A lending 'thaw'
Tight capital, of course, doesn't mean lending stood still in 2013.
Facing less regulatory scrutiny thanlarger institutions, small to midsize banks are carving growing niches, with that trend continuing this year, said Frederick Cannon, an analyst for financial services firm Keefe Bruyette & Woods in New York.
Bank loan balances should continue to grow in line with nominal GDP in 2014, he said, with smaller banks getting a disproportionate share of the growth.
Both New York-based Signature Bank and Silicon Valley Bank, headquartered in Santa Clara, Calif., posted loan growth of more than 20 percent last year, versus single-digit loan growth for larger banks, Cannon said.
Credit standards overall remain tight for small businesses, he added, "but I think we're seeing a little thawing of that."
Small-business owner André Vener agrees.
Vener is a partner in Dog Haus, which sells gourmet hot dogs. They have three locations in and around Pasadena, Calif., with expansion plans for 2014.
Vener and fellow venture partners—veterans in the fine dining business—dipped into their own cash reserves and eventually their parents' pocketbooks to cover the cost of the three outlets. The owners launched three years ago, when the recovery was just gaining traction, and decided to bypass traditional lenders.
"At the time, in 2010-11, banks really weren't lending," Vener recalled. "It was too much time, too much paperwork. It was pretty much hard to get a loan for a small business. It was a disaster."
With three locations up and running now, and more than 40 franchises sold in more than three states, banks and other potential investors are courting Vener and his partners.
"I believe it's a sign of our success, a sign of the economy and a willingness to lend," Vener said.
In fact, small-business optimism edged higher in November—reversing an October decline. December data is scheduled to be released later this month.
(Read more: Where American entrepreneurs are striking next)