Small businesses are enjoying an unprecedented access to bank credit, although those in the western part of the country have more trouble getting loans than those in other regions.

That is the conclusion of an annual survey of businesses with up to $150 million in revenues conducted by Arthur Andersen & Co. and National Small Business United, a small-business lobbying group.

The survey, which is based on 919 responses to 8,550 mailed questionnaires, found that 85% of respondents who applied for bank loans this year succeeded in obtaining them. Arthur Andersen spokesman Laurence Hayward said this was the highest success rate in the four years the survey has been conducted.

The success rate for obtaining bank credit, by comparison, was 74% in 1994, 75% in 1993, and 77% in 1992.

The survey's results came as no surprise to experts in the field of small-business banking.

"Anecdotally, we know that the small-business market is a hotly contested battleground for institutions seeking to improve their own market share," said John Carusone, president of the Bank Analysis Center in Hartford, Conn. "This is one of the last and best niches to be in. It's not surprising that the borrower has enjoyed a little relief."

Loans to small businesses provide banks with fatter spreads than do large corporate credits. The problem is that banks need to generate a huge volume of such loans to make up for the small size of each credit.

Jerry Bowman, executive vice president for business banking at BankAmerica Corp., said banks have met that challenge by streamlining and automating their credit approval processes. He said the increased use of credit scoring will accelerate approvals in the future.

"Everything is going to be so streamlined and scored that we'll be able to turn around deals in five to 10 minutes, and it's all going to be by phone and electronic banking," Mr. Bowman said.

Another positive factor is that most banks have shed the problem assets they acquired earlier in the decade. "The banks have been a lot more liquid in terms of deposits over the last couple of years and have really been looking for loans," said Cynthia Glassman, managing director of Furash & Co. in Washington, D.C.

"They've really been asset-hungry so they've been seeking out small- business loans as a line of business."

This hunger does, however, vary somewhat by region. The survey found a 68% approval rate for small and midsize businesses in the west, compared to 99% in the north central states, 92% in the south, and 78% in the northeast.

Mr. Hayward cited three factors for the relative weakness in the West, all related to problems in the dominant California market. The first has to do with the state's general economic malaise, which translates into strained cash flow for borrowers.

Second is real estate weakness, which forces down collateral values. And finally, the California market contains a comparatively large proportion of start-up companies, particularly in the Silicon Valley. Start-ups are notoriously hard to lend to because they lack capital and track records.

"There's no doubt the start-ups still have a lot of trouble finding financing and probably always will," said Virginia Kirkpatrick, president of CVK Personnel Management, a St. Louis consulting company.

Predictably, loan approval was definitely related to a borrower's size. Of companies with 19 or fewer employees, 81% successfully obtained bank loans, compared to 97% for companies with between 100 and 499 workers.

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