Free money? Yes, but only for the biggest.

November 10, 2010, 10:09 PM UTC

Many of America’s top companies have taken advantage of record low interest rates, but access to cheap debt is still far from reach for the smaller guys.

Coca-Cola Co. (KO), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) are among those that have taken advantage of borrowing rates near 0%. Last week, Coca-Cola announced plans to sell $4.5 billion of bonds in its biggest offering ever — it plans to use the funds to reduce interest costs from existing debt. It followed Wal-Mart’s sale last month of $5 billion of debt, some of it at a record-low coupon of 0.75%. And Microsoft is paying just 0.875% for a portion of its $4.75 billion bond offering in September.

But unless you’re a corporate giant with relatively expansive access to credit and bond markets, don’t count on benefiting from policy decisions of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Although the Fed has kept key interest rates at nearly zero in hopes to keep the slow recovering economy chugging along, small and medium-sized businesses – the engines of job growth – aren’t exactly locking in record-low borrowing costs.

Many smaller businesses find themselves having to pay more for loans, even though credit conditions have improved some, says Chris Christopher US economist with the economic forecasting firm IHS Global Insight.

For smaller private businesses, several factors limit owners’ access to cheaper credit. Unlike large corporations, smaller businesses overwhelmingly borrow from regional banks, which often have a better sense of the businesses’ operations and financial health given that it’s relatively less transparent than a public company.

But regional and community banks have been fading from America’s financial system for the past decade. And unlike big corporations, mom and pop shops can’t turn to sophisticated financing tools such as bond issuances or commercial paper (short-term loans) to finance everything from accounts receivables to inventory.

Smaller businesses are still generally perceived as higher risk. For instance, owners lack the kind of assets that would convince banks they could repay their debt. Like consumers, they’re overwhelmingly exposed to the very uncertain and volatile real estate market. Christopher, referring to statistics compiled by the Fed, points out that during the three months ending in June, real estate made up about 60% of assets for non-corporate businesses including many small enterprises. In contrast, real estate made up only 24% of assets for non-financial corporations.

So even if small businesses secure loans, the costs are nowhere near close to the 0% rate big enterprises are getting. What’s more, many rely on credit cards. Even though the majority usually pay off their bill at the end of the month, they generally carry markedly worse terms than loans from regular banks.

True, small business owners are somewhat more optimistic today, according to the National Federation of Independent Business’s monthly index of small business optimism. The index increased 2.7 points in October to 91.7 – the highest level since May. Access to credit eased some, and the report noted that business owners were much more concerned about consumer demand than getting credit. And Elizabeth Warren, head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, wrote in Politico today that helping community banks compete better is a top priority for her agency.

Nevertheless, today’s record low interest rates remind small business owners that America’s financial system hasn’t been working as well for the smaller guys. The fading of regional banks for the past several years have caused a shift of credit to big public corporations – a dilemma that’s become more pronounced as many see smaller operations as a source of job growth amid a slow economic recovery.

“There’s clearly an imbalance of support,” Christopher says.

The appetite for credit will eventually pick up. And when it does, what will be there for the smaller players?