NEENAH, Wis. – How long will the economic slowdown last? How deep will the economy soften? These are questions nobody can reliably answer. For now at least, Dave Coggins, president of Business Lending Group can say this: the CUSO’s loan portfolio is not showing any symptoms of the troubling economic environment small businesses are operating in. Coggins is well aware of the numbers showing the drop in consumer confidence levels and more importantly the downslide in small business growth. Data collected by the National Federation of Independent Business for the two weeks immediately following September 11′s terrorist attack show small business optimism plunged to its lowest point – 6% – since 1993 in terms of hiring, growth and expectations that business will be better in six months. Only 10% of companies in the NFIB post-attack survey said conditions will be better in six months – down from 21% in August. BLG makes loans to small businesses mostly in Wisconsin. It’s also made a few participation loans out-of-state. The biggest chunk of its loan portfolio is in commercial real estate including owner occupied businesses, as well as warehouses, industrial buildings and strip malls. BLG also makes loans to small businesses in the manufacturing and retail markets. Coggins said the CUSO’s underwriting practices provide a built-in cushion to allow for adversity and dealing with varying degrees of economic slowdown. Beyond that, he said, “We have to allow for the fact that small businesses are resourceful and resilient and have an ability to deal with adversity. They will find ways to cut expenses to make sure they don’t fail or go under and have an adequate cash flow.” That doesn’t mean Coggins hasn’t noticed changes in the type of loan activity coming through BLG. Small businesses are definitely scaling back and expanding cautiously and more slowly. Most noticeable, he said, is the level of loan activity on new projects by small businesses has dropped. A number of projects that were on the businesses’ drawing boards have been put on hold, he said, adding that, “This is natural behavior in economic times like these. “You have to remember that over the past two to three years, we’ve seen very unusual growth by small businesses. These have been some of their best years ever,” Coggins continued. “Still compared to three or four years ago, small businesses’ are still solid and doing well.” So far, the economy and small businesses’ state of cautiousness have not caused any weakening in BLG’s lending portfolio. Just how long that will last depends on how long the soft economy lasts and how soft it gets, Coggins admitted. The experts’ predictions on the economy keep changing. Some have predicted the economy will rebound in the first or second quarter 2002, but there are too many unforeseeable factors that could change that on a dime. For now at least, Coggins said small business borrowers are not having any difficulty making loan payments. Still he doesn’t want to be surprised, so Coggins is keeping a close watch and continuously checking the pulse of the small businesses he’s transacted loans for. [email protected]

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