Apr 3, 2020 - Economy

Skepticism rises over government's small business bailouts

Illustration of hands reaching for money on a fish hook

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America today launched its $350 billion bailout for small businesses, and already there is widespread skepticism that the program will run smoothly or be large enough to meet demand.

What's new: House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy yesterday said that the affiliation rule will be waived for any company with less than 500 employees that doesn't have a controlling outside shareholder, thus making most VC-backed startups eligible for PPP loans. This was based on a conversation he'd just had with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

What's wrong: Treasury hasn't yet released the aforementioned guidance, which creates an impossible situation for banks that are actually being asked to review and approve the loans. And that's just the tip of the guidance gum-works — with bankers complaining before last night that all they'd gotten were flimsy bullet points, rather than the granular details they really need.

  • JPMorgan Chase, one of the nation's largest business lenders, yesterday warned that it likely didn't have enough information to begin accepting PPP loan applications today.
  • As of this morning, its website says, in bold print: "Please don't send us any SBA or Treasury department forms."

One level deeper: Even if adequate guidance does come and loans get granted, there are worries in D.C. that the federal bureaucracy isn't prepared. Axios' Alayna Treene reports:

Lawmakers and staff who helped draft the rescue package have privately expressed concerns that the Trump administration — particularly the Small Business Administration and Labor Department — may be overwhelmed by the demand for loans and unable to get checks out the door as fast and responsibly as they're needed.
Some fear a repeat of what happened with the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act in 2013 when the site crashed due to tremendous demand.

Two levels deeper: Even if none of those fears come to pass, as Mnuchin this morning is suggesting via Twitter, there's dawning dread that $350 billion just isn't enough money. Not only because the pandemic has knocked so many small businesses and nonprofits off their feet, but also because there are few guardrails to prevent solvent groups from participating.

  • McCarthy downplayed the need for a "phase 4" stimulus yesterday, including President Trump's call for a $2 trillion infrastructure package, saying he'd need more data on how "phase 3" plays out.

The bottom line: This is understandably messy. The CARES Act wasn't even law at this time last week, yet today banks are asked to begin processing and funding tens of thousands of federally guaranteed loans. You don't blame pilots for the bumpy ride, you just pray they can land it safely in the end.

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