Small businesses, small bankers agree: Obama lending plan a good move

"I love it. I was ecstatic when I heard it," said the owner of Sweet Auburn Bread Co., a 13-year-old Atlanta bakery with two part-time employees and plans to expand and hire some full-time help.

Obama wants to take $30 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), the federal plan to rescue Wall Street, and lend it to community banks at minimal cost if they will lend it out to small businesses.

"That would be a big part of getting the economy moving," said Jones, who just got a loan for new equipment and expects to be in the market to borrow again. "If you have a million small businesses hire two people each," she said, "that's two million new jobs."

Some community bankers liked the idea, too.

"It's very much needed," said Charles Green, president of The Sunrise Bank in Atlanta. "The smaller banks are the ones which deliver loans to small businesses in this country. I think this will provide a lot of capital directly to Main Street."

Coupled with other pieces of Obama's plan, Green said, the lending program, if adopted quickly, could stimulate job growth by the end of the year.

The smallest banks, those with $1 billion or less in assets, would be able to borrow up to 5 percent of their assets, according to one version of the program. Those with greater assets would be able to borrow a lower percentage.

Small business advocates have said community banks will have to fill a void left by big banks which, collectively, have cut their small business loan balances by billions during the recession.

The need for loan money by small businesses has been a major issue since the recession began. Business owners and government officials alike have said that small businesses are responsible for much of the nation's job growth, but say they have had trouble starting or expanding their businesses because of the lack of loan funds available to them since the economy turned for the worse.

There have been some positive signs, though. The U.S. Small Business Administration this week said the number of SBA guaranteed loans issued to small businesses in Georgia in the last three months of 2009 increased 83 percent, from 224 to 410, compared to the same period in 2008. The value of that lending increased to $219 million from $92 million.

The loans became more attractive to lenders and to borrowers following changes made in the American Recovery and  Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed by Obama last February. Among other things, the maximum SBA guarantee on the most popular type of loan was increased to 90 percent from 75-85 percent, and loan-related fees were eliminated.

The higher guarantee by the government reduces lender risk. The elimination of the fees saves small businesses money.

"It does help reduce (lender) risk," said Claudia Wilson, private banking officer for The PrivateBank, which has three metro Atlanta branches.  "And it's wonderful that borrowers are able to take advantage of the elimination of these fees," which, she said, can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

"Given where we were a year ago, this uptick in SBA-backed lending activity is definitely encouraging," said Terri Denison, Georgia SBA district director.

Denison called the increase "a hopeful sign that our economy is starting to turn in a positive direction."

The SBA said it has supported $19 billion in lending to small businesses through its two largest loan programs since the recovery act was signed. In Georgia, $762 million in loans to small businesses have been backed by the SBA in that period.

Obama has called for an extension of the higher guaranteed loan provisions and the loan fee waivers, which are set to expire in February.

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