The number of small-business loans continues to decline as banks raise standards on personal credit ratings, leaving fewer owners able to access working capital, according to lenders and policy experts.

"Lending standards have tightened and loan demand is down considerably," Chad Moutray, the chief economist at the Small-Business Administration's Office of Advocacy, said this week at a roundtable on small-business credit held by the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington.

Moutray, who moderated a panel that included bank officials and federal policymakers, said a recent survey of senior loan officers by the Federal Reserve found that lenders across the nation were enforcing stricter credit standards.

"It certainly isn't a good sign for the economy," he said.

Last week, the SBA lifted restrictions on government-backed small-business lenders that prevented them from offering loans based on the London Interbank Offered Rate, which sets interest charged on loans between banks and determines loan costs for SBA lenders.

Eric Zarnikow, associate administrator of the SBA's Office of Capital Access, said the growing spread between the interbank rate and the prime rate was putting cost pressures on lenders. The move allows them to combine loans with different interest rates in the same package, he said.

Other panelists urged policymakers to look beyond traditional bank loans.

"I think we need to get busy in developing game plans and getting more creative," said Andrew Sherman, a small-business policy expert at Dickstein Shapiro, a Washington-based law firm.

Sherman called ongoing uncertainties in the financial market a "cloud that's getting in the way of our productivity and our competitiveness."