By exploring what went wrong with commercial lenders and small business financing, business owners will be better prepared to avoid serious future problems with their working capital financing and commercial real estate financing. This is not a hypothetical issue for most commercial borrowers, particularly if they need help with determining practical small business finance choices that are available to them. Business owners should be prepared for the banks and bankers who caused the recent financial chaos to say that nothing has gone wrong with commercial lending and even if it did everything is back to normal. It is hard to imagine how anything could be further from the truth. Commercial lenders made serious mistakes, and according to a popular phrase, if business lenders and business owners forget these mistakes, they are doomed to repeat them in the future.
Greed seems to be a common theme for several of the most serious business finance mistakes made by many lending institutions. Unsurprising negative results were produced by the attempt to produce quick profits and higher-than-normal returns. The bankers themselves seem to be the only ones surprised by the devastating losses that they produced. After two years of trying unsuccessfully to get someone else to pay for their errors, the largest small business lender in the United States (CIT Group) recently declared bankruptcy. We are already seeing a record level of bank failures, and by most accounts many of the largest banks should have been allowed to fail but were instead supported by artificial government funding.
When making loans or buying securities such as those now referred to as toxic assets, there were many instances in which banks failed to look at cash flow. For some small business finance programs, a stated income commercial loan underwriting process was used in which commercial borrower tax returns were not even requested or reviewed. One of the most prominent business lenders aggressively using this approach was Lehman Brothers (which filed for bankruptcy due to a number of questionable financial dealings).
Bankers obsessed with generating quick profits frequently lost sight of a basic investment principle that asset valuations can decrease quickly and do not always increase. Many business loans were finalized in which the commercial borrower had little or no equity at risk. When buying the future toxic assets, banks themselves invested as little as three cents on the dollar. The apparent assumption was that if any downward fluctuation in value occurred, it would be a token three to five percent. In fact we have now seen many commercial real estate values decrease by 40 to 50 percent during the past two years. For banks which made the original commercial mortgage loans on such business properties, commercial real estate is proving to be the next toxic asset on their balance sheets. In contrast to the government bailouts to banks having toxic assets based on non-performing residential loans, it is unlikely that banks will receive similar financial assistance to cover commercial mortgage problems. As a result, a realistic expectation is that such commercial finance losses could produce serious problems for many banks and other lenders over the next several years. Much to the dismay of all business owners and as mentioned in the next paragraph, many commercial lending programs have already been dramatically reduced.
An ongoing problem is illustrated by misleading lender statements about their small business financing activities. While many banks have routinely indicated that they are providing business financing on a normal basis, the actual results by almost any standard indicate otherwise. It is obvious that lenders would rather not admit publicly that they are not lending normally because of the negative public relations impact this would cause. Business owners will need to be skeptical and cautious in their efforts to secure small business financing because of this particular issue alone.
There are practical and realistic small business finance solutions available to business owners in spite of the inappropriate commercial lending practices just described. Due to the lingering impression by some that there are not significant commercial lending difficulties currently, the intentional emphasis here has been a focus on the problems rather than the solutions . Despite contrary views from bankers and politicians, collectively most observers would agree that the multiple mistakes made by banks and other commercial lenders were serious and are likely to have long-lasting effects for commercial borrowers.