Sunday, November 29, 2009

Getting it wrong on credit conditions

I've been obsessed for a while with the idea that credit availability is a much smaller factor in the current downturn than is widely believed -- that the focus on bank balance sheets as a key constraint on output and employment is a symptom of the intellectual capture of economic discussions by Wall Street.

Here's a perfect example from the generally good Gretchen Morgenson of the Times. Morgenson writes:

All that debt overhanging consumers and organizations is the pivotal reason we are still seeing a free fall in bank lending. And small businesses, which account for half of all jobs in this country, are taking the brunt of this credit contraction. Smaller banks are especially worried about their own balance sheets and aren’t making loans. This puts small businesses ­ important engines of growth ­ squarely on the brink.

In its survey, the [National Federation of Independent Businesses] asks small businesses how easy it is for them to get loans. The most recent data shows that credit tightness peaked earlier this fall ­ the worst levels in 23 years, Mr. Shepherdson says. Although credit continues to remain troublingly hard for small business to come by, that phenomenon is a largely untold story.

So let's take a look at what that NFIB report actually says. Yes, on p.12-13 it reports that the net percent reporting easier credit conditions was -14 percent in October, compared with just -4 percent five years ago; in July, the percent saying they had satisfied their borrowing needs over the past three months bottomed out at 29%, with 10% saying their borrowing needs were not satisfied. (The balance didn't need to borrow.)


Turn to p. 14 and you see that the interest rate paid by small business on short-term loans was 6.0%, down from 9.5% in May 2007. On p.6, we learn that of the half of small business owners who report lower earnings this month, 62% say it's because of reduced sales and another 8% to price cuts; only 13% cite rising costs, including labor, materials, taxes, and regulatory costs as well as finance costs. And then on p. 18 they ask small biz owners what is their most important problem. Sales, 33%; taxes, 22%; government regulation, 11%; competition from big business, 6%; and finally financing, tied with cost and and quality of labor at 4%. Compare this to the early 80s, when nearly 40% cited financing as their single most important problem.

Here's how the NFIB itself summarizes these findings:

Overall, loan demand remains weak due to widespread postponement of investment in inventories and record low plans for capital spending. In addition, the continued poor earnings and sales performance has weakened the credit worthiness of many potential borrowers. This has resulted in tougher terms and higher loan rejection rates (even with no change in lending standards), and there is no rush to borrow money ... It sounds like the Administration thinks the reason small firms are not hiring is that they are not able get credit. Although credit is harder to get, 'financing' is cited as the 'most important problem' by only four percent of NFIB’s hundreds of thousands of member firms. ... Record low percentages cite the current period as a good time to expand, more owners plan to reduce inventories than to add to them, and record low percentages plan any capital expenditures. In short, the demand for credit is in short supply and failing to understand the more major problems facing small business leads to bad policy. ... What small business needs is customers.

Gretchen Morgenson is one of the better business reporters out there, as far as I can tell. So how could she take a report that explicitly says that credit availability is not a major problem for small businesses and turn its findings around 180 degrees? And of course, this has implications for the shaping of policy. The NFIB's story leads to the conclusion that what's needed is government action to raise final demand. But in Morgenson's version, it turns into an argument for further capital injections into the banking system instead. That's how strong is the intellectual hegemony of finance. Stories that don't end with the moral "... and so banks need more money" just do not get told.

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