While U.S. policymakers are looking at ways to make credit more available to small businesses, a survey by the National Federation of Independent Business offers another perspective on the interplay between the reduction in lending and the rest of the economy.

The small-business trade group’s report portrays the credit crunch as less of a current challenge for its constituents, and more of a potential one — if fundamental business conditions improve and borrowing needs increase.

Small businesses reported last month that getting loans continued to get harder, and they said they expected credit conditions to tighten further.

However, while banks have been increasing the difference between what they charge customers and what they pay for their own funding, the cost of short-term borrowing has declined for small business during the recession, according to the survey, amid an environment of easy monetary policy and generally low interest rates.

And the NFIB said demand for credit has been soft [see graphic below] as the portion of respondents reporting that they made capital expenditures in the last six months remained at 44% — a low during the three decades that the data has been collected — and as weak sales have prompted small businesses to liquidate inventories.

Respondents’ sales outlook has brightened: The portion of businesses that said they expect sales to decline in the next three months exceeded the portion that expect increases by 1 percentage point, compared with 34 percentage points in March. But 34% said their biggest problem was sales — the most frequently named issue — versus 4% who identified finance and interest rates.

Compared with the preceding five years, slightly larger numbers of respondents reported last year that their borrowing needs had not been met. But the overall portion remained small in December, at 8%.

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