How to Make Sure the Small-Business Bailout Works

Michael R. Strain

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Small businesses are in trouble. As the coronavirus spreads and more states close up restaurants, cafes, theaters, clothing stores, beauty salons and similar shops, small businesses are desperate for funds to avoid laying off their workers. Fortunately, the relief package signed by President Donald Trump last Friday is set to provide businesses some of the help they need.

But the law’s passage isn’t the end of the story. Now, it needs to be put into effect in a way that encourages its use.

Only half of U.S. small businesses have enough cash reserves to cover 15 days of operating expenses. Four in 10 small businesses have a three-week cash buffer. In Miami, the median firm has 11.8 cash-buffer days. In San Francisco, the median firm has 17.9 days. These statistics come from a 2019 report by the JPMorgan Chase Institute, which analyzes data on businesses that have deposit accounts with the bank.

As of Monday evening, roughly three in four Americans are being told to stay home. Thirty-one states, 18 cities and the District of Columbia have issued shelter-in-place orders. This has already added millions of workers to the unemployment insurance rolls; 3.3 million new filers were added in the week ending March 21 alone. The previous weekly record, set in 1982, was 695,000. Economists at Goldman Sachs are currently forecasting that the unemployment rate will hit 15% — a 50% increase over the peak following the 2008 financial crisis.

To do what it can to prevent soaring unemployment and mass business closures, Congress passed the Paycheck Protection Program as part of its $2 trillion dollar economic recovery package.

The program lets a small-business owner go to a local bank and take out a loan that is guaranteed by the government. The business can borrow up to 2.5 times its monthly payroll costs, not to exceed $10 million. The amount of the loan spent on payroll, rent, utilities and similar operating expenses during the eight-week period after taking out the loan will be forgiven provided that the business does not lay off workers or cut wages by more than 25%. Businesses that lay off workers after receiving a loan would have a smaller amount of their loan forgiven. For businesses that have already had layoffs, provisions are made to extend grants to them if they rehire workers.

To qualify for a forgivable loan, a business or nonprofit organization must typically have fewer than 500 employees, or be a sole proprietor or independent contractor. To get money out the door quickly, lenders don’t need proof of actual economic harm, but can rely instead on good-faith certifications that the business needs the money to avoid layoffs or continue operating, and that the business intends to use the money for payroll and other operating expenses.

The program has several additional provisions designed to swiftly put cash in the hands of business owners. It delegates authority to lenders to make determinations on borrower eligibility and creditworthiness so that businesses don’t have to go through the usual government process. Lenders do not need to assess the ability of borrowers to repay the loan or conduct a credit-elsewhere test, and no collateral or personal guarantee is required.

This is a good deal for banks, which can charge generous fees and interest for these loans, despite the fact that they are guaranteed by the government, have a zero weight in the bank’s capital requirements and come with a ready customer base.

To protect lenders, the law has a “hold harmless” provision shielding them from any penalties imposed by the government as long as they receive documentation certifying that borrowers used the loan proceeds to prevent layoffs.

The Treasury Department hopes to have the program operational this week. To make it as effective as possible, four things should happen.

First, some banks are concerned that they may be on the hook if borrowers misrepresent their situations or go bankrupt a week or two after taking out the loan. Regulators must assure banks that this will not happen. The legislation envisions banks as a conduit to pass along what are essentially government grants. The regulations currently being written need to treat banks as such by offering ironclad guarantees that the hold-harmless provisions will be strictly enforced by government agencies.

In addition, the government should send the message that more money will be provided to the program if needed. Congress allocated $349 billion, but Columbia University economist Glenn Hubbard and I estimate that the demand could easily rise above $1 trillion. Lenders want to know how those limited funds will be allocated if more are needed.

Third, the government needs to work with banks to understand their technology and processing needs. A large number of loans will need to be made, and it will be hard for government systems to keep up with the demand. The government needs to make processing as easy as possible for banks, engaging with private firms for help and advice.

Finally, all levels of government need to engage in an active program of public messaging to encourage both lenders and small businesses to participate, making sure businesses know that the program offers grants for payroll and operating expenses, not just loans.

In my home state of Virginia, the big news on Monday was Governor Ralph Northam’s decision to extend the coronavirus lockdown to June 10. He said, “It is clear more people need to hear this basic message: Stay home.” Northam should have used this opportunity to send a second basic message: Don’t lay off your workers, payroll grants will be available very soon.

At the federal level, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the chief author of the program, did exactly this on Twitter on Monday, the day after Trump extended social distancing guidelines to April 30. But where is Trump himself? He should be urging businesses every day to hold on to their workers until the grant program comes online later this week.

Congress has taken an important step toward propping up the U.S. small-business ecosystem that will be crucial to the post-pandemic recovery. But this vital task is far from complete.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Michael R. Strain is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is director of economic policy studies and Arthur F. Burns Scholar in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “The American Dream Is Not Dead: (But Populism Could Kill It).”

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