The staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has done a fancy study and discovered what I know from my telephone, and what you might know from your own experience with meeting payroll this week: Many small business owners are strapped for cash, even if sales are OK, in part because they have virtually no access to credit.
That might not look like a health insurance story, but, of course, it's a huge health insurance story.
The Federal Reserve Board has been doing all that it can to help the economy, in part by decreasing business owners' borrowing costs.
Those low rates are devastating the consumers who have done their best to plan for the future and the life insurers who have tried to help those consumers, by slashing the returns life insurers get on the reserves backing any product with guarantees that could end up extending over a long time horizon, such as long-term care insurance (LTCI), long-term disability insurance or annuities that offer guarantees.
The damage done to the insurers might be worth it if the Fed could show that the low rates were actually increasing home sales or helping businesses.
Maybe the low rates are actually helping some profligate businesses that ran up huge amounts of variable-rate debt back when the getting was good, and even some large, sensible corporations with great credit ratings that still have an easy time selling bonds on Wall Street.
But home sales continue to be weak and, as the New York Fed has demonstrated, the low rates aren't doing small business owners much good because (with, obviously, plenty of exceptions, but maybe not all that many exceptions) small business owners have a horrible time getting credit at any legal rate.
The New York Fed polled about 500 regional small businesses and fund that 41% had tried to borrow money from formal lenders. Only 13% got the full amount they sought, and 37% failed to get any cash. About 36% received only some of the financing they had requested.
A few years ago, the joke was that a dog or a cat could get a new business credit card. The approval rate for a new small business credit card is now just 44%. The approval rate for an application for a new line of credit is 13%.
The result, for me, is that wonderful, generous, hard working relatives who have been in business in the same towns for decades are coming up short when payroll comes around and calling people like me -- people who, really, have no cash outside retirement accounts -- for emergency loans. I'm now scared to answer calls when I see my relatives' phone numbers in the message ID fields. I hope they're getting financing somewhere, but I'm too chicken to follow up.
I'm sure one of the problems is that many customers who buy on credit are creating their own emergency financing wiggle room by paying their bills more slowly.
On the one hand, in the very long run, this trend could actually be good for the businesses that survive. They will have no debt-related costs, because they'll have no debt.
On the other hand, in the medium run, this seems to be terrible for anyone trying to sell anything to small businesses. How can they afford to add health benefits, or keep existing benefits programs in place, if the owners are calling broke relatives for working capital loans?
On the third hand, in the short run: It looks as if insurance companies that are tired of earning low returns on bonds could make a killing if they could convince the Fed to increase interest rates and "prime the monetary bank" by getting insurance regulators and others to look more favorably on insurers doing a little bit of small business working capital lending. If the insurers would (with the regulators' blessing) set up a reasonably responsive small business lender and it needs leads, I'll be happy to forward my personal phone calls over to the lender.