On the surface, it looks like bad news for borrowers: Banks are requiring collateral for more loans under $1 million than at any time since early 1997, according to Federal Reserve Board data. Turns out this may actually signal eased standards, says Ann Grochala, director of bank operations at the Independent Community Bankers Assn. Fierce competition means less creditworthy entrepreneurs get financing. "Bankers are stretching to make loans they weren't comfortable with before," says Grochala. "But they still want a little protection."

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