The New York Times; By: Andrew Martin
Louis Licata has shelved plans to hire three more employees for his Cleveland law firm. Jeannie Macone, of Florida, is cutting back on inventory for her trinket and home décor business. In Ohio, Patrick Allen has slashed employee travel and begun paying cash for work dinners with clients of the marketing firm that he started from scratch.
A crackdown on credit limits by card companies is squeezing the nation’s 27 million small businesses, exacerbating the problems brought on by a stagnant economy.
Owning a small business has always been a challenge — half wind up failing within the first few years. But the financial crisis has dealt them a one-two punch, as big banks cut the credit card lines that many entrepreneurs were forced to lean on when a once-abundant supply of loans dried up.
As of April, 59 percent of America’s small firms relied on credit cards to help finance their day-to-day operations, up from 44 percent at the end of last year, according to the National Small Business Association.
The number of small-business owners who depend on a credit card to buy items as varied as paper clips and heavy equipment has climbed steadily over the years, from just 16 percent in 1993. Today, that group makes up 11 percent of the revenue for Visa and MasterCard, from 3 percent in 1998, according to David Robertson, who publishes The Nilson Report on the credit card industry.
But credit card terms have worsened sharply with the recession: three-quarters of small business said they have seen a large cut in limits over the last six months. That would not be so bad if other forms of credit were easily accessible. But banks and credit card companies, which opened their coffers when the economy was flourishing, are now pulling back from nearly everything that hints of risk.
“I’m a business in a bad time that wants to expand,” said Mr. Licata, who added that he had been unable to get loans at Cleveland’s banks since the recession set in. Recently, the limit on three of the credit cards he uses for his law firm was slashed by a total of $60,000, he said, dousing plans to enlarge his business.
Of course, consumers have been squeezed by higher interest rates and reduced credit lines by credit card companies, too. But small businesses were not included in the credit card reform legislation signed into law last month by President Obama, which limits excessive fees and interest rate increases on existing balances starting next year. A bipartisan coalition of senators is seeking to extend the legislation to small business.
“The way that the economy is going to come out of a recession is not by big business hiring but by small business hiring,” said Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who is championing the measure. Denying small businesses access to credit is having “spiraling” effect on the economy, she added.
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