If the talk of a credit crunch hasn't got you worried enough, another banking change may mean permanently higher borrowing costs for small companies.

New risk-based capital rules are part of an international agreement that will begin being phased in at year end. Historically, a bank just had to have capital equal to a certain percentage of its assets; now capital requirements will vary with asset riskiness. Unfortunately, commercial loans are in the riskiest category.

What does that mean? "By and large, because we've got to maintain more capital against a typical commercial loan, the pricing of commercial loans is going to go up," explains the narrator of a training video by Robert Morris Associates, a commercial lenders' organization. But apparently not all bankers have gotten that message yet. In a recent American Bankers Association study, almost half the banks gave no opinion on the effects of risk-based capital on loan prices. However, 70% of those with an opinion think the new rules will cause higher prices for loans in higher-risk categories.

One bright spot: Tony Wilkinson of the National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders expects banks to make more SBA loans -- because government guarantees fall into the lowest-risk category of all.

-- Martha E. Mangelsdorf