As other major players fell away, Wells Fargo has remained a stalwart, increasing its lending this year through SBA programs. 

Catherine Clifford of reports:

The landscape of lenders willing to work with small business owners has changed dramatically in the last year, but one bank — Wells Fargo — has emerged stronger than ever.

While other financiers that were historically major players took a knee, Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500) increased its lending, emerging as the new number-one lender through the Small Business Administration’s loan programs.

CIT Group (CIT, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), Banco Popular of North America and others that once held top spots have cut their SBA lending by more than 70% this year. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo upped its loan volume 4%, from $583.4 million in 2008 to $605 million this year.

Some of that gain may be fueled by Wells Fargo’s late-2008 acquisition of Wachovia, another bank that traditionally made many SBA-backed small business loans. The acquisition closed three months into the 2009 fiscal year (which the SBA began Oct. 1), leading Wachovia and Wells Fargo to report their loans separately through part of the year.

Taken together, the two banks lent $742.3 million this year — down 24% from what they collectively lent as independent banks last year, but still far more than any other bank put into the small business market. The next runner-up, U.S. Bank (USB, Fortune 500), made $249.5 million in loans through the SBA’s flagship lending program.

Given the retraction of a number of key lenders, Wells Fargo’s leap to the top is not a major surprise. “I don’t see anything shocking with Wells Fargo being number one,” says Bob Coleman, editor of the Coleman Report, which monitors small business lending trends.

What Wells Fargo did right: Wells Fargo’s ascendance isn’t solely due to its competition’s collapse. The bank made two key strategic decisions that turned into major advantages.

First, Wells Fargo doesn’t resell its loans on the secondary market, where many banks unload bundles of the SBA-backed loans that they’ve made. That market froze last fall after Lehman Brothers’ collapse, leaving many banks unable to find buyers for their loans — and without those sales, the banks lacked the capital to make new small business loans.

Second, Wells Fargo focuses on making traditional 7(a) loans, which can total as much as $2 million each. The Small Business Administration guarantees a portion of its 7(a) loans — if the business owner defaults, the government pays the bank back for the insured portion.

But the SBA also offers a variety of “Express” loan programs, which involve lower loan amounts, lower government guarantees, and less paperwork. Because banks scrutinize those loans less, they’re more prone to go bad when the economy gets rough.

Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), in particular, has been hit hard on that front. The bank made 3,296 SBA loans last year, making it the fourth most-active SBA lender based on the number of loans made. But most of those loans were Express loans, with an average loan size of just over $31,000 each.

And many have begun defaulting. A year ago, CEO Ken Lewis called his bank’s small business loan portfolio a “damn disaster.” Bank of America reacted by sharply pulling back on its SBA lending. So far this year, the bank has made just 303 loans, 269 of which were Express loans.

“Wells Fargo is more of a traditional 7(a) lender. Their loans are larger and there is collateral behind them,” says industry observer Coleman. “They do a more extensive underwriting analysis than the SBA Express lenders, which makes them feel more comfortable in assuming risk. For some lenders, the model is broken for those smaller Express markets, and so they have backed out of the market.”

Read more at: CNN