Mnuchin praises first day of small-business loan program — but applicants call it ‘confusion’ and ‘a scam’

The launch day of the highly touted $350 billion small-business loan program had a stuttering start Friday, from technical issues with bank websites to opaque lending rules that appear to qualify hedge funds to get aid, while some cash-strapped local businesses were shut out.

“I know there’s a lot of hard-working small businesses that couldn’t get their applications processed this week,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin acknowledged in an interview on Fox Business on Friday afternoon. “They shouldn’t worry about it. There’s plenty of time, there’s plenty of money left.”

“It’s been nothing short of a disaster. It’s been confusion at every turn,” said Grant Geiger, CEO of EIR Healthcare, which submitted a loan application Friday.

Geiger said he tried to apply via his company’s primary lender, Wells Fargo, but was told the bank probably wouldn’t be ready to start accepting applications until Monday. The website he was directed to turned out to be little more than a shell.

“We had our stuff yesterday ready to go. I’m still sitting here with my application,” Geiger told NBC News. “We have runway, but it only takes us so far.”

Banks had already sounded the alarm late on Thursday, with senior executives at some leading banks telling NBC News that with just hours to go before launch, they were still awaiting final guidance from the Treasury Department.

Even once the program went live at midnight on Thursday, borrowers found there was no standard application process. While Bank of America’s website rejected applicants who did not have an existing small business lending relationship with the company, Chase did not have the same requirement.

Bank of America started taking applicants at 9 a.m., but Chase didn’t open its online doors until 11 a.m. — then promptly crashed, before recovering a short while later. Wells Fargo said it was “working as quickly as possible to be ready,” but as of early afternoon had not started taking applications.

Social media quickly filled with complaints and dismay from disappointed small business owners.

“Are you kidding me @BankofAmerica with this requirement of having a credit card to apply for the PPP? What type of scam is this. I have been a loyal customer for years with my business accounts.#bankofamerica #PPPloan” tweeted Melissa Perri, CEO of Produx Labs, a New York City-based product management consultancy.

Despite the issues, the small business relief program took in a surge of applicants. BOA said it had received a staggering $22.2 billion in applications from some 85,000 businesses.

However, current and former government officials warned and acknowledged that there were gaps in the design that could leave behind some of the businesses that need the relief the most.

“It is absolutely a concern that the smallest, most vulnerable business won’t be first in the queue because they don’t have the assets to prepare an application quickly,” said Karen Mills, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and a former SBA administrator.

When the evolving rules were first designed, businesses would need to show they had a 50 percent revenue loss in the last year. Later, those rules were changed to be open to any business that had the expectation their business would be hurt.

The loan program’s designers acknowledged there are improvements to be made and the program needed to continue to evolve after it already started taking applicants and approving loans.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., chair of the Senate Committee on Small Business, where the Senate version of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act originated, said that the gaps were real and would need to be addressed.

“There is the opportunity here for some people to come in who aren’t the dry cleaner down the street, the bakery around the corner, or the small restaurant who we are really trying to help out,” he said. One of the owners of a small business might be an investment fund, he said, noting that there should perhaps be exceptions made, based on their size.

“I don’t want to read headlines that the well-financed, well-capitalized businesses came in and were able to suck up all the money and now we ran out of money and we can’t help the small business down the street,” Rubio said in an interview with MSNBC.

“This program matters a great deal to determining whether the country is able to bounce back quickly or get sucked into a morass,” said Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration.

“If there is not sufficient governance and accountability such that worthy small businesses have to shut down, and then we find out that the undeserving high-income small businesses or politically connected businesses are the ones that get the money … then that will be a credibility disaster for the program,” Goolsbee said.

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