For days, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has promised Friday would be the day a massive loan program for small businesses kicks into gear.
Friday is now here.
The program, according to sources in the administration, on Capitol Hill and in the financial sector, is far from ready to do what it is intended to do, at the scale its intended to do it, on day one. As one bank executive said Thursday night: “This has a very Obamacare website rollout feel to it.”
The first day of a new emergency program isn’t the end-all-be-all that defines the success of said program. But by the accounts of more than a dozen people involved with or in conversations about Friday’s rollout, it will be a rocky start. Given the big promises – and far more importantly, the massive need in the marketplace for these loans – a rocky start is the last thing the Trump administration wants at this point.
Mnuchin, at the White House briefing on Thursday: “We spent the last 24 hours making this system easier. This will be up and running tomorrow.”
Multiple major US banks announced on Thursday they wouldn’t be prepared to participate in the program on its first day due to lack of guidance from the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration.
Most notably, this from JPMorgan Chase: “Financial institutions like ours are still awaiting guidance from the SBA and the U.S. Treasury. As a result, Chase will most likely not be able to start accepting applications on Friday, April 3rd, as we had hoped.”
Several others also made clear to clients they weren’t prepared – or didn’t think they would be prepared – to start originating loans under the program on Friday.
Mnuchin, however, in a Friday morning tweet said large banks were, in fact, “expected to go live soon this morning” on the loan program.
These concerns from the largest banks were raised directly to Mnuchin in a phone call with bank CEOs on Wednesday. The call was described by one participant as “constructive, but very sharp at points” as CEOs attempted to secure changes or new guidance that would allow them to launch under the program.
The issues they raised cover several key aspects of the program, but most notably the request for legal protections for any loans originated under the program given the speed and relaxed underwriting standards required under guidelines designed to get the money out.
According to several people involved, the expectation is that *some* loans will go out on Friday.
Mnuchin tweeted Friday morning that he’d received a report that showed community banks had already processed more than 700 loans for $2.5 million.
But the actual lending is expected to be limited. Banks are still getting comfortable with the new guidelines, and even more lenders are still waiting for their registration with the SBA to go through so they are approved to participate.
“This is going to take days, not hours, to really get off the ground,” one bank executive said late Thursday night as he and his team were going through the latest iteration of the guidance. “It’ll get off the ground – the need is just too great for it not to – but this timeline was simply too aspirational.”
There is also significant concern that the process and portals created to manage the loan demand will crash over the course of Friday. CNN’s Lauren Fox reported that the administration has brought in significant outside tech help to prevent this from happening, including creating a mirror site in preparation for potential overload. But this will be something to watch as the day moves along.
What the program does
The Paycheck Protection Program is a loan program overseen by the Small Business Administration that pools $349 billion to guarantee, and eventually forgive, loans deployed by financial institutions to small businesses and nonprofits with fewer than 500 employees in order to cover salary, payroll expenses and debts like mortgage payments and utilities. If the loans are used solely for those purposes, the federal government will forgive them in full.
Here’s a layman’s description
This is free money for small businesses. If this program works effectively, lawmakers and economists both believe it could be the most important element of the massive rescue package.
BUT – and this is important – in order to access that money, small businesses have to actually secure the loans themselves. And before that, lenders have to know how to originate loans under the guidelines of that program. And *that* is where serious problems still exist on rollout day.
Here’s a reality check
This is a massive undertaking, designed to be turned around in a little more than a week. This is basically the loan guarantee portfolio of the SBA multiplied by more than 10 – with a need that is, for thousands of small businesses, the equivalent of do or die at this point. Mistakes will happen, the rollout will be rocky and people will be frustrated. That’s essentially where things are at the moment.