Congress Sets Up Another Mad Dash For Small Business Cash

Business groups are pleading for changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, which has come under mounting criticism for giving money to big companies.

The House on Thursday is set to allocate another $310 billion to a small business loan program it established to provide relief to Americans out of work due to the coronavirus epidemic.

The bill, which the Senate passed earlier this week, also includes additional funding for hospitals, emergency disaster loans, and a national program to expand testing for the disease.

Despite mounting criticism of the small business relief scheme, after large and publicly traded firms received huge loans, the second round of the Paycheck Protection Program will have essentially the same structure, with desperate companies scrambling for cash and banks deciding who gets it based on their own preferences.

“I can count on one hand — literally on one hand — the number of businesses in my district who have received assistance,” Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who represents Upper Manhattan, said Thursday during a hearing on Capitol Hill. “They got bamboozled. They are mad as hell. I am mad as hell.”

Business groups pleaded for changes to the program, which covers two months of payroll costs for any company with fewer than 500 employees so long as it doesn’t lay off workers or slash their pay this summer. 

The National Restaurant Association and the National Federation of Independent Business, for instance, have said Congress should let firms use the forgivable payroll loan for a two month period later this year, after local governments have actually allowed nonessential business to resume. Under the current terms of the program, funds must be used within eight weeks of the date when the loan is funded.

The trade groups also said more than 25% of the loan should be allowed to cover non-payroll expenses such as rent and utilities, since payroll is a proportionately smaller share of costs for some firms, such as restaurants.

“It’s kind of unworkable for a lot of businesses,” said the NFIB’s Elizabeth Milito, who noted that there may have been more optimism about the coronavirus outbreak and the extent of its economic effects when lawmakers first created the payroll initiative.

Several business owners told HuffPost they didn’t get loans before the program first ran out of money, but some have said the program has since come through. A digital marketing firm in Florida and a brewery in North Carolina both said the money hit their accounts in the last week.

There are a bunch of things Congress could also do to make this program work more equitably and keep the money out of deep-pocketed companies’ hands, said Amanda Fischer, policy director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. 

First, there should be a ban on any public company receiving money, Fischer said. Those businesses have other ways of raising cash — public businesses can easily sell shares. Shake Shack, for example, was able to turn down its $10 million loan because it could tap another line of credit. More than 80 other publicly traded companies tapped the fund before it ran dry last week, according to a Financial Times analysis.

Fischer also suggested prohibiting financial service companies from tapping the program, following some reports that hedge funds ― which are technically small businesses ― were applying. A hedge fund’s business is raising money. 

“They definitionally have more access to financial markets,” she said. Plus, if a fund shuts down, the overall harm to the public is small. It’s not an essential business. There should be minimal collateral consequences if a hedge fund shuts down no one is going to go without milk or bread.”

Another way to keep the money out of the hands of the biggest and most well-resourced businesses would be to require a certain number of small dollar loans. During the last wave of lending, 4% of the loans represented 44.5% of the $349 billion lent out. In other words, close to half the money went to the biggest companies in the form of large loans.

“It’s a case of a very tiny number of companies making up a very high percentage of the total of money,” she said.

Banks also gave preferential treatment to the most well-resourced and richest companies. 

The new bill sets aside $60 billion for lending institutions with assets under $50 billion — such as community banks — and it reserved $30 billion of that money for banks with less than $10 billion. Democrats pushed for the changes to make PPP loans more widely available to individuals in minority communities who do not have prior lending relationships.

Fischer said that some restrictions in the program sound be loosened. For example, the requirements to keep a certain number of staff on payroll may be too onerous for businesses that still have no idea when they’ll reopen, and have other costs to maintain. “The smallest of small businesses have other costs they need to pay down before they can even think about re-hiring people.” 

The Small Business Administration should also be more closely tracking who gets this money, Fischer added. Are minority-owned businesses or women-owned businesses getting discriminated against? Anecdotally, it would appear so, but there was no tracking under the first tranche of money. 

“We need to know if there are racial or ethnic or gender implications of who got this money to understand its impact on inequality.”

There are no additional reporting requirements for recipients of the loans in the new bill. The Trump administration has so far only provided general data on how many loans were approved.

For now, at least, larger companies who applied for loans under the program face no punishment apart from public shaming. But that might change. During a press conference earlier this week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin threatened “severe consequences” for firms that improperly take advantage of the program and fail to pay back the government.

“We want to make sure this money is available to small businesses that need it, people who have invested their entire life savings. We appreciate what’s going on, and they’re hiring people back,” Mnuchin said.

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