Small business lending may not be where it was pre-recession, but it's well on its way.
In its earnings call Friday morning, top small business lender Wells Fargo, of San Francisco, highlighted a strong second quarter where small business lending increased and credit risks decreased.
But analysts suggested that the bank could make greater efforts lending to small business owners and others, which would return lending to more historic risk norms.
In that regard, Wells Fargo is a good reflection of the frustration small businesses have felt regarding the lack of lending from major banks during and since the financial crisis. At the height of the crisis, bank lending to small business owners all but ceased as markets melted down and liquidity froze up. It took years for large and small lenders to return to more normal commercial loan levels.
Even so, small business owners have expressed vexation over major banks' willingness to lend only to the most stable businesses.
"There is more optimism and consumer confidence is at a six-year high," John Stumpf, chief executive of Wells Fargo, said during the call. "This is not break-out [news about the economy], but we are having more discussions with more customers about buying homes and automobiles and investing in infrastructure if they are businesses."
Wells Fargo reported that its commercial and industrial loan portfolio increased by $10 billion to $391 billion, compared to the first quarter. That comes at a time when the bank's consumer loans actually decreased in the quarter, by about $8 billion to $437 billion.
Meanwhile, Wells reported that net charge-offs, for nonperforming loans, fell to 0.35 percent in the quarter, down from 0.58 percent for the same quarter a year ago. Commercial loans had an even more miniscule loss rate of 0.03 percent in the quarter. Analysts on the call suggested that the bank could certainly increase lending, and that a more normal risk level would be almost twice what it reported on its total portfolio.
"I think it will be hard for the 35 basis points to move much higher," says John Shrewsberry, chief financial officer of Wells. "The assets we are putting on the books are of a very high credit quality on a historical basis."
Today's earnings announcement generally support findings from the Wells Fargo/Gallup small business index for the second quarter of 2014. The index, which polled small business owners between March and April, shows small business optimism about current and future prospects, while basically increasing, is at roughly half pre-recession levels.
Wells Fargo is the top Small Business Administration 7(a) lender. The bank counted 859 loans worth $267 million for the first quarter of 2014, the SBA reports. Wells has a goal of lending $100 billion to small business owners by 2018.