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Small-business lenders locally have doled out more than $30 million in government-backed loans through the first three months of the government’s fiscal year, about 30 percent ahead of last year’s pace, according to new data from the Small Business Administration.

The SBA’s monthly report shows that 23 lenders provided 158 loans totaling $30.74 million in the agency’s Western New York district through the end of December. That’s up from 20 lenders, with 141 loans, tallying $23.6 million in the same period a year ago. The district includes both the Buffalo and Rochester markets. The loans were all made in SBA’s primary 7(a) program for working capital loans.

In keeping with historical norms, Buffalo-based M&T Bank Corp. maintained a comfortable lead over its rivals as it pressed down on the accelerator in dollars. M&T made 54 loans for $9.38 million from October through December of 2012, up by 8 and 88 percent, respectively, from the same period in 2011.

That means it’s making almost the same number of loans, but for much more money, indicating that borrowers are seeking more cash for working capital and growth than last year. That’s good news for the economy, as small businesses are widely seen as the engine of the nation’s economy, generating more than two-thirds of all new jobs.

As part of the effort to jump-start the languishing economy, political leaders and regulators want to boost small-business lending nationwide. Under pressure from the Obama administration, 13 major banks – including M&T – committed in late 2011 to increase their lending by $20 billion over three years. A year later, as of September 2012, the SBA reported a net increase of $11 billion in loans.

Of course, SBA loans aren’t the only source of credit for small businesses, which can also obtain traditional small-business loans directly from banks. Many also use credit cards or even personal loans. And some have turned to nontraditional sources, such as Kabbage, an online small-business finance company that provides cash advances of $500 to $50,000 as a line of credit for inventory, hiring and other needs. The company has extended more than 40,000 advances to small businesses nationwide, originating $200 million a year.

Still, the demand isn’t what it had been prior to the recession, because business owners are uncertain about the future. A monthly survey of small-business owners’ confidence by the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, in December found the second-lowest reading since March 2010, even after creeping up from the record low in November. The recession-level reading showed pessimism among business owners, as 70 percent described it as a bad time to expand, and 1 in 4 cited political uncertainty.

The survey was taken as Congress and the Obama administration argued over solutions to the “fiscal cliff” crisis. But even after that was resolved, a debate over the federal debt limit and a “regulatory avalanche of historic proportions” still loomed, NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg noted when the survey was released in early January.

Morever, the survey found that only 29 percent of businesses reported that their credit needs were being met. Six percent said they were not being served, while 52 percent explicitly said they didn’t want a loan, demonstrating weak demand among borrowers.

Still, that didn’t seem to be reflected in the local numbers from the SBA.

Locally, Five Star Bank, the primary subsidiary of Warsaw-based Financial Institutions, came in second among the SBA lenders as of the end of December, with 30 loans for $5.74 million. That’s also up from a year ago, by 15 and 36 percent, respectively.

Buffalo-based First Niagara Financial Group was third, with 18 loans for $2.36 million. A year ago, before its acquisition of HSBC Bank USA’s retail and small-business operations in upstate New York, First Niagara lagged far behind, with just four loans for $265,000 at this time.

Evans Bancorp of Hamburg was fourth in number of loans, with 10, but 11th in dollars, with $665,500. San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co., one of the nation’s leading small-business lenders across the country, was fourth in dollars, with five loans for $2.02 million.

All of the other banks and credit unions had fewer than 10 loans apiece. Four had lent between $1 million and $2 million, while the rest were lower.

In the agency’s other main loan program, the “504” certified development company loans for fixed real estate or equipment purchases, five lenders had extended $4.78 million through 11 loans. M&T led with four loans for $3.09 million, representing the vast majority of the dollars, followed by First Niagara with three loans for $639,250.

email: jepstein@buffnews.com