment levels over the next 12 months; up from 46 percent in January and the highest reading in the six times we've conducted this survey. Another 31 percent indicated they planned to leave employment levels unchanged; down from 44 percent in January and the lowest reading since we began asking these questions in 2011. The remaining 10 percent of participants planned to decrease payrolls; unchanged from the beginning of the year. As the chart below shows, a noticeable shift in sentiment took place from January, when we last asked this question. It appears that firms that said they would leave employment levels unchanged are now saying they would increase employment.

Do-you-expect

Focusing on the 59 percent of firms that indicated that they planned to increase employment, we asked them to give us the top three motivating factors driving their decision. The most frequently cited reasons were similar to past results. The majority of firms cited high expected growth of sales as the most important reason for increasing employment. For the second most important factor, two selections garnered similar levels of response: current staff was overworked, and the firm needed skills not currently possessed by existing staff. Finally, the third factor was improvement in the firm’s financial position (see the chart).

Conversely, we also wanted to learn the top three factors restraining hiring. Similar to January, firms' primary concern remained their need to keep operating costs low. Other frequently selected reasons were the firms' inability to find workers with the required skills and uncertainties related to regulations or government policies. What stood out this time was that a larger share of firms said that they were unable to find workers with required skills: 13.8 percent in January compared with 21.0 percent in November. Also, fewer contacts said that expected sales growth was low: 15.2 percent in January compared with 9.7 percent in November. Additionally, uncertainty about health care costs subsided; a smaller share of firms noted this factor as a reason for not hiring (see the chart).

In short, it's clear that employment levels in the Southeast should improve this year, which is exactly what we said this time last year. Were we correct for 2014? Now that we have data in hand, let's see. According to the latest employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the district averaged 38,800 net payrolls per month for 2014, up from 33,600 net payrolls a month in 2013. So our contacts did, in fact, increase payrolls like they said they would last year. Let's see what happens this year!

Photo of Shalini PatelBy Shalini Patel, a REIN director in the Atlanta Fed's research department

November 25, 2014

Employment Momentum Grows in Florida and the Retail Sector

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published October 2014 state-level labor market data on November 21. For Sixth District states, a couple of factors stood out. First, after several months of anemic job growth, Florida employers added lots of jobs. In fact, Florida contributed 61 percent of October's net payrolls to the region. Second, although job gains were solid in a number of sectors, retail shined with 13,300 jobs added on net across the District, a figure that represents nearly half of the 27,100 jobs added to the sector in the entire United States in October. These regional retail job growth data confirm what the folks in our Regional Economic Information Network described earlier this month in their recap of economic intelligence gathered from business contacts across the Southeast: retailers anticipate strong holiday sales, and this anticipation translated into robust seasonal hiring in the retail sector in October.

A summary of the payroll and unemployment data for Sixth District states sheds more light on recent activity.

Payrolls flex some muscle
Employers in all Sixth District states except Mississippi added to payrolls: 56,600 jobs were added on net (see the chart). Florida dominated aggregate net gains in October, adding 34,400 jobs on net. Most of these gains came from the leisure and hospitality sector (up 9,300). Big contributors to Florida gains also included the educational and health services (up 9,000), professional and business services (up 6,100), and goods-producing sectors (up 5,100). (The good-producing sector was up 6,200 payrolls from construction alone but was reduced by losses in manufacturing.)

The sectors with payroll additions varied by state, though gains in the trade, transportation, and utilities sector were prevalent, with 16,800 net jobs added. Gains in this sector were dominated by retail trade (see the chart), which was the only sector tracked by all states that added jobs in every Sixth District state in October. This increase is typical for October, as retailers gear up for the holidays.

Employment momentum in the retail sector has been building for most of the region's states for a few months now (see the chart).

District gains in the professional and business services sector were also sizeable, with 13,100 jobs added. Momentum in this sector has been building in district states (see the chart). However, two states subtracted jobs from this sector in October: Louisiana (down 1,200) and Mississippi (down 1,500).

A few other facts about the Sixth District's October payrolls and sectors are noteworthy:

  • Alabama added 2,200 jobs on net. The leisure and hospitality (up 3,200) and professional and business services (up 1,400) sectors were the top contributors. The biggest losses occurred in the government (down 1,500); trade, transportation, and utilities (down 600); and financial activities (down 500) sectors.
  • In Florida, aside from job gains mentioned above, payrolls fell in the information (down 2,100) and financial activities (down 100) sectors.
  • Employers in Georgia added 11,600 jobs on net. The largest gains occurred in trade, transportation, and utilities (up7,900, with 4,700 of those payrolls from wholesale trade) and professional and business services (up 5,400). The biggest losses came from government (down 3,200) and financial activities (down 1,200).
  • Louisiana added 1,200 payrolls on net, most of which came from the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 1,500) sector. That sector was up 2,900 from retail trade, reduced by losses in wholesale trade) and educational and health services (up 1,200) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in leisure and hospitality (down 2,600) and professional and business services (down 1,200).
  • Mississippi was the only district state to subtract payrolls from the aggregate district figure. The largest losses came from the professional and business services (down 1,500) and government (down 700) sectors. The only gains occurred in the educational and health services (up 1,300), leisure and hospitality (up 500), and trade, transportation, and utilities (up 400) sectors.
  • Tennessee employers increased payrolls by 7,900 on net. The largest increases occurred in the trade, transportation, and utilities (up 3,500) and professional and business services (up 2,900) sectors. The biggest losses occurred in educational and health services (down 700) and leisure and hospitality (down 400) sectors.

Regional unemployment declines, if only slightly
The aggregate district unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in October, a decline of 0.2 percentage point from September (see the chart).

The rate fell in all states except for Louisiana, where it increased to 6.2 percent from 6.0 percent the previous month and was the sixth straight month of an increasing unemployment rate in that state. As I reported last month, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in the short run, since the state added jobs yet appears to have increased its labor force participation rate.

The unemployment rate fell in all remaining District states. Alabama's rate fell 0.3 percentage point in October to 6.3, its lowest rate in nine months. Florida's rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 6.0 percent, the lowest it's been in more than six years. The unemployment rate in Georgia fell for the second month in a row, to 7.7 percent in October from 7.9 percent in September. Though Georgia's unemployment rate declined, it had the highest rate in the United States in October for the third month in a row, at 7.7 percent. Mississippi's rate declined 0.1 percentage point to 7.6 percent, the lowest it's been in six months. In Tennessee the unemployment rate was 7.1 percent, a 0.2 percentage point decline from September.

So once again, collectively, the Sixth District states' labor market showed continued strengthening in October, particularly the state of Florida and the retail sector.

Hopefully, this progress continues for the month of November. We'll see when the data are released on December 19.

Photo of Rebekah DurhamBy Rebekah Durham, economic policy analysis specialist in the New Orleans Branch of the Atlanta Fed

November 20, 2014

Music City Is Playing Your Song

Nashville has long been synonymous with country music, and the local economy is closely tied to the music industry. It's not unusual to see a country music star dining in a restaurant or showing up at a local music club for a jam session. In short, music looms large over many aspects of life and culture here. But you might ask, what exactly is the music industry's economic impact on Nashville? Good question! Let's explore.

Music touches several sectors of the Nashville economy. Banking, construction, and hospitality all benefit from the music industry. The Nashville Chamber of Commerce put together a thorough study on the music industry's economic impact. The study revealed that Nashville stands toe to toe with—and in many ways surpasses—New York and Los Angeles for having a fully self-reliant music industry, which in layman's terms means you can write, record, produce, promote, finance, and distribute music without ever leaving the city. Of course, music starts with musicians, singers, and songwriters, but today's music business requires specialized talents that go beyond the stage. Creative, technical, and managerial skills are abundant in the Nashville metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The chamber's study found that relative to Nashville's size, the amount of talent in the music industry at all levels of the process is extraordinary.

The local music industry employs a vast array of people across a correspondingly vast array of sectors. In 2012, according to the chamber's study, the Nashville MSA employed almost 3,000 artists and musicians with an average annual pay of more than $85,000. Music publishing employed almost 1,500 people, with an average annual pay of nearly $75,000. The list goes on and on, including musical instrument manufacturing, musical supply stores, record stores, record production, radio networks, and recording studios. It's almost impossible to tell where the employment influence of the music industry begins and ends. Many jobs are directly related to music, but others are indirectly related and not classified in a way that shows up in a study of employment in the music industry. All in all, the chamber's study indicated that the density of activity in Nashville's music industry is some 10 times greater than New York or Los Angeles, and even greater than cities such as Atlanta, Austin, and New Orleans. Core music industry employment per 1,000 people exceeds all other U.S. cities by a large margin.

The chamber of commerce's report also found that some 56,500 people's employment was tied to the music industry, resulting in labor income of over $3.2 billion and contributing almost $5.5 billion to the local economy, with a total output of almost $10 billion, a large portion of the Nashville MSA's $85 billion gross domestic product.

But what about other areas of the economy that benefit from the music industry's contributions? According to a July 2013 article from the Atlantic CityLab, industries such health care, transportation, and food service benefit greatly. The article pointed out that work in Nashville's full-service restaurants has grown 10 percent since 2009, and the entertainment industry can be credited for a good bit of that growth. The article also pointed out the multiplier effect the music industry has on local employment. For every 10 jobs created in the music industry, another 52 positions are created in the broader economy.

Needless to say, the music industry is important to the Nashville region. Whether it's the entertainment talent, the history, or the culture, music thrives here. So put on your cowboy boots, your cowboy hat, and blue jeans. Nothing says "Welcome to Nashville" more. We are not called Music City USA for nothing!

By Troy Balthrop, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch

September 9, 2014

Small Business Lending in the Sunshine State

No doubt, the lending environment has changed since 2007. Local bankers from the South Florida market discussed some of those changes at a roundtable event held last month at the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed. The discussion focused on small business lending activity and how the outlook and behavior of small business owners have evolved since the recession.

The bankers said they have a strong appetite for what they termed "qualified" small business loans and noted that they were competing against each other for good opportunities. This environment has helped put pressure on financial institutions to provide competitive loan terms for small business owners seeking credit. Most of the banks indicated that small business lending was part of a diversification strategy and an important component of their business. In a quarterly senior loan officer opinion survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board in the second quarter of 2014, loan officers reported easing lending standards and some improvement in small business loan demand relative to a year before (see the chart).

Senior_loanofficers

The roundtable attendees agreed with the survey's findings and noted that the pool of qualified borrowers is currently limited but may expand as banks continue to review their underwriting standards in an improving economic environment.

Although all of the participating bankers were actively engaged in making small business loans, they did indicate that businesses were generally hesitant to take on additional debt and in general were behaving very conservatively. In discussing why business owners were taking on less risk, it was noted that the effects of the recession were still fresh, and most of the bankers felt that uncertainty about the future weighed on the minds of business owners. In addition, findings from the Atlanta Fed's survey of business inflation expectations indicate that business activity for smaller companies is improving but remains below normal levels (see the chart). One banker noted that rising interest rates would indicate to business owners that the economy was strengthening and that rising rates may, in fact, prompt further borrowing.

Percent_abovebelow

Credit qualification often ultimately comes down to the fundamentals. From a credit perspective, the bankers indicated that they heavily rely on the "five C's" of credit to help evaluate loan applicants: character, capacity, credit, collateral, and capital. The roundtable participants described "character" as one of the most important variables when they consider a request. Companies that weathered the recession were viewed more favorably because it demonstrated the ability to manage a business through difficult times. An owner who has personal credit issues will generally imply potential problems in managing the financial aspect of a business. The bankers cited adequate cash flow and a good balance sheet as important credit qualifications. The lenders noted that they also analyze how businesses position their balance sheets and expenses incurred by the company not related to the business.

Overall, the sentiment among the bankers at the meeting was positive, and for the remainder of the year, they expect continued improvement in lending to small businesses.

By Karen Gilmore, a vice president and the regional executive at the Atlanta Fed's Miami Branch, and Marycela Diaz-Unzalu, a Regional Economic Information Network analyst, also at the Miami Branch