Launch scrubbed? Banks balk at Treasury's direction on COVID-19 business-loan program; Update: Mnuchin hails $400M mark

In theory, the government’s efforts to save jobs by indemnifying small- and medium-sized businesses for payroll costs begins today. The $2.2 trillion CARES Act contained $349 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan process that amounts to free money for businesses who keep employees on the job throughout the coronavirus crisis. With time of the essence, Treasury has enlisted banks to determine which businesses qualify for such loans, and the starting gun fired off this morning on applying for the money.

In theory, that is. In reality, some banks are balking at accepting applications and others at processing them until Treasury explains more clearly how to qualify applicants:

The $349 billion Paycheck Protection Program is a key element of the $2 trillion economic rescue package passed by Congress last week. Administration officials have said money from the emergency loan fund will start flowing to small businesses affected by the coronavirus outbreak Friday, delivering a sharply streamlined, same-day approval process unheard of in the history of federally backed small-business lending.

But JPMorgan Chase, the country’s largest lender, said Thursday it did not expect to begin accepting applications for the program Friday, as scheduled. Other banks said they were accepting applications but didn’t expect to process or approve them until after the Treasury Department and Small Business Administration finalize rules for the program.

Some banking officials have warned that the abbreviated review process ― which allows borrowers to attest to their own eligibility without the government’s approval ― will make the program a magnet for fraud. Although the SBA will be able to audit lenders and borrowers later, it will fall primarily to private bankers to make decisions about who should receive taxpayer-backed loans.

Lenders have to be worried that the SBA will hold them responsible for bad lending decisions. The last thing they or the administration needs is to be seen handing out money to companies that don’t need it, or to shovel cash into a firm only to have them lay everyone off anyway — and still not repay it. Those are the issues for which lenders need to vet, but they need to know what Treasury wants as minimum standards to protect themselves from getting penalized over bad and/or fraudulent loans. And to be fair to the banks that are balking, Treasury didn’t get around to issuing the regulations until last night:

In a mark of the frenetic pace with which federal agencies are trying to get money out the door, final regulations for the program were not released until Thursday evening, less than 24 hours before the program is expected to begin.

The demand for this program is expected to be heavy right up front. The $349 billion isn’t expected to outlast demand, either, so accountants are telling employers to apply immediately — if they can. Some business owners might find the fund empty before they even get to the window:

While Congress could approve more money later on, the program as it stands is expected to run out quickly. That could mean applicants who have the financial and legal expertise of a larger organization might be able to maximize their benefits, not leaving much for smaller businesses, especially those who wait or have problems applying.

Congress made the program as wide as possible. An expansive definition of “small business” in the law means that it will be open to much more than just Main Street shops when lenders start processing applications Friday. Bankers recommend applying for the loans through the bank they already have accounts with to speed along the process as quickly as possible.

Operators of name-brand hotel, restaurant and service chains and franchises with thousands of employees at locations scattered across the U.S. are eligible. Lobbyists are pushing the Small Business Administration to interpret the law generously to help sectors devastated by mandatory business closures and stay-at-home orders, possibly making the aid available to international fast food and lodging giants and allowing individual owners to get around a $10 million cap on loans.

Independent contractors and the self-employed could be especially hurt since they will not be eligible to apply until April 10 under guidance from the Treasury Department. By then, banks could be overwhelmed with applications.

We can expect Congress to replenish the PPP’s coffers if the money runs out and the program is working … and maybe even if it’s not. The unemployment numbers thus far are legitimately horrifying and potentially destabilizing, and the longer Congress can bribe employers to keep people on payrolls, the better off they are.

But that depends on getting the program up and running quickly in the first place, with enough safeguards to send the money where intended. Treasury needs these lenders to feel confident in the parameters of the program, along with the security against fraud and waste, but the latter may not matter quite as much in the short run. This is the time to stanch bleeding, not worry about the number of gauze pads being used. This needs to launch on schedule today.

Update: Steve Mnuchin is tweeting updates on the progress of the PPP. As of 9:39 am ET, $400 million had been lent, mainly by community banks. Large banks should have their programs up and running by later today, Mnuchin claims:

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