Companies are more confident of growth and are willing to finance a higher level of purchasing by their business customers, according to the latest survey by The National Association of Credit Management.

The NACM’s Credit Managers’ Index for February rose to 55.8, up a full point from January. A score of 50 or more on the CMI is generally thought to indicate an economy in expansion. The survey results are also a positive signal that the U.S. economy stayed on a growth path in the second month of the year.

Sales, dollar collections, and amount of credit extended — 3 of the 10 factors that make up the CMI — all increased in February and are now near their 12-month highs. And most of the “unfavorable factors” in the index, such as “accounts placed for collection,” are also headed in a positive direction.

“Readings from this month are solid in key categories, providing some confidence regarding what happens from this point,” the NACM stated. Its assessment of the results was cautious, since credit managers still fear a repeat of 2011, when various  factors  produced large dips in sales, collections, and trade credit in the second half of the year.

The expansion of trade credit, perhaps the most important CMI measure, is largely being caused by suppliers increasing the credit lines of existing customers, says Pam Krank, president of The Credit Department, an outsourcing firm. Indeed, new credit applications was one of the few CMI categories that deteriorated in February.

“Businesses that survived the downturn were very good cash managers and they sat on a lot of cash,” says Krank. “Now they see growth and are looking for more trade credit.” Companies seek trade credit before or instead of going to banks, she says, because for the most part unsecured trade credit is free.

But the suppliers Krank works with are not tolerating more risk or relaxing their credit standards. They are generally not financing new customers with their balance sheets. And they aren’t upping current customers’ lines of credit without seeking protection. Suppliers are asking for more in-depth financials or requesting a letter of credit or some other form of security on the increased part of the line, Krank says.

The NACM survey also shows that credit managers experienced improved collections in February. The collections reading of the CMI jumped to 63.0 from 56.8 last month, the highest it’s been since last February. Krank says her clients are seeing “chunks of cash” come in from customers they hadn’t heard from in six months. One possible cause: a positive trickle-down effect from state and federal governments’ loosening of their hold on cash and paying long-overdue bills from their own suppliers, she says.

Spikes in the price of gasoline could derail the positive economic momentum evident in the CMI numbers. But while there’s cautiousness on the part of credit managers, most don’t expect the oil price situation to damp consumer spending.

“We’re seeing the expansion as real and we would be shocked if it dropped back,” says Krank. “We see it in the customer performance and in the financials we review.”

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