Tight Credit Gets Tighter

Two years into the financial crisis, small and midsize companies report that it's still tough to obtain loans from banks. In fact, 58% of 560 small and midsize companies that negotiated or refinanced a loan over the last three months say that it was harder to obtain credit than it had been a year earlier, according to the latest quarterly survey by Greenwich Associates, and 36% of those companies described it as "much harder" to borrow. Twenty-seven percent of companies say they saw no change in the difficulty of arranging credit, and 15% say it was easier to borrow over the last three months than it was a year earlier.

The Greenwich Credit Availability Index measures how many companies view credit as easier vs. harder to obtain. The index has been in negative territory, indicating that more companies are having a hard time getting loans--for small businesses since the first quarter of 2008 and for midsize companies since the third quarter of 2008.

Rajeev Dhawan, director of the economic forecasting center at Georgia State University's J. Mack Robinson College of Business, says banks' bad debts, many related to real estate, keep them from lending freely. "The biggest chunk would be residential, as well as commercial real estate," he says.

"The faster we clean up [the bad loans], the faster we get back to normal growth," Dhawan says. He argues that the U.S. should be able to resolve the problem of banks' bad loans more quickly than Japan, where the issue resulted in a decade of economic stagnation in the 90s, because the U.S. has a broader range of potential buyers. "We allow anyone who can put the money up to buy the stuff," he says.

Dhawan notes that small companies have less flexibility in obtaining financing than do big companies. "The big corporations can substitute somewhat," he says, with other forms of credit, like commercial paper. "But even when floating commercial paper, companies need the backing of a bank," he says.