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Banks' vows to increase small-business lending tough to verify

Banks know what the public wants to hear: They're lending money to the little guys.

JPMorgan Chase's new ad campaign publicizes the bank's plans to lend $10 billion to small businesses this year. Other banks, including Wells Fargo, also say they'll extend more small-business loans.

Bold promises, for sure. Just don't expect to know many details on how they're delivered.

Forget searching for "small business loans" on the banks' Web sites to get specifics on the progress of these new programs. Same goes for digging into the banks' finances, because you aren't going to find this segment broken out in one spot.

"You can't," says JPMorgan Chase spokesman Thomas Kelly.

Instead, the banks say they'll keep the public posted on how their loan programs are going. That means they get to tell us what information they want, when they want and filtered the way they want.

They've even got leeway in how they define small businesses, since there isn't a universal standard.

What's at issue here is that banks have been criticized for their reluctance to lend over the past year and a half. Many small businesses have especially felt that pinch because, unlike larger companies, which can raise money through stock or bond sales, smaller businesses rely more heavily on bank lending to run their operations.

Now the banks say that's changing. While no one is accusing them of lying about their lending plans, it will be hard to know if they keep their word because accounting rules don't require them to disclose their loans based on size or type of borrower.

"(The banks) get to pick and choose what numbers they tell us without having to give any context," says James Kwak, who writes for the financial and economics blog the Baseline Scenario.

"It doesn't mean they are sinister, but their numbers will be hard to verify."

Small businesses, which the government generally defines as those with fewer than 500 employees, have been among the hardest hit by the tightening of credit over the past two years. Banks have dramatically curbed loans to startups, those losing money or anyone with risks in their business profile.

If these companies can't borrow, it's bad for the overall economy, since they employ more than half of all private-sector workers.

That's why there is such a fuss over news that banks are becoming more willing to lend again to small businesses.

Wells Fargo says it plans to increase its small business loans by as much as 25 percent in 2010 to $16 billion. JPMorgan Chase is running newspaper ads in major markets including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas.

With the headline "Helping Small Business in Even Bigger Ways," the bank says it will lend $10 billion to small businesses in 2010, up from $6 billion last year.

So where will that $10 billion come from? Some details on those loans will be disclosed quarterly. That will happen with lending done in JPMorgan's business banking unit, which is part of its retail financial services division.

Wells Fargo hasn't yet decided how to communicate the progress of its program, said David Pope, executive vice president in the bank's small-business division.

Chances are most banks won't risk the marketing blunder of not sticking to their promises. But they have wiggle room to get to the numbers they want.

Banks' vows to increase small-business lending tough to verify 03/07/10 [Last modified: Sunday, March 7, 2010 6:01pm]
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