Bernanke: Lending to small business vital

By Reuters
Posted July 12, 2010 at 2:50 p.m.

Boosting credit to struggling small businesses is vital to keep a tepid U.S. recovery on track but wary banks can’t be forced to lend from their bountiful reserves, Federal Reserve officials said Monday.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke underlined the need for companies — many working their way back to health from the deep recession — to be able to get loans when they need them to expand and to hire.“To support the recovery, we need to find ways to ensure that credit-worthy borrowers have access to needed loans,” he told a Fed-sponsored conference on small business financing.

The conference caps more than 40 information-gathering meetings the central bank  held across the country to find ways to overcome obstacles to lending.

On the sidelines, Fed Governor Elizabeth Duke drew attention to the difficulty of persuading lenders that a slow-paced recovery warrants putting their money at risk by lending it.

“I don’t know of any way we can actually force the banks to lend the reserves,” she told CNBC television. “There are a lot of reserves out there, and I think it’s going to take general economic improvement once the business prospects are better.”

A scarcity of credit for small and medium-size businesses, traditionally the driving-force behind job creation, has been cited for woes ranging from a 9 percent-plus unemployment rate to a perceived risk of double-dip recession.

Double-dip overdone?

With a recent spate of economic data suggesting the recovery is flagging, the Fed faces a quandary. It has lowered interest rates to near zero and pumped up bank reserves by flooding the financial system with more than $1 trillion.

While most analysts expect the Fed  eventually will  tighten monetary policy, some think further easing may be needed to prevent a new downturn.

The U.S. central bank could pump more liquidity into the economy through a variety of so-called “quantitative easing” methods such as  buying assets from banks or buying mortgage securities in hope of spurring more lending.

Richmond Federal Reserve Bank President Jeffrey Lacker argued on Monday that double-dip fears were overdone, saying the softer-than-expected data, from anemic private hiring to battered consumer confidence, was not “inconsistent with a moderately paced recovery.”

“Market participants seem to be overreacting to a couple of reports that have been a little bit below what people expected,” he told reporters at an event at the Richmond Fed’s headquarters.

Lacker, a “hawk” on inflation who is not a voter this year on the Fed’s policy-setting Federal Open Market Committee, was the only Fed speaker to directly address the policy outlook.

“For me, consideration of further easing steps now is very far away,” Lacker said. “It would take a very substantial, unanticipated adverse shock.”

Like Lacker, Duke said she felt the economy was on track for continued growth. In response to a question, she said she didn’t think a double-dip recession was a major worry.

“It’s still a moderate recovery,” Duke said, adding that she expects credit flow to “gradually loosen up”  in response to brightening business prospects.

The economy has grown for three straight quarters beginning in the third quarter of 2009, but recent economic data implying softening housing markets and weak consumer confidence have led investors to fear the expansion could stumble.

Credit availability has become a concern after the 2007-2009 crisis that hit financial firms exceptionally hard. Total loans held by commercial banks dropped 5 percent last year and lending has continued to shrink in 2010.

Bernanke said small businesses play a key role in job creation but they continue to report tough credit conditions. The Fed “takes very seriously” complaints from bankers that bank examiners often stop lenders from making good loans, he added.

But Bernanke also said lower loan demand and many businesses’ still-weak financial position were holding back lending.

The Obama administration backs legislation to create a $30 billion fund to boost capital at community banks to encourage small business lending, but that faces an uncertain fate in Congress where lawmakers seeking re-election in November are wary of anything that could be seen as a bailout.

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