Apr 3, 2020 - Health

America's small business bailout is off to a bad start

Illustration of line of dollar bills set up like dominos about to fall over onto small business owners

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Websites have crashed, phones are jammed and confusion reigns as businesses rushed at today's kickoff to get their chunk of the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program.

Why it matters: This is a race to save jobs in the present and the future, and to ensure that as many workers as possible keep their benefits and paychecks during the coronavirus lockdown.

  • The urgent sprint: To get every qualified business that needs a loan access to one before running out of cash.

"Borrowers are waiting for their money but the banks' hands are tied because they can't get into the SBA's portal," Paul Merski, who heads up government relations for one of the biggest community bank advocacy groups, told Axios.

  • 60% of banks have not previously participated in SBA lending programs, he notes.
  • Some banks and lenders, like Wells Fargo, said they wouldn’t be ready to take applications today.
  • Others, like Bank of America, initially said they made the decision to only take customers who have previously taken out a loan with them to speed up the process. After a slew of outrage, it subsequently said small businesses that did not meet this requirement could deal directly with bankers to submit an application.

Between the lines: Because many banks only are accepting existing business clients, and some other banks aren't processing PPP loans at all, it's likely that many small businesses will get left out because they picked the "wrong" bank years ago.

Axios made an open call to its readers, asking them to share their experience.

  • Nick B: “Commercial lender here. We worked late hours trying to internally review applications only to find out they would no longer accept the prior application. Desperate businesses are redoing applications. Underwriting is not well defined, banks are asking for varying different supporting documentation. E-Tran applications are backlogged, billion dollar banks are left with one or two individuals that even have access to process into the SBA. 1000s of apps.”
  • Readers said Chase told them the application site would be live at noon. But minutes after, it crashed (it later was up and running).
  • A banker: It’s up- but getting frequent errors and having difficulty uploading pages, “like trying to call in to a radio prize” some get through, most get a busy signal. Not all fields are set up in the system yet either."
  • Another banker: We haven’t even opened up apps (online, or the alternative— fielding email request manually and sending to central team—we assume will be req’d when the online portal crashes from demand. Most banks I’ve spoke to haven’t due to the late revisions to the app. But assumption is that whatever systems are going to be leveraged for external application acceptance will be overwhelmed."
  • William Agush (startup entrepreneur): I’ve had 5 different lists of paperwork needed. Each one different and each item takes hours to complete. One list says IRS941 forms for last year. Another list just Q1 2020 but instead payroll reports. And so on.
  • A Boston banker told Axios that “absolutely” the system crashed, over and over again. The banker said they received the latest app right before the PPP program launched, said it’s impossible to use. He describe his experience as “a cluster f*ck and a sh*t show,” adding that it was “working as badly as my worst fears.”

Behind the scenes: On a call with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin this morning, a number of Republican House members passed on concerns they were hearing about banks in their districts struggling to work with the SBA to get money to people quickly, Axios' Jonathan Swan reports.

  • Mnuchin told members to get him a list of banks that couldn't access the portal, according to two Republican members on the call.
  • An administration official said: "The Secretary offered to have us receive information about any affected banks/stakeholder so that we can pass on to the appropriate people at SBA to look into potential issues. We have received some of this already and are executing."
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