How Commercial Lenders Went Wrong With Small Business Financing

Small business owners will be more likely to avoid serious future business finance problems with working capital management and commercial real estate loans by exploring what went wrong with business financing and commercial lending. This is not a hypothetical issue for most commercial borrowers, particularly if they need help with determining practical small business financing choices that are available to them. The bankers and banks responsible for the recent financial meltdown seem to be saying that even if anything actually went wrong, everything is fine now in the world of commercial lending. Nothing could be further from the truth. Commercial lenders made serious mistakes, and according to a popular phrase, if business lenders and business owners forget these mistakes, they are doomed to repeat them in the future.

Greed seems to be a common theme for several of the most serious business finance mistakes made by many lending institutions. Unsurprising negative results were produced by the attempt to produce quick profits and higher-than-normal returns. The bankers themselves seem to be the only ones surprised by the devastating losses that they produced. The largest small business lender in the United States (CIT Group) declared bankruptcy after two years of attempting to get someone else to pay for their mistakes. We are already seeing a record level of bank failures, and by most accounts many of the largest banks should have been allowed to fail but were instead supported by artificial government funding.

When making loans or buying securities such as those now referred to as toxic assets, there were many instances in which banks failed to look at cash flow. For some small business finance programs, a stated income commercial loan underwriting process was used in which commercial borrower tax returns were not even requested or reviewed. One of the most prominent business lenders aggressively using this approach was Lehman Brothers (which filed for bankruptcy due to a number of questionable financial dealings).

Bankers obsessed with generating quick profits frequently lost sight of a basic investment principle that asset valuations can decrease quickly and do not always increase. Many business loans were finalized in which the commercial borrower had little or no equity at risk. Banks invested almost nothing in cash (as little as three cents on the dollar) when buying future toxic assets. The apparent assumption was that if any downward fluctuation in value occurred, it would be a token three to five percent. In fact we have now seen many commercial real estate values decrease by 40 to 50 percent during the past two years. Commercial real estate is proving to be the next toxic asset on their balance sheets for the many banks which made the original commercial mortgages on such business properties. While there were huge government bailouts to banks which have toxic assets based on residential mortgages, it is not likely that banks will receive financial assistance to cover commercial real estate loan losses. As a result, a realistic expectation is that such commercial finance losses could produce serious problems for many banks and other lenders over the next several years. As noted in the following paragraph, many lenders have already drastically reduced their small business finance programs.

Inaccurate and misleading statements by commercial lenders about their lending activities for business finance programs to small business owners is an ongoing problem. Although banks have typically been reporting that they are lending normally with their small business financing, the actual results indicate something very different by any objective standard. It is obvious that lenders would rather not admit publicly that they are not lending normally because of the negative public relations impact this would cause. Business owners will need to be skeptical and cautious in their efforts to secure small business financing because of this particular issue alone.

There are practical and realistic small business finance solutions available to business owners in spite of the inappropriate commercial lending practices just described. The emphasis here is focusing on the problems rather than the solutions primarily because of the lingering notion by some that there are not significant current commercial lending problems. Despite contrary views from bankers and politicians, collectively most observers would agree that the multiple mistakes made by banks and other commercial lenders were serious and are likely to have long-lasting effects for commercial borrowers.

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