Banks lend, but their customers still wary

NEW YORK — Since the credit crisis of 2008, everyone has been waiting for the banks to start lending money again.

It's finally happening, but there's a catch: Businesses are afraid to spend it.

Bank loans to businesses grew 10 percent last year after dropping 19 percent in 2009 and 9 percent in 2010, according to the Federal Reserve. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo confirmed the growth in their latest financial results.

But much of the loan growth comes from lines of credit, not traditional loans.

And instead of tapping available credit to power up plants, open factories and hire people, businesses are waiting.

At the same time, they are hoarding cash. JPMorgan, the nation's largest bank, is holding a record $200 billion in business deposits, up 26 percent last year alone. Wells Fargo and Bank of America also say deposits from middle-market businesses have soared.

"Our business customers are feeling optimistic," says Perry Pelos, head of commercial banking for Wells Fargo. "But I'm not seeing any boom yet because they are still a little uneasy about the future."

Even successful business owners have found it difficult to adopt the easy confidence of the years before the deep and bruising recession.

They want to see more improvement in the economy before they take great risks again.

Jon Schlegel, owner of a Colorado brunch restaurant called Snooze Eatery, says his customers are buying more Bloody Marys and mimosas to go with the popular and more expensive chilaquiles Benedict — his take on eggs Benedict, stacked with steak and tortillas and topped with fresh salsa and cotija cheese.

He's noticed more out-of-town visitors in his restaurants on recent weekends than in the past couple of years.

Yet Schlegel is careful about every expense. He pays for supplies and meets payroll with the restaurants' own cash flow rather than borrowing. "I've got to watch my costs. Meat prices are rising, and coffee prices are going up. If I raise my prices, will people keep coming and can I keep growing?" Schlegel says.

Schlegel's hesitance is common among small and independent businesses that struggled mightily during the Great Recession. For many business owners, it has been an arduous climb back just to survive, and that's made many of them averse to risk.

For Schlegel, demand is just starting to creep back.

After the success of his four brunch restaurants, he took out two loans late last year from JPMorgan Chase to open his fifth and sixth restaurants — one in Colorado another in San Diego, his first out of state.

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