The Small Business Administration guaranteed $9 billion of general business loans for the year ending Sept. 30, a drop of nearly 5% from the previous 12 months, according to agency data released last week.

Still, administrator Aida M. Alvarez said, the volume of loans backed by SBA's 7(a) program was the second-highest ever. She attributed the dip to the country's good financial health and to increased small-business lending by the private sector.

"That's a tribute to our terrific economy," Ms. Alvarez told reporters in a conference call Thursday. "Small businesses have access to credit and capital that are not governmental."

Nevertheless, Ms. Alvarez predicted that the agency would back a record amount of loans this fiscal year because of new programs aimed at firms owned by women and minorities. SBA has a sufficient budget to guarantee $10 billion of 7(a) loans.

Ms. Alvarez on Thursday signed an agreement with the National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders to train loan officers to reach more women and minorities. Financial institutions made slightly more 7(a) loans to women and Asians last year than in the previous year, but loans to black- and Hispanic-owned firms stagnated.

"There are opportunities out there yet to be captured," she said. "New markets represent higher risks and higher rewards."

Speaking at the group's conference in Phoenix on small-business lending, Ms. Alvarez touted the agency's streamlined bureaucracy, improved data tracking, and tightened oversight. She said the agency would issue a rule in December that would let individual banks securitize the nonguaranteed portions of 7(a) loans if they retain a portion of the credit.

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