The newly tapped administrator of the agency said she was encouraged by the number of lenders that have returned to the SBA after a dry spell going back to 2007. From Feb. 17 to May 1, 361 lenders that had not previously made a loan since October 2008 made 7(a) loans. Of those lenders, 166 had not made a loan since at least 2007, according to the agency.
And while there are more than 400 credit unions that are SBA lenders, Mills said she is on a mission to increase those numbers convinced that they are "important on the ground and as an access point for the kind of borrowers that might be advantaged by having an SBA loan."
Credit Union Times recently spoke with Mills about her new role, her top three priorities for the SBA and why credit unions that have scaled back using the agency's programs should reconsider.
Credit Union Times: Since becoming administrator of the SBA more than a month ago, the agency has not wasted any time implementing parts of the Recovery Act? Are you seeing any tangible results so far?
Karen Mills: One of my top priorities is to work quite quickly to implement provisions of the Recovery Act. I have some good news. [As of May 10], the SBA has approved $2.4 billion in Recovery Act loans, and supported $3.3 billion in lending to small businesses. Since the signing of the Recovery Act, weekly loan dollar volumes have risen more than 25% in the 7(a) and 504 programs, compared to the weeks preceding passage of the legislation. We're still going along at a much-reduced level. We're very concerned that capital is not flowing to small businesses. By temporarily eliminating certain loan fees and raising guarantees on some 7(a) loans up to 90%, we're starting to see an immediate impact. Banks have increased their lending 25%. That means much more is getting into the hands of small businesses.
CU Times: What do you see as your biggest challenges as the new administrator of the SBA?
Mills: I have three priorities. The first is to get the Recovery Act provisions out there, which will help get small businesses to lead us out of the recession. Second, to reinvigorate the agency. It hasn't had an investment priority over the last eight years. There has been a reduction in terms of budget and personnel. We have a robust agenda for small businesses. We want to invest in our people in terms of growth and training and invest in information technology to give them the tools to measure. The third priority is to be the voice of small business across the administration. Be it innovation, health care discussions or partnering with trade and energy, we want to work across issues and agencies to give a voice to all of these kinds of policies.
CU Times: As you know, credit unions continue to sign on as SBA lenders. However, there are some financial institutions, including credit unions, that have scaled back their participation in the agency's loan programs. What can you say to encourage them to consider coming back?
Mills: One of the positive impacts from the Recovery Act is since we've implemented the programs more than 300 lenders who had not made a loan in the past six months have come back in the programs. About 40% of them had not made a loan since 2007. We feel pretty good we're attracting them because the Recovery Act programs are quite attractive. These [lenders] have been concerned about factors in the marketplace. So, we've responded with things like the 90% guarantee and reducing borrowers' fees. We've made [increasing credit union participation and bringing lenders back] a priority with field operations. Investing in IT to make the process more paperless. The turnaround times are way down and we continue to make the process more transparent and seamless.
CU Times: When it comes to member business lending, credit unions are restricted to 12.25% of their financial institution's assets. There have been industry efforts to raise that cap to 20%. What are your thoughts on raising the cap and how would it impact credit unions working with the SBA?
Mills: Our role is to be an advocate for small business. We want to help with any changes that are appropriate that could be beneficial for small businesses.
CU Times: What areas of the SBA's programs and operations would you like to see improvements in?
Mills: The three priorities that I mentioned. To me, this is about investing in people and IT. Those are the areas of focus on giving the people the best tools to serve. We have some more good news on where are loans are going. Twenty-four percent of funding has gone to rural borrowers, 22% to minority-owned businesses, 19% to women and 9% to veterans. We're over-indexed compared to other lenders. Our job is to provide opportunities for underserved borrowers that don't have much access.
CU Times: What can credit unions and other lenders expect going forward to help open up more capital access to small businesses?
Mills: We see credit unions and lenders as critical links to small businesses who want to avail themselves to our borrowing products. We see incredible resources out there including [the SBA's] 14,000 counselors as important linkages. We want to make sure they are as robust as possible. We want them to know about that credit union that might want to become an SBA lender. We want to have those linkages; no silos. We want to see more collaboration out in the field. The more connected we become to lenders who are working in our communities, the more effective we will be.