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Bank of America severing some small-business credit lines

Bank of America is demanding that some small-business customers pay off their credit line balances all at once instead of making monthly payments.

January 03, 2012|By E. Scott Reckard, Los Angeles Times
  • Bank of America customer Babak Zahabizadeh was told in a letter that the $96,000 debt carried by his Burbank firm, Messengers & Distribution Inc., must be repaid Jan. 25. A loan officer offered multiple alternatives over the phone that Zahabizadeh called unaffordable, including paying off the debt at 12% interest over two years.
Bank of America customer Babak Zahabizadeh was told in a letter that the… (Christina House, For The…)

Bank of America Corp., under pressure to raise capital and cut risks, is severing lines of credit to some small-business owners who have used them to stay afloat.

The Charlotte, N.C., bank is demanding that these customers pay off their credit line balances all at once instead of making monthly payments. If they can't pay in full, they are being offered new repayment plans for as long as five years, but with far higher interest rates than their original credit lines had.

Business owners complain that BofA's credit squeeze is abrupt and could strain their small companies and even put them out of business. The credit cutoff is coming at a time when the California economy can't seem to catch a break, and bucks what the financial industry says is a new trend of easing standards on business loans.

One such customer, Babak Zahabizadeh, was told in a letter that the $96,000 debt carried by his Burbank messenger service must be repaid Jan. 25. A loan officer offered multiple alternatives over the phone that Zahabizadeh called unaffordable, including paying off the debt at 12% interest over two years. That's about $4,500 a month, nearly 10 times his current interest-only payment.

Zahabizadeh, known as Bobby Zahabi to his customers, said he has cut the staff of his Messengers & Distribution Inc. to 80 from 200 to nurse his business through tough times.

"I was like, 'Dude, you're calling a guy who's barely surviving!' " he said. "My final word was that I can double my payment — but not triple or quadruple it. I told them if they apply too much pressure they're going to push me into bankruptcy."

The capped credit lines stem from a corporate overhaul launched by Brian Moynihan, who became Bank of America's chief executive in 2010. He promised to address losses caused by loose lending and rapid expansion by reining in risks and shedding investments deemed non-core.

BofA spokesman Jefferson George said a "very small percentage" of small-business customers have been affected by the changes. He would not provide exact numbers except to say it wasn't in the hundreds of thousands. Some of the affected businesses had been customers of other banks that Bank of America acquired, but most were BofA customers from the start, George said.

"These changes were explained in letters to customers, and they were necessary for Bank of America to continue prudent lending to viable businesses across the U.S.," he said.

The bank still has 3.5 million non-mortgage loans to small businesses on its books. The affected business owners were notified a year in advance that their credit lines were being called, George said, although Zahabi and several others said they had not received the early warnings.

The changes also include added annual reviews of borrowers and annual fees, and often reductions in the maximum amount of credit. George said the aim was to reduce Bank of America's risks and to bring the loan terms in line with more stringent standards imposed after the 2007 mortgage meltdown and 2008 credit crisis.

Scott Hauge, president of the advocacy group Small Business California, called the credit cuts "a tragedy" for longtime BofA clients left vulnerable by years of struggle in a sour economy.

"If small businesses are going to lead the way out of the economic doldrums we now face in this country, they must have access to capital, not only to hire more people but to protect the jobs they are currently providing," Hauge said.

Bank of America was a leader in the banking industry's abortive attempt to impose debit card fees. But it appears to be a laggard in tightening business lending standards. Most other banks, having tightened lending standards in the aftermath of the financial crisis, had eased credit last year as competition for small-business customers heats up, bank analysts say.

"Everyone … is targeting commercial and particularly small-business lending as the real focus area for growth," said Joe Morford, an analyst in San Francisco for RBC Capital Markets.

While Bank of America is advertising its own commitment to small businesses, it needs to send another message to its government supervisors because it has less of a capital cushion against losses than major rivals, said FBR Capital Markets bank analyst Paul Miller.

Restricting credit lines "is a way to show the regulators they are serious about addressing risks," Miller said. "Bank of America is under great pressure, especially with another round of [Federal Reserve] bank stress tests coming up, as the regulators say: 'We want you to tighten up.' "

The analysts said all banks monitor business customers and restrict credit on a case-by-case basis. But they said they were unaware of any other large bank systematically capping credit at this time.

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