Just when it looked like President Obama was making some headway with small business, along comes the CIT bankruptcy train to derail everything.

Last Thursday, on Obama’s urging, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed new legislation that authorized more than $40 billion for loans backed by the Small Business Administration. It was the relief U.S. small businesses had been hoping for. But just 72 hours later the good news was tempered when CIT Group Inc. – the SBA’s top lender – filed for bankruptcy protection. Now all that new federal money may be loaded onto a train missing its locomotive.

CIT’s failing could leave as many as a million small and medium-sized businesses looking elsewhere for credit in a marketplace where few banks are lending. According to the National Small Business Association, CIT lent $65 million in SBA-backed loans for the first six months of 2009; just 1 percent of all SBA loans issued. That figure was down dramatically over 2008, when CIT comprised 6 percent of the SBA total.

At a time when loan defaults by SMEs are rising and Equifax is reporting that small business bankruptcies are up 44 percent over last year, the CIT news is akin to a perfect storm for small business.

“It’s great that the stock market is coming back, but if you’re unemployed or you’re running a small business, the turnaround has not happened,” said Drew White, CFO for Sageworks Inc., which monitors the financial data of privately-held companies across 1,600 industries. Sageworks’s latest study found that since 2003 the debt-to-equity ratio decreased in the private sector, which might normally be a good thing, but according to White is likely the result of companies paying down debt and shrinking inventories due to slower sales and tightened credit in the recession. “It looks like there’s sort of a benchmark or a normal way that these businesses operate and they need a fair amount of borrowing capacity to do that and that has been restricted and constrained.”