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Sunday, May 10, 2009


Vanishing Credit Lines for Consumers and Small Businesses


In Credit Card Lending Goes Full Cycle I posted an Email from Scott who was denied a credit card by Capital One on the basis of where he lived. Capital One did not even bother with a credit check that would have sown that Scott had a FICO score of 800.

Businesses are also feeling the squeeze. BusinessWeek is reportingJPMorgan Chase is Reducing or Eliminating Small Business Credit Lines.

JPMorgan Chase and others are shoring up balance sheets by reducing or eliminating these financial lifelines to entrepreneurs.

For small business owners, a line of credit can be a lifesaver, giving them a buffer against cash-flow problems and enabling them to handle regular expenses such as payroll. But beginning in March, according to documents obtained by BusinessWeek, JPMorgan Chase suspended credit lines for a large number of business owners. According to someone familiar with the matter, the move affected thousands of businesses. They had been clients of Washington Mutual before Chase bought the ailing bank in September 2008. The documents show that Chase tasked a special group inside the bank with responding to inquiries from borrowers.

If business owners can't convince Chase of their creditworthiness, they have three options: 1) pay off the balance in full; 2) agree to a conversion of the line of credit into a term loan; or 3) go into default.

Thomas Kelly, a spokesman for Chase, says the bank continually reviews the lines of credit in its portfolio. "We contact customers if we determine there has been an adverse change in their financial condition or credit history. We may eliminate the unused portion of their credit line and set up a standard repayment plan." Kelly says the bank encourages customers to contact Chase if they want the decision reevaluated or if they want to provide information such as their federal tax return. And he says the bank has assigned staff to work with customers who want such decisions reexamined.

Broader Phenomenon

The phenomenon may extend well beyond Chase and its borrowers. "I'm hearing it more and more," says Stacey Sanchez, senior community loan officer with San Diego-based CDC Small Business Finance, a community development corporation, who says entrepreneurs often turn to her institution when their credit lines are pulled. Sanchez says the increased aggressiveness on the part of lenders may be due in part to banks now being in possession of 2008 tax returns for most of their clients, which show the full ugliness of the last quarter of 2008.

And suspending lines of credit is certainly an efficient way to reduce the risk on a bank's balance sheet. According to officials at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, bank reserves for bad loans are based on the total exposure to a customer. So if a bank has a $100,000 line of credit with a small firm and only $20,000 is drawn down, the total exposure is still $100,000, and the bank usually will reserve for loan losses based on that amount. But if they convert the $20,000 outstanding to a term loan and cancel the line of credit, or if they simply cut the line to $20,000, the reserves would be based on that $20,000 figure.

Regulatory pressure likely plays a part as well. Bert Ely, an Alexandria (Va.)-based financial-services consultant, says he hears repeatedly from banks around the country that while the White House and Treasury talk about the need for lending to small business, local bank examiners continue to pressure them to upgrade the quality of their loan portfolios.

"You have a disconnect between what policymakers are saying and what the rank-and-file bank examiners and supervisors are saying," Ely says. That has painful repercussions for business owners around the country.
Consumer Credit Plunges 

In case you missed it Consumer Credit Plunges Record $11.1 Billion.
March consumer credit fell at an annual rate of 5.2% to a total of $2.55 trillion. This was the biggest percentage drop since December 1990.

Non-revolving credit, which includes closed-end loans for big-ticket items like cars, boats, college education and holidays, dropped $5.7 billion, or at a 4.2% rate, to $1.6 trillion.

Revolving credit, made up of credit and charge cards, fell $5.4 billion, or at a 6.8% rate, to $946 billion in March. This compared with a revised $9.7 billion drop in February.
By withdrawing or reducing credit lines, banks are arguably acting responsibly for the first time in decades. Bear in mind there could also be an overreaction by some banks in response to pressure from regulators to upgrade the quality of their portfolios. In that sense, regulators might be closing the barn door too late. Such is always the case with regulation.

Regardless why, talk of green shoots is premature when credit conditions are deteriorating and consumer and small business credit is contracting.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock
http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com
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