Small businesses are not facing a severe credit crunch, but they are having to meet tougher underwriting standards, a new study suggests.

Sixty percent of 634 small firms responding to a nationwide survey said they have outstanding long-term bank loans. And of the roughly 300 companies that recently applied for loans, three-fourths said they got them.

A 75% approval rate "is pretty close to our experience and that of the industry," even in good times, said William Queenan, chief credit officer of Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis.

Still, the survey provided evidence that small businesses - defined as companies with fewer than 500 employees - must now meet tougher underwriting standards.

As a result, the survey's sponsors cautioned, many small businesses were discouraged from even applying for loans.

"What's often overlooked in discussions about the credit crunch is how quickly changes in the rules of the game cause aggravation and pain for borrowers," said Rick Fumo, a consultant with Arthur Andersen, which conducted the survey with National Small Business United, a trade group with 60,OOO members.

Over the past five months, 23% of the respondents having bank credit lines were asked to provide personal guarantees on an outstanding bank loan, 13% were asked to file financial reports more frequently, 10% were asked to back a loan with additional equity or collateral, and 7% had a line of credit reduced.

The Arthur Andersen-NSBU findings were roughly in keeping with other studies suggesting that flagging loan demand is at the heart of the credit crunch.

About 37% of the 634 respondents had obtained a bank loan since March. That compares with a 34% first-half average for roughly 800 small firms surveyed by the National Federation of independent Businesses.

"We are saying loan demand is at an all-time low," said Terry Hill, a spokesman for the 590,000-member trade group. Mr. Hill said the percentage of small businesses seeking bank loans has declined steadily since 1985, when the figure stood at 44%.

Many bankers share Mr. Hill's view. Fresh from a customer calling campaign involving 3,200 small businesses in the Upper Midwest, Banc One Columbus president Robert Davis said soft loan demand and tightened underwriting standards together are constraining the flow of credit.

A Sea Change

"The demand for capital to build inventories and productive capacity is not there," said Mr. Davis. "And there is no question that the banking industry is building a more prudent lending environment: All of us are focusing on long-term returns rather than on quick-fix, quick-profit relationships."

Mr. Fumo of Arthur Andersen suggested that many borrowers were taken aback when banks capped a years-long era of easy credit with a quick and sharp tightening.

The consultant said most of Arthur Andersen's small-business clients appeared to have adjusted and are poised to take the added steps necessary to get bank credit.

Other clients, he said, have backed off on credit applications after diagnosing their inability to comply with tougher standards.

Indeed, John Galles, executive vice president of National Small Business United, noted that only 48% of the respondents had applied for a bank loan since March.

He speculated that the relatively low number was evidence that many small companies didn't ask for loans because they expected their applications to be rejected.

Of the respondents who said they "encountered problems" in obtaining loans, 45% did not name a specific impediment, 23% cited tighter bank regulations, and 22% were told they didn't have enough equity, had a poor credit history, or had an inadequate business plan.

Twelve percent cited loan pricing, 12% said their banks didn't care for their line of business, and 10% said they received less than requested.

The Arthur Andersen-NSBU study suggested that small businesses have a cautious outlook. About half the respondents in the central United States said they expected 1992 profits to exceed those of 1991.

Yet, three-fourths of the respondents in the region predicted their work forces would either hold constant or shrink.

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