WASHINGTON -- Creditworthiness -- not community reinvestment -- will be the focus of Small Business Administration lending programs, according to the agency's newly appointed director, Philip Lader.

"It is an incorrect assumption that the SBA should make sure capital is available to all small businesses," Mr. Lader said in an interview. "Our job is to lower the hurdle a bit, not the carry the potential borrower over the hurdle."

The agency, which has $15 billion to spend this year, has a "fiduciary responsibility" to taxpayers to ensure that it lends only to creditworthy individuals, he said.

Mr. Lader insisted that his community reinvestment views parallel those of his predecessor, Erskine B. Bowles. The two swapped jobs in October, making Mr. Bowles deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

But Mr. Bowles placed more emphasis on funneling loans to underserved groups on grounds that minority- and women-owned businesses should come first.

"These are the markets that are clearly starved for capital, and what we want to do is refocus a significant portion of the SBA's efforts in the future to this area," Mr. Bowles told American Banker in September 1993.

Mr. Lader, however, said the SBA must serve all borrowers, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender. "You have to push the envelope to honor the charter," he said. "But, we shouldn't be involved in programs that banks wouldn't be in without SBA."

Mr. Lader's focus on creditworthiness makes sense because unqualified borrowers can loose everything if their businesses fail, said Lyle Frederickson, a member of the American Bankers Association's small business committee and a vice president at Bank One Arizona. Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association, noted that the SBA's job is to help banks make loans to borrowers who don't qualify for traditional financing.

"They really have been the agency for start-up loans to small businesses," Mr. Guenther said. "They are creditworthy, but they also need a little help."

Mr. Lader, who first met President Clinton at a 1978 reception honoring the then Arkansas governor-elect, became well-known in Washington circles as the organizer of the annual Renaissance weekend that Mr. Clinton attends each New Year's Eve in Hilton Head, S.C.

Mr. Lader has some banking experience, having sat on the boards of directors of First Carolina Bank and First Union National Bank of South Carolina.

A top SBA priority for the coming year is to make its limited resources go farther, Mr. Lader said. The SBA already has cut the maximum loan under one of its most popular programs to $500,000 from $750,000. That should allow the agency to stretch its limited resources, which last year funded 36,000 loans.

More joint programs with state development agencies are on tap, he said. SBA plans to copy nationwide a Pennsylvania program in which the state buys certificates of deposit from community banks that agree to use the funds for SBA-backed loans.

"It doesn't cost the taxpayers one cent," Mr. Lader said. "But, it provides incentives for states to put more money in banks which are serving small businesses in their communities."

The SBA also needs to continue making its services easier for banks to use, he said. The successful Low-Doc program, which reduced an SBA loan application to one page, is a step in that direction, he said.

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