Gary Stockton: In November of last year, the federal reserve banks conducted the Small Business Credit Survey. In all, they surveyed nearly 11,000 small businesses to ask them about their financial condition, whether they had sought financing in the prior 12 months, and what the effect the pandemic had on their business. The results of that survey have just been published in the 2022 Report on Employer Firms. Emily Wavering Corcoran is the Program Manager of the Small Business Credit Survey (SBCS) in the Community Development Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. The SBCS is a national collaboration among the 12 reserve banks of the Federal Reserve System, to gather timely information on small business, economic conditions, financing needs and credit availability. And we’re recording this interview on Friday, March 4th, 2022 ahead of the Federal Open Market Committee meeting. Emily, welcome to the Small Business Matters podcast.
Emily Wavering Corcoran: Thank you so much, Gary. Glad to be here.
Gary Stockton: Well, one of the most heavily impacted small business segments is leisure and hospitality. Could you tell us what you found out about the financial condition of businesses in this sector?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: Absolutely. So as you’ve mentioned in sort of the background you gave about the survey, the SBCS is fielded every fall. The 2021 SBCS, of course, was fielded from September through November, 2021. And it gathered information from over 17,000 small business owners across the country, including nearly 11,000 small businesses with employees. So that’s the segment of small businesses that this report in particular focuses on.
As you mentioned, the survey provides detailed information on performance and financing conditions from the perspective of small business owners. In addition to the standard questions about business conditions, debt and credit, the 2021 survey included questions about the ongoing effects of the pandemic, including its impact on revenues and employment, operating challenges, including workforce challenges and applications for pandemic related financial assistance. We also, for the second year in a row, included a question asking small business owners about the financial condition of their business, which is what you just referenced. They were given five options to select from. They could say their business was in excellent financial condition, the financial condition was very good, good, fair, or poor. Out of all employer small businesses, 59% were in poor or fair financial condition at the time of the survey, so, fall 2021.
Now, when we drill down more deeply, we see that firms owned by people of color, firms with fewer employees, and firms in particular industries, including leisure and hospitality, were most likely to be in fair or poor financial condition. So relative to small businesses in other industries, leisure and hospitality firms were more likely to be in fair or poor financial condition. So three out of four firms in leisure and hospitality. In many ways, this is not surprising, right? Leisure and hospitality includes restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues. So many of those small businesses that were particularly hard hit, especially early in the pandemic. And that shows the persistent impact of that initial hit and trying to weather the pandemic as a firm that really relies on face-to-face contact, on having people come into the business–All of those things really hold for firms in the leisure and hospitality sector.
Gary Stockton: More than half of the firms were in fair or poor financial condition at the time of the survey. And nearly all firms faced at least one operation or financial challenge in the prior 12 months. With so much government assistance made available, why do you think so many small businesses are still struggling?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: Yeah, I think for this question, it’s important to think about the counterfactual. What might SBCS data look like had pandemic related financial assistance not been made available? I don’t know the answer to that question, no one does, but the fact that business performance numbers are tempered, and that many small businesses continue to face operational and financial challenges, even with pandemic related financial assistance, suggests that in the absence of that support, aggregate outcomes for small businesses, and of course the resulting SBCS data to measure those outcomes, could have been much worse.
Gary Stockton: Can you talk a little about which businesses applied for additional financing vs. those who did not, and some of the reasons why they did not apply?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: The Small Business Credit Survey identifies applicants or small businesses that did apply for credit, and non-applicants, or small businesses that did not apply for credit. So we get both sides of the experiences, right? Apply for credit, don’t apply for credit. And then we can drill down to more deeply understand both of those sets of firms: firms that did apply, firms that chose not to apply. So 36% of firms did apply for financing. And 64% did not apply for financing.
When you look at just that set of non-applicants, firms that did not apply for financing, 46% of those businesses did not apply because they had sufficient financing. So they did not need to apply for a loan or a line of credit because they had ample financing through other streams. Then 14% of that non applicant pool were discouraged, meaning that they did not apply because they believed that they would be turned down.
When you look again, one step further, more deeply at those discouraged firms, a majority of those firms, or just over half of those firms, believed they would be turned down because of weak business financials. And then other reasons that those folks cited in the survey were lender requirements, the belief that lenders would not extend financing based on some characteristic of their business; previous denials and bad experiences in the past that made them discouraged about applying again, and missing documentation was also a relatively big factor for folks.
Gary Stockton: You mentioned them being concerned about weak financials as a leading reason. Would that be a major concern when seeking government help through the PPP program? Or was it just maybe a confidence issue with that business owner?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: I think both. Financials are certainly an important part of the credit application process. And so as we saw, business fundamentals being hard hit through the pandemic, that certainly played out in both folks deciding to apply for credit or not. And then also it played out in some of the outcomes that we saw for folks who did choose to apply for credit.
Gary Stockton: Yeah. The other thing that we noticed in the report was that 2021 PPP outcomes were worse than 2019, particularly in that leisure and hospitality sector. And particularly with black and brown businesses, do you know what’s going on there?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: Yeah. So again, I would point to some of the information in the report about financial condition, about annual revenues and employment. Certain segments of firms being really hard hit, and then that playing out in different ways in terms of credit access. We did, as you point out, we saw both a decline in firms seeking PPP and a decline in firms receiving PPP. The why is an incredibly complex question to answer, right? Definitely not fully answered by SBCS data, but it is at least partially explained by the relatively smaller size of the third round of PPP funding compared to the two prior rounds, as well as additional eligibility requirements for PPP. But again, not fully answered by SBCS data, certainly something that I’m sure additional research will look at in the years to come.
Gary Stockton: What was the most surprising thing to you about the 2022 survey? Was there one thing that really stood out to you as, as important?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: Good question, but to be honest, “surprised” doesn’t quite capture what I felt about any of the survey results as we were digesting the data and really examining things. In many ways, I feel like the survey data add greater nuance and more robust evidence to ongoing narratives about small business hardship and resilience that we’ve been hearing about and talking about over the last two years at this point. instead of surprise, I would say that the results for me strengthened my resolve to continue collecting and producing this data so that we can continue to have structural information on small business credit experiences. Small business does matter, and of course, small businesses are on the road to recovery, but it appears to be a long and uneven road, but SBCS data will continue to be there as small businesses move forward.
Gary Stockton: Well, Emily, I’d like to thank you for sharing your thoughts with our listeners. Where can they learn more about the great work going on at the Federal Reserve Banks?
Emily Wavering Corcoran: I love that question. You can learn more about the Small Business Credit Survey in particular at www.fedsmallbusiness.org. I would also encourage your listeners to check out www.fedcommunities.org, which is a website that shares information across the Federal Reserve System on the great work that the Federal Reserve Banks are doing at the community level.
Gary Stockton: Emily, thank you very much for your time.
Note: We recorded this interview on Friday, March 4, 2022.