With reports touting the health of the economy and the officials at the Federal Reserve talking about raising interest rates again, the lending environment must be good for small business owners, right? Wrong.
According to Babson’s 2016 State of Small Business in America report, obtaining capital is a challenge that frustrated SMB owners continue to face. Even those receiving a loan from a traditional lender obtain less than half the amount they applied for. What’s standing in the way of entrepreneurs borrowing from a traditional bank?
Lingering fear from the Great Recession: From 2008 to 2013, small businesses benefited from loosened lending restrictions. But in the past couple of years, fears about SMB lending has shifted thinking and brought about a tightening of standards–leading banks to provide available loan opportunities only to bigger businesses, which they view as less risky.
Fallout from Dodd-Frank: Post-2008 recession, new regulations created paperwork headaches for large lenders and small community banks alike. But the annoyances aren’t just isolated to a potential borrower being required to fill out a couple of additional forms. Compliance increased the cost of originating loans, so much so that it’s no longer fiscally responsible for lenders to issue lots of small loans.
In fact, Oliver Wyman research (PDF) indicates underwriting these loans costs a marginal $1,600 to $3,200 per loan. Compare these costs to the annual revenue smaller loans generate—$700 to $3,500 on average—and they’re clearly unprofitable.
Fewer lending options: It has also become very expensive to raise capital to open new community banks due to heightened regulatory requirements since the financial crisis. These local financial institutions are a great lending option for small business owners when big banks tighten their lending requirements. But with fewer local banks, SMB owners are left with fewer borrowing options than ever.
The stimulus encouraged banks to stockpile reserves: Prior to 2008, the U.S. economic structure encouraged financial institutions with large amounts of cash to lend it to other banks in need of liquidity. The federal stimulus pact reduced this cash flow, and large banks began sitting on their significant reserves–reducing the amount of available capital to smaller lenders, which in turn would be passed on to small business owners in their form of much needed credit.
Despite these obstacles, traditional lenders can and should break the SMB lending logjam. According to Barlow Research’s 2016 Small Business Annual Report, SMB loan demand is trending down slightly in a year-over-year comparison—off 9 percent between 2010 and 2016. However, this downward trend applies only to the traditional-lender space. New digital marketplace lenders are helping SMB borrowers to get around this credit logjam–and capturing more and more SMB lending business that used to go to banks.
According to one report by Morgan Stanley, loan origination at alternative lenders has doubled every year since 2010, reaching $12 billion in 2014. While banks are still the dominate credit source for small businesses, last year SMBs sought 22 percent of their financing from alternative lenders. That’s hardly a trend that benefits small businesses. Marketplace lenders do offer SMB borrowers fast, convenient loans–but that speed and convenience comes at a steep price, with expensive and often opaque lending terms that have attracted increasing scrutiny from regulators.
How can traditional lenders reverse this trend and break the SMB lending logjam? Simply put, banks need to harness the power of financial technology, machine learning and big data to bring small business lending online. By streamlining the origination process, banks can reduce operational costs dramatically for these loans while offering the speed and convenience SMB borrowers demand–and get–from alternative lenders. Reducing loan origination costs improves their profitability and introduces a virtuous circle of increased lending that expands lending options for borrowers at more competitive pricing.
The innovations don’t stop there. New machine learning algorithms can supplement the traditional, narrowly defined credit score criteria with enhanced, real-time data like shipping trends, social media reviews and other information relevant to a small business’ financial health. Thus armed, banks can identify an expanded field of highly qualified borrowers without increasing risk. They can pilot risk-based pricing models based on a borrower’s creditworthiness, ending the all-or-nothing style of flat pricing for approved loans. The possibilities are exciting and enormous. But traditional lenders will need the right financial technology to break this lending logjam and unleash the SBM market’s full potential.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Mirador blog.