U.S. Small Business and the Credit Debate (Part 3) – Uncertainty Hurting Growth
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For the U.S. economy, there are more questions than answers. Will job growth continue? How will regulations impact costs and profit? Who will win the 2012 elections? How will Europe’s debt crisis impact the United States? These and other questions leave businesses and investors wondering what the future holds, which makes them wary of spending – and lending – hard-earned capital. One ramification is that some U.S. businesses have found it difficult to access the credit needed to grow and hire.
The economy has shown some positive momentum since the United States emerged from recession. One factor in maintaining that progress is the U.S. private sector’s ability to secure needed credit. The National Chamber Foundation spoke with Dennis Jacobe, Gallup’s chief economist, public opinion research director and financial services industry consultant, to understand the factors that have made it difficult for some businesses to access credit. The causes (discussed in part 1 and part 2 of this series) are many, and looking ahead, the future depends in part on how certainty and confidence are established in the U.S. and international markets.
“We are a heck of a lot better off than we were in 2008 and 2009,” Jacobe said. “It’s hard to perceive that, and I don’t think a lot of consumers feel that way, but in terms of the financial crisis and the recession, we have come a long way.”
The banking system and the financial system overall is much stronger. Though economic threats from abroad remain (largely in Europe), Jacobe said the United States is better able to withstand international economic shocks than in years past.
“To really grow, you need a strong financial system,” said Jacobe. “People underestimate that. A strong financial system is the key to strong economic growth, and it is one thing we have had to recover.”
A strengthening financial system builds trust in the country’s forward momentum, but uncertainty in other respects dampens confidence. If investors and lenders are unsure of what will happen in the months and years ahead, they are more reticent to offer credit and capital. It could help spur growth; it could expose them to too much risk – business owners simply don’t know. Weakened trust in the U.S. private sector’s viability means everything grows that much more slowly, if at all.
In the National Federation of Independent Business optimism index for June, which showed a three-point drop from May, access to credit was not cited as the foremost concern. Indeed, 93 percent of business owners said they had enough credit or did not want to take on more debt. Yet, this is not necessarily a sign that credit markets have eased. Uncertainty makes the business community hesitant to invest in growth and taking on new debt.
Costly regulations, the housing market recovery, the ramifications from the Affordable Healthcare Act, this year’s elections, and many other factors leave businesses and lenders unsure of what will happen to the economy in the months ahead. This in turn makes businesses and lenders less ready to invest in new jobs, in new debt and in the many elements that go into small business growth. If certainty can be established, however, Jacobe is optimistic.
“I think economy can turn around quickly, but there is too much uncertainty,” he said. “Once the economic outlook turns sharply, the lending spigots will open and underwriting becomes a lot easier. I’m not sure that in the foreseeable future we will get to the wild days of 2007 – I’m not sure we want to get to those days – but there is a much stronger economic outlook. Once we get some certainty going after 2012, the essentials are there. The financial system is strong enough.”
The challenge of small business access to credit is multi-faceted. It does not impact all small businesses equally, and it depends on factors beyond just policies and regulations in the United States. The debates over how best to foster better access to capital will continue, but it will take trust, time and certainty to realize the lending environment many businesses desire.
Cross-posted from the National Chamber Foundaton's blog.