For the first time in four years, small businesses reported an uptick in their short-term borrowing costs.

The average interest rate in the third quarter rose by 20 basis points, to 8.5 % from 8.3% in the second period, according to a just-released survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

Forty percent of the loans to the survey respondents are tied to the prime lending rate.

Based in Washington, the federation represents over 600,000 small businesses, typically with annual revenues of around $250,000.

The reported rise in interest costs is surprising, because borrowing by these firms remains at depressed levels while competition among banks to book new loans continues to be intense.

"Based on everything I hear, spreads over prime and narrowing as banks compete for a smaller pot of loan demand," said Irwin Kellner, chief economist at Chemical Banking Corp.

It's possible, he said, that banks may be lending now to riskier borrowers, which would be reflected in a higher average spread over prime.

"I hope that's not the case," added Mr. Kellner, who sees the economy hitting a "speed bump" in early 1994 as the effect of higher taxes begins to weigh on businesses.

Few Affected

Despite the overall increase in average interest costs, only 1% of the respondents said they were paying higher rates on their loans.

That further suggests that the upward pressure on rates is coming from new and perhaps more risky borrowers.

Meanwhile, just 33% of the small businesses surveyed by the federation said they were regular borrowers in the third quarter, just one percentage point above the second-quarter level. which was the lowest recorded in the 20-year history of the survey.

Regular borrowers are defined as those that borrow at least once every three months.

In other findings, only 8% of firms reported that loans were harder to get in the latest quarter, indicating that the availability of credit is not a big issue.

Taxes outweighed all other issues as the most important problem for small businesses.

The federation represents a number of partnerships and proprietorships, which will be hit by higher taxes contained in the Clinton administration's budget bill, enacted earlier in the year.

Not surprisingly, more than half of the respondents rated the administration's economic policies "poor."

On a somewhat brighter note. the group's small-business optimism index rose a seasonally adjusted 1.6%, to 95.6%, in the latest quarterly survey.

While calling the increase "insignificant," the federation said the index is al least moving in the right direction.

Still, only 14% of small businesses said they expected the economy to improve in six months, while 33% thought it would get worse.

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