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May 28, 2010
How "discouraged" are small businesses? Insights from an Atlanta Fed small business lending survey
Roughly half of U.S. workers are employed at firms with fewer than 500 employees, and about 90 percent of U.S. firms have fewer than 20 employees. While estimates vary, small businesses are also credited with creating the lion's share of net new jobs. Small businesses are, in total, a big deal. Thus, it is no surprise that there is congressional debate going on about how to best aid small businesses and promote job growth. Many people have noted the decline in small business lending during the recession, and some have suggested proposals to give incentives to banks to increase their small business portfolios. But is a lack of willingness to lend to small businesses really what's behind the decline in small business lending? Or is it the lack of creditworthy demand resulting from the effects of the recession and housing market distress?
Economists often face such identification dilemmas, situations in which we would like to know whether supply or demand is the driving factor behind changes within a market. Additional data can often help solve the problem. In this case we might want to know about all of the loans applied for by small businesses, whether the loans were granted and at what rates, and specific information on loan quality and collateral. Alas, such data are not available. In fact, the Congressional Oversight Panel in a recent report recommends that the U.S. Treasury and other regulators "establish a rigorous data collection system or survey that examines small business finance" and notes that "the lack of timely and consistent data has significantly hampered efforts to approach and address the crisis."
We at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta have also noted the paucity of data in this area and have begun a series of small business credit surveys. Leveraging the contacts in our Regional Economic Information Network (REIN), we polled 311 small businesses in the states of the Sixth District (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee) on their credit experiences and future plans. While the survey is not a stratified random sample and so should not be viewed as a statistical representation of small business firms in the Sixth District, we believe the results are informative.
Indeed, the results of our April 2010 survey suggest that demand-side factors may be the driving force behind lower levels of small business credit. To be sure, when asked about the recent obstacles to accessing credit, some firms (34 firms, or 11 percent of our sample) cited banks' unwillingness to lend, but many more firms cited factors that may reflect low credit quality on the part of prospective borrowers. For example, 32 percent of firms cited a decline in sales over the past two years as an obstacle, 19 percent cited a high level of outstanding business or personal debt, 10 percent cited a less than stellar credit score, and 112 firms (32 percent) report no recent obstacles to credit. Perhaps not surprisingly, outside of the troubled construction and real estate industries, close to half the firms polled (46 percent) do not believe there are any obstacles while only 9 percent report unwillingness on the part of banks.
These opinions are reinforced by responses detailing the firms' decisions to seek or not seek credit and the outcomes of submitted credit applications.
Of the 191 firms that did not seek credit in the past three months, 131 (69 percent) report that they either had sufficient cash on hand, did not have the sales/revenues to warrant additional debt, or did not need credit. (Note the percentages in the chart above reflect multiple responses by firms.) These responses likely reflect both the impact of the recession on the revenues of small firms as well as precautionary/prudent cash management.
The administration has recently sent draft legislation to Congress for a supply-side program—the Small Business Lending Fund (SBLF)—to address the funding needs of small businesses. The congressional oversight report raises a good question about the potential effectiveness of supply-side programs:
"A small business loan is, at its heart, a contract between two parties: a bank that is willing and able to lend, and a business that is creditworthy and in need of a loan. Due to the recession, relatively few small businesses now fit that description. To the extent that contraction in small business lending reflects a shortfall of demand rather than of supply, any supply-side solution will fail to gain traction."
That said, one way that a supply-side program like SBLF would make sense, even if low demand is the force driving lower lending rates, is if there are high-quality borrowers that are not applying for credit merely because they anticipate that they will be denied. We could term these firms "discouraged borrowers," to co-opt a term from labor markets (i.e., discouraged workers).
If a program increased the perceived probability of approval, either by increasing approval rates via a subsidization of small business lending or merely by changing borrower beliefs, more high-quality, productive loans would be made.
Just how many discouraged borrowers are out there? The chart above illustrates that, indeed, 16 percent of all of our responding firms and 21 percent of construction and real estate firms might fall into this category. I add "might" because the anticipation of a denial may well be accurate but based on a lack of creditworthiness and not the irrational or inefficient behavior of banks. Digging into our results, we find that 35 percent of the firms who did not seek credit because of the anticipation of a denial also cited "not enough sales," indicating that a denial would likely have reflected underlying loan quality.
In the labor market, so-called "discouraged workers" flow back into the labor force when they perceive that the probability of finding an acceptable job has increased enough to make searching for work, and working, attractive again. We should expect so-called "discouraged borrowers" to do the same. That's because if they don't, the likely alternatives for them, at some point, would be to sell the business or go out of business. It seems unlikely that, facing such alternatives, a "discouraged" firm would not attempt to access credit. The responses of firms in our sample are consistent with this logic; 55 percent of those who did not seek credit in the past three months because of the anticipation of a denial indicated that they plan to seek credit in the next six months.
Our results also provide some interesting data on an assumption underlying the policy debate: that those small businesses are credit constrained. Of the 117 firms in the survey that that sought credit during the previous three months, the following chart illustrates the extent to which these firms met their financing needs.
Based on firm reports of the credit channel applications submitted in the previous three months, we created a financing index value for each firm. Firms that were denied on all of their credit applications have a financing index equal to 1, while firms that received all of the funding requested have an index level of 5. Index levels between 1 and 5 indicate, from lesser to greater, the extent to which their applications were successful. In the chart we plot data on the financing index levels of all firms in our sample and then split according to whether the firm is in construction and real estate. Among construction and real estate firms, 50 percent of firms had an index below 2.5, suggesting most did not get their financing requests meet. In contrast, the median index value of 4.7 for all other firms suggests that most of these firm were able to obtain all or most of the credit they requested. This difference between real estate–related firms and others is really not surprising given that the housing sector was at the heart of the financial crisis and recession. But it does suggest that more work needs to be done to analyze the industry-specific funding constraints among small businesses.
By Paula Tkac, assistant vice president and senior economist, of the Atlanta Fed
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May 20, 2010
Sticky-price CPI up slightly in April... Wait, what?
No matter how you cut the April report on consumer prices, retail inflation keeps coming up zero. Here are the key points:
- The consumer price index (CPI) fell a tiny bit in April but has remained essentially unchanged since January.
- The core CPI (excluding food and energy) hasn't posted a significant increase dating back to last October, and its 0.9 percent rise from a year ago is its smallest 12-month increase since 1966.
- The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland's median CPI continued a trend of essentially no change since October and is up a mere 0.5 percent from a year ago—a new year-over-year low for the series.
Oh, and the sticky-price CPI was up only 1.25 percent (annualized) in April. Maybe we ought to explain this last one a little more.
When you look at the headline CPI, what you're really looking at is a constellation of price movements that are a mixture of various forces. For example, there are changes in market conditions that are specific to particular goods—dairy prices fell sharply in April, presumably in response to an unanticipated jump in milk production. Stripping away these idiosyncratic price movements is, in large part, what the core inflation measures, including the Cleveland Fed's median CPI, are designed to do.
But economists tend to think of two general forces that drive all prices: (1) the amount of "slack" in the economy influencing the pricing power of firms and workers and (2) inflation expectations, which affect forward-looking price and wage decisions.
Of course, these two forces are unlikely to affect all prices in the exactly same way. Economists have long accepted the idea that some prices are "sticky," meaning they may not be particularly sensitive to changing market conditions, including economic slack. But if these sticky prices are, in fact, insulated from the ups and downs of the marketplace, might they be more forward looking?
In recent work, we used data on the price flexibility of specific goods to separate the CPI into two components: a flexible-price CPI and a sticky-price CPI. What we found was that flexible-price goods represent roughly 30 percent of the CPI market basket, and these goods tend to respond to the state of the economy. However, the sticky-price goods that make up the remaining 70 percent of the CPI market basket don't appear to respond to economic conditions. Consider the figure below, which shows the correspondence between the flexible-price CPI and the sticky-price CPI to the amount of slack in U.S. labor markets—the so-called Phillips curve relationship.
But what the sticky-price CPI lacks in responsiveness to the economy, it seems to make up in terms of its ability to capture inflation expectations. In other words, the sticky-price CPI seems to be more forward looking.
What does all this have to do with the April CPI report? Well, not any more than you already know; this most recent CPI report doesn't have a hint of inflation in it. The flexible-price portion of the CPI that seems most responsive to the state of the economy fell last month, as it has, on average, during the past three months (–0.7 percent on a core basis.) And the sticky-price part of the CPI that seems to be most forward looking is only limping ahead, up 1.25 percent in April, and is less than 1 percent on a year-over-year basis.
By the way, if you want access to these data back to 1967, we've made them available to you on the Atlanta Fed's Inflation Project.
By Mike Bryan, vice president and senior economist at the Atlanta Fed, and Brent Meyer, senior economic analyst at the Cleveland Fed
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May 13, 2010
Regulatory reform via resolution: Maybe not sufficient, certainly necessary
This macroblog post is the first of several that will feature the Atlanta Fed's 2010 Financial Markets Conference. Please return for additional information.
On Tuesday and Wednesday the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta hosted its annual Financial Markets Conference, titled this year Up From the Ashes: The Financial System After the Crisis. Much of the first day was devoted to conversations about rating agencies and their role in the economy, for better and worse. The second day was absorbed by the issues of too-big-to-fail, macroprudential regulation, and regulatory reform.
One theme that ran throughout the second day's conversations related to the two aspects of regulatory reform highlighted by Chairman Bernanke in his recent congressional testimony on lessons from the failure of Lehman Brothers:
"The Lehman failure provides at least two important lessons. First, we must eliminate the gaps in our financial regulatory framework that allow large, complex, interconnected firms like Lehman to operate without robust consolidated supervision… Second, to avoid having to choose in the future between bailing out a failing, systemically critical firm or allowing its disorderly bankruptcy, we need a new resolution regime, analogous to that already established for failing banks."
Though those two aspects of reform are in no way mutually exclusive, there is, I think, a tendency to lean to one or the other as the first most important contributor to avoiding a repeat of our recent travails. To put it in slightly different terms, there are those that would place greatest emphasis on reducing the probability of systemically important failures and those that would put greatest emphasis on containing the damage when a systemically important failure occurs.
"…the best chance for durable reform is to start with the assumption that failure will happen and construct a strategy for dealing with it when it does…
"In a world with the capacity for rapid innovation, rule-writers have a tendency to perpetually fight the last war…
"I am not arguing that … the 'Volcker rule,' derivative exchanges, trading restrictions, or any of the specific regulatory reform proposals in play are necessarily bad ideas. I am arguing that we should assume that, no matter what proposed safeguards are put in place, failure of some systemically important institution will ultimately occur—somewhere, somehow. And that means priority has to be given to the development of resolution procedures for institutions that are otherwise too big to fail."
At our conference this week, University of Florida professor Mark Flannery expressed concerns that, placed in an international context, a truly robust resolution process for failed institutions may be tough to construct:
"In principle, a non-bankruptcy reorganization channel for SIFIs [systemically important financial institutions] makes a lot of sense. But the complexity of SIFIs' organizational structures introduces some serious problems. Not only do SIFIs operate with a bewildering array of subsidiaries… but they generally operate in many countries. Without very close coordination of resolution decisions across jurisdictions, a U.S. government reorganization would likely set off a scramble for assets of the sort that bankruptcy is meant to avoid. Rapid asset sales could generate downward price spirals… with systemically detrimental effects. Second, supervisors would have to assure that SIFIs maintain the proper sort and quantity of haircut-able liabilities outstanding. Once a firm has been identified as systemically important, this may be a relatively straightforward requirement to impose, but there remains the danger that 'shadow' institutions will become systemically important, before they are properly regulated. (This is not a danger unique to the question of resolution.)
"I conclude that the international coordination required to make prompt resolution feasible for SIFIs is a long way off, if it can be achieved at all."
Not an encouraging note, and the point is very well taken. Flannery concludes that we would be better served by focusing on changes that lie on the "avoiding failure" end of the reform spectrum: standardized derivative contracts, tying supervisory oversight to objective market-based metrics on the health of SIFIs, limitations on risky activities, and higher capital standards.
As I noted above, I am certainly not hostile to these ideas, and the answer to the question "should reform strategies be rules-based or resolution-based?" is surely "all of the above." But even if it will take a long time to develop better resolution procedures to address the types of problems that emerged in the past several years, I strongly argue that development of such procedures are necessary for the long-term, and work on these procedures should begin. And here, I have a relatively modest proposal, returning to my remarks:
"…there is a pretty obvious way to vet proposals that are offered. We have a couple of real-world case studies—Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG. One test for any proposed resolution process would be to illustrate how that plan would have been implemented in each of those cases. This set of experiments can't be started too soon, and I think should move it to the top of our reform priorities."
Whether it be the specific provisions of reform bills winding their way through Congress or the "living will" idea championed this week by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, I think we would do well to let the stress testing of those proposals begin.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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May 11, 2010
Return of the swap lines
As the European Union jumped into crisis resolution mode with both feet and the European Central Bank (ECB) responded to the "exceptional circumstances" with measures to address severe tensions in financial markets, the Federal Reserve has made its own contribution to global economic stability by announcing the reestablishment of temporary U.S. dollar swap facilities with the ECB, Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Swiss National Bank, and (later) the Bank of Japan.
Swap lines are not new tools for central banks. In fact, we covered the basics of swap arrangements in September 2008, explaining the rationale at that time for the facilities thus:
"An underlying aspect of a currency swap is that banks (and businesses) around the world have assets and liabilities not only in their home currency, but also in dollars. Thus, banks in England need funding in U.S. dollars as well as in pounds.
"However, banks recently have been reluctant to lend to one another. Some observers believe this reluctance relates to uncertainty about the assets that other banks have on their balance sheets or because a bank might be uncertain about its own short-term cash needs. Whatever the cause, this reluctance in the interbank market has pushed up the premium for short-term U.S. dollar funding and has been evident in a sharp escalation in LIBOR rates.
"The currency swap lines were designed to inject liquidity, which can help bring rates down."
Yesterday's online edition of The Wall Street Journal's Real Time Economics blog makes note of a more recent, and very nice, primer from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, co-authored by Michael Fleming and Nicholas Klagge. The Fleming-Klagge article describes a Libor-based measure of stress that was particularly acute in nondollar countries during the worst of the crisis that began in 2007.
"Because foreign banks secure much of their dollar funding through interbank loans, they can expect to face greater funding pressures during times of market stress. One way to measure such pressures involves examining the individual borrowing rates of the sixteen banks that make up the Libor survey 'panel.' The difference between the average borrowing rate of the panel's thirteen non-U.S. banks and the average borrowing rate of its three U.S. banks provides a rough proxy for the increased difficulty foreign banks face in trying to borrow dollars."
Did the currency swaps help bring this spread down? Here's a little informal evidence:
That's not proof, but it is not too hard to see why the New York Fed article would conclude with this answer to the WSJ's answer to the question "Did it Work?":
"Early evidence suggests that the swap lines were successful in smoothing disruptions in overseas dollar funding markets. Swap line announcements and operations were associated with improved conditions in these markets: Although measures of dollar funding pressures remained high throughout the crisis period, they tended to moderate following large increases in dollars lent under the swap line program. Moreover, the sharp decline in swap line usage as the crisis ebbed suggests that the pricing of funds offered through swap lines gave institutions an incentive to return to private sources of funding as market conditions improved."
You can find more information about the Federal Reserve's previous swap facilities here.
By Dave Altig, senior vice president and research director at the Atlanta Fed
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May 10, 2010
Estimating the oil spill's impact in the Gulf
In this past week's SouthPoint, the Atlanta Fed's regional economics blog, we discussed some of the economics behind the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We were careful to note that determining the impact of the spill is impossible because there are simply too many variables at work: the amount of time before the leaks are capped, the direction of the wind, wave action, water currents, the amount of oil that reaches the coast, the effectiveness of dispersion efforts, the efficiency of clean-up efforts on shore, the amount of federal spending, etc. Measuring the cost of the spill is simply out of reach at the moment.
We can measure the number of jobs at risk, however. Across Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas—the states likely to be affected most directly—total employment in tourism-related industries and agriculture was about 2.6 million (in 2008), or about 14 percent of total employment in those states. However, if we narrow our scope to metropolitan statistical areas along the Gulf Coast of the most affected states, the numbers are much smaller—just under 132,500—with most being in the accommodation and food services industry.
At the Atlanta Fed, like most Reserve Banks, we not only monitor statistical data, but we also seek out anecdotal information from business contacts within the Southeast. We are hearing mixed reports on hotel cancellations, which could have a significant impact on not only employment in the region but also sales tax revenue. While there has been a flood of inquiries, cancellations are not widespread to date. But some areas are seeing an inflow of clean-up workers into their hotels. Although rather insignificant at this point, it does lead to a larger measurement issue. That is, it's also impossible to measure the degree that clean-up and containment efforts will offset losses in other industries.
Econbrowser estimates the cost of the spill to British Petroleum (BP) by measuring the change in the company's stock price:
"Stock prices give us a yardstick for the markets perception of a company's long run profitability. When an event, such as this oil spill, impacts a company it will also impact its long run profitability. The divergence of the stock price from what we would have expected had the event never happened is a measure of the net present value of the cost incurred by the oil spill. Event study analysis gives us a framework to answer just this question."
While the approach to determining the cost of the spill to BP is much more straightforward than guessing wind and sea currents, it doesn't get to the more complicated endeavor of determining the cost to local communities. For that we will have to wait and see what happens next. Here are some useful links to help keep up with events:
The U.S. Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service, along with other agencies, has created a Web page dedicated to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill response that features regular updates, maps, and fact sheets. You can also register to receive e-mail notification of updates.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is providing coordinated scientific weather and biological response services to federal, state, and local organizations.
A joint effort is under way from the Ocean Circulation Group and the Optical Oceanography Laboratory at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science to track and predict the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Wall Street Journal is also providing regular updates and coverage.
Finally, the Washington Post published a graphic of the spill and the affected areas of economic activity along the Gulf Coast.
By Mike Chriszt, assistant vice president, and Mike Hammill, economic policy analysis specialist, both in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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May 04, 2010
The young and the restless
I have been reading a lot lately about the role of small firms in the economy. Recommended resources in this regard include these Kauffman Foundation papers.
One of the themes emerging from this literature is that focusing just on firm size misses an important aspect of job creation and destruction in the U.S. economy—namely, the interaction between firm size and firm age. To illustrate this, the following chart is a dissection of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) quarterly Business Employment Dynamics (BED) data into private employer firms with fewer than 50 employees and those with at least 50 employees (note that the BED classifies businesses using a dynamic size measure in which the job creation/destruction is allocated to a size class dynamically as a business moves through a size class from prior quarter to the current quarter). Within each firm type it is possible to allocate net employment change accounted for by opening firms (firms that had zero employment in the previous quarter), closing firms (firms with zero employment this quarter), and the net job change at surviving firms (employment at firms that expanded over the quarter less employment at firms that downsized over the quarter).
This chart displays some striking features:
- The contribution of opening small firms to net job growth is very large (averaging about 1 million jobs a quarter). In fact, when opening firms are netted out of the data, existing firms on average destroy more jobs than they create.
- Job creation at new firms has been relatively stable over time. During the recessionary period from the end of 2007 through the second quarter of 2009, the decline in jobs created at opening firms was surprisingly small.
- Job losses at closing firms did not surge in the most recent recession. In fact, job destruction caused by closing firms is relatively stable over time (research suggests that, in addition to the fact that many firms get smaller before they finally close, there is a significant "up or out" phenomenon in that many firms that closed were recently opened firms that failed).
- Most of the cyclical action is at surviving firms, and larger surviving firms tend to account for most of the variation in net employment change. During the recessionary period from the end of 2007 through the second quarter of 2009, surviving firms with at least 50 employees lost about twice as many jobs as firms with fewer than 50 employees (see for example, the study by Moscarrini and Postel-Vinay on the relative cyclical sensitivity of large and small firms).
Of course, this is largely an accounting exercise. The challenge is trying to understand the causes for these features, and how they may change over time. It seems that there is much we don't know about the underlying factors. For instance, this paper by Dane Stangler and Paul Kedrosky investigates in considerable detail the possible explanations for why the number of new firms is so stable over time. In the end, the phenomenon remains largely a puzzle, and there are many subplots. For instance, the correlation between venture capital spending and overall firm creation is negligible but very important in high-tech industries. Also, the dramatic increase over time in the number of entrepreneurship courses offered at colleges and universities had no appreciable impact on the number of new firms in the United States (although it may have prevented a decline).
Perhaps the focus on the number of new firms is misguided. What really matters might be who these new firms are—not how many there are. Research by Dane Stangler suggests that, at any point in time, a relative handful of high-performing companies account for a large share of job creation and innovation. This conclusion suggests that a key to long-term economic growth may lie in ensuring that the economic environment is conducive to the ongoing creation of these types of high-growth performers.
By John Robertson, vice president in the Atlanta Fed's research department
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- Hitting a Cyclical High: The Wage Growth Premium from Changing Jobs
- Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework, Part 4: Flexible Price-Level Targeting in the Big Picture
- Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework, Part 3: An Example of Flexible Price-Level Targeting
- Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework, Part 2: The Principle of Bounded Nominal Uncertainty
- Thoughts on a Long-Run Monetary Policy Framework: Framing the Question
- What Are Businesses Saying about Tax Reform Now?
- A First Look at Employment
- Weighting the Wage Growth Tracker
- GDPNow's Forecast: Why Did It Spike Recently?
- How Low Is the Unemployment Rate, Really?
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