If you've tried getting a bank loan recently, you probably know that the tune bankers are humming these days is not exactly swinging. Stung by bad loans and second-guessed by regulators, bankers are looking to reduce their levels of risk to as close to zero as they can. Naturally, that makes life hard for borrowers. We recently asked a number of bankers to describe the most glaring weaknesses in the loan requests they see from small companies. Here's what they said:

Jeffrey C. Gardner, senior vice-president, U.S. Bancorp, Portland, Oreg.: "Business owners come in with these beautiful three-ring binders. The numbers are in nice, straight columns, but a lot of these people haven't thought about the assumptions they've made and what it will take to do what they say they'll do. How much cash will it take? How fast will they collect their receivables? Do they have the right inventory-management systems in place? We're more interested in 12- or 18-month cash budgets than we are in P&L statements. But we need to know where the numbers come from. The sad part is that many people don't know; they don't know what the projections are about because their accountant made all the assumptions."

Bill Freeman, president and CEO, Pennsylvania State Bank, Camp Hill, Pa.: "It amazes me how incomplete and outdated the data often are. A company owner comes in and talks about a loan for expansion. He shows me data from 1991 and has no idea what the current year looks like. There's really no excuse for that unless you want to fail. If a borrower can't show us how much money he needs and why, and how he'll repay it, we tell him to come back when he does."

Robert Hawkins, chairman, Southern Commercial Bank, South St. Louis: "We like people to think it all the way through. For instance, if a wholesaler or retailer wants to expand his inventory by $100,000, we want him to consider the likelihood that he'll need much more than that to cover the accounts receivable. We like customers to think about more than what happens if things work. What if they don't? Our best customers know their numbers -- that their gross margin is x, that their overhead is y, and that this is what's left. It's surprising how many people are great technically but can't tell you what's coming in and what's going out."

Dev Strischek, executive vice-president, Barnett Bank of Palm Beach County, West Palm Beach, Fla.: "The biggest weakness I see is a lack of specificity and a lack of preparation. A lot of people don't really know what they need the money for or how much they need. They'll say $50,000 or $100,000, but they haven't really done the analysis. When will they need it? We like to see a cash-flow analysis -- how much they plan to sell, how much they spend on overhead, how much for inventory, and what's available for debt service. It's easier to do business with people who've thought things through." -- Bruce G. Posner