Just as owning a home was assumed to be a positive financial strategy for individuals, small companies owning commercial real estate was typically seen as a routine and constructive piece of their commercial financing during the period leading up to the most recent financial crisis. Both of these assumptions start to fall apart very quickly when it is difficult or impossible to obtain the underlying real estate loans from banks. Real estate continues to be a major component of the overall economy, and ongoing difficulties involving either obtaining or refinancing commercial mortgage loans presents severe problems for both societal economics in general and small business economics in particular.
Did the Bank Bailout Help Small Businesses?
One of the primary arguments made in favor of bailing out banks in 2008 was that it would permit the restoration of "normal financing" to businesses of all sizes everywhere. Seven years later most small businesses are still waiting for bailout funding to "trickle down" to them. Working capital loans and commercial mortgages are missing in action for many commercial borrowers.
Real estate has regularly been in economic news for both good reasons and bad reasons during the past several decades. Starting around 2005, concerns began appearing about the financial health of both real estate and the overall economy. What we did not know at the time was that banks began making speculative investments in financial derivatives tied to real property at about the same time. Some of these investment practices produced massive losses that precipitated the public banking crisis emerging in 2007 and resulting in a widespread bank bailout program in 2008. Even the few instances in which these derivatives produced profits for the banks proved to be controversial because the profitable investing was frequently at the expense of banking customers.
Zombie Banks and Troubled Banks
Here are two of the real estate and banking problems that are still very actively impairing the small business economy:
- Zombie Banks are still operating - a Zombie Bank is one with a negative net worth (liabilities exceeding assets).
- The FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) Troubled Banks List still has more than 200 banking institutions on the list.
It is worth noting that the FDIC does not publicize the problem bank list or name specific banks on the list - probably fearing a "run on the banks" if they did so. The recent "bank holiday" in Greece illustrates how quickly bank depositors can lose confidence in banking institutions. But the FDIC does release the number of banks on their troubled bank list on a quarterly basis. For example, the March 2015 total of problem banks as defined by the FDIC was 253. In comparison, the total was more than 850 banks at the peak of the recent financial crisis - but there were less than 50 troubled banks before the 2008 bank bailouts.
What to Do When Banks Say No
Small business owners must draw their own conclusions about the current financial health of banks, but it seems unlikely that a "Troubled Bank" will be able to make a "normal" level of small business loans. If banks are still saying "No" to routine commercial financing for creditworthy small businesses, what is the recommended response? Small business owners should actively review alternatives that include non-bank financing, reducing business debt and increasing sales with cost-effective solutions such as business proposal writing. At some point the practical need to fire their bank and banker will by necessity become one of the realistic actions by a commercial borrower in need of business financing but unable to obtain it from their current banking institution. In such a scenario, "You're fired" can quickly become another example of life imitating art.