My View | Helping Small Businesses


While our small businesses often lead the nation out of recession, that has not been the case this time and least not so far.

The national unemployment rate jumped to 10.2 percent in October from 9.8 percent in September, and economists say a big reason is that small businesses continue to struggle.

Small businesses are the life-blood of our economy and are key to leading us on the path toward recovery. Businesses with fewer than 20 employees account for 25 percent of all jobs but generated about 40 percent of the job growth in the last recovery, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

While Congress took unprecedented action last fall to help stabilize big business and big banks on Wall Street, we should do more to support the small and independent business owners on Main Street that will create the jobs that fuel recovery beyond the stock market.

In dozens of discussions with hundreds of entrepreneurs and hometown bankers across Virginia, I have learned of their significant frustration over the limited availability of credit and the slow-moving federal programs that are supposed to help small businesses.

Many banks, for instance, have tightened the availability of credit in anticipation of future loan losses in commercial real estate and home mortgage loans. Others have clamped down generally in an effort to improve their balance sheets while they wait for Congress to complete work on financial re-regulations that might require them to put aside additional capital reserves or submit to tougher regulatory oversight.

While the Obama administration has taken steps in recent months to loosen the clogged credit pipelines overall, these programs have done little to unlock credit for small business owners and retailers. Many of these business owners have told me, for instance, that the credit crunch has limited their ability to hire seasonal employees for the upcoming holidays.

Late last month, President Obama announced new initiatives to spur lending to small businesses, including higher caps on loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration. This is a good first step. However, I believe we can and should do more to help responsible, creditworthy small and midsize businesses access the credit they need in many cases, so they can maintain payrolls and inventories.

Thats why I have put forward a sensible proposal that would reallocate a portion of the unused funds in the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, combined with the resources of regional and community-based banks, to create up to a $50 billion small business loan fund.

On Oct. 21, I sent a letter to President Obama signed by 32 of my Senate colleagues one-third of the entire Senate urging the White House to consider this proposal, and we continue to have meaningful and productive conversations with the administration about how to implement this proposal.

The overwhelming majority of our regional and community banks had absolutely nothing to do with the poor decisions and excesses that swept Wall Street in recent years and helped trigger our economic meltdown. And community-based banks have extensive experience in evaluating and managing small business loans.

My initiative would require these local banks to put up some of their own money and assume some of the risk because I believe it is important that they have some skin in the game. For instance, I have suggested requiring banks to contribute at least 20 percent of their own money and assume first-dollar loss. This will ensure that banks do not relax their credit standards or offer loans to otherwise un-creditworthy customers simply to access federal dollars designated for small business loans.

We also propose that these TARP funds should remain off the balance sheet so banks cannot use the funds simply to bolster their own capital. Additionally, funds should be time-limited, which will ensure that the funds quickly reach those business owners who need it most.

This proposal provides a responsible plan for targeted, short-term loans that will not require one additional taxpayer dollar. But even this relatively modest program could help jump-start the economic recovery at the community level.

We see this as a constructive step one that unlocks frozen credit to our small businesses, and one that will provide a short-term lifeline so these small businesses can survive until we see a more robust economic recovery.

Let me be clear: We are not suggesting a bailout. Rather, we are simply recommending a responsible way to re-boot the credit markets serving our independent businesses, retailers and entrepreneurs.
Mark R. Warner represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and is an Alexandria resident.