IN DEFAULT OR ABOVE WATER: How PPP Saved or Didn’t Save America

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This story will appear in deBanked’s Jul/Aug 2020 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE

rearviewKristy Kowal, a silver medalist in the 200-meter breast stroke at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia, had recently relocated to Southern California and embarked on a new career when the pandemic shutdown hit in March.

After nearly two decades as a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, Kowal was able to take early retirement in 2019 and pursue her dream job. At last, she was self-employed and living in Long Beach where she could now devote herself to putting on swim clinics, training top athletes, and accepting speaking engagements. “I’ve been building up to this for twenty years,” she says.

But fate had a different idea. The coronavirus not only grounded her from travel but closed down most swimming pools. At first, she tried to collect unemployment compensation. But after two months of calling the unemployment office every day, her claim was denied. “‘Have a great day,’ the lady said, and then she hung up,” Kowal reports. “She wasn’t rude; she just hung up.”

“I WAS DOWN TO 10 CENTS IN MY CHECKING ACCOUNT”

Then, in June, the former Olympian heard from friends about Kabbage and the Paycheck Protection Program. Using an app on her smart phone, Kowal says, she was able to upload documents and complete the initial application in fewer than 20 minutes. A subsequent application with a bank followed and within a week she had her money.

“I was down to ten cents in my checking account,” says Kowal, who declined to disclose the amount of PPP money for which she qualified, “and I’d begun dipping into my savings. This gives me the confidence that I need to go back to my fulltime work.”

kristy kowalKowal is one of 4.9 million small business owners and sole proprietors who, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, has received potentially forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP, a safety-net program designed to pay the wages of employees for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, is a key component of the $1.76 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Since the U.S. Congress enacted the law on March 27, the PPP has been renewed and amended twice. It’s now in its third round of funding and Congress is weighing what to do next.

Kowal’s experience, meanwhile, is also a wake-up call for the country on the prominent role that both fintechs like Kabbage as well as community and independent banks, credit unions, non-banks and other alternatives to the country’s biggest banks play in supporting small business. Before many in this cohort were deputized by the SBA as full-fledged PPA lenders, a significant chunk of U.S. microbusinesses – especially sole proprietorships — were largely disdained by the brand-name banks.

“After the first round,” notes Karen Mills, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, “more institutions were approved that focused on smaller borrowers. These included fintechs and I have to say I’ve been very impressed.”

Among the cadre of fintechs making PPP loans – including Funding Circle, Intuit Quickbooks, OnDeck, PayPal, and Sabre — Kabbage stands out. The Atlanta-based fintech ranked third among all U.S. financial institutions in the number of PPP credits issued, its 209,000 loans trailing only Bank of America’s 335,000 credits and J.P. Morgan Chase’s 260,000, according to the SBA and company data. Kabbage also reports processing more than $5.8 billion in PPP loans to small businesses ranging from restaurants, gyms, and retail stores to zoos, shrimp boats, beekeepers, and toy factories.

To reach businesses in rural communities and small towns, Kabbage collaborated with MountainSeed, an Atlanta-based data-services provider, to process claims for 135 independent banks and credit unions around the U.S. The proof of the pudding: Eighty-nine percent of Kabbage’s PPP loans, says Paul Bernardini, director of communications at Atlanta-based Kabbage, were under $50,000, and half were for less than $13,500.

The figures illustrate not only that Kabbage’s PPP customers were mainly composed of the country’s smaller, “most vulnerable” businesses, Bernardini asserts, but the numbers serve as a reminder that “fintechs play a very important, vital role in small business lending,” he says.

“BANK OF AMERICA WOULDN’T EVEN TAKE MY APPLICATION”

The helpfulness of such financial institutions contrasts sharply with what many small businesses have reported as imperious indifference by the megabanks. Gerri Detweiler, education director at Nav, Inc., a Utah-based online company that aggregates data and acts as a financial matchmaker for small businesses, steered deBanked toward critical comments about the big banks made on Nav’s Facebook page. Bank of America, especially, comes in for withering criticism.

“Bank of America wouldn’t even take my application,” one man wrote in a comment edited for brevity. “I have three accounts there. They are always sending me stuff about what an important client I am. But when the going got tough, they wouldn’t even take my application. I’m moving all my business from Bank of America.”

Lamented another Bank of America customer: “I was denied (PPP funding) from Bank of America (where) I have an individual retirement account, personal checking and savings account, two credit cards, a line of credit for $20.000, and a home mortgage. Add in business checking and a business credit card. Yesterday I pulled out my IRA. In the next few days I’m going to change to a credit union.”

Many PPP borrowers who initially got the cold shoulder from multi-billion-dollar conglomerate banks have found refuge with local — often small-town — bankers and financial institutions. Natasha Crosby, a realtor in Richmond, Va., reports that her bank, Capital One, “didn’t have the applications available when the Paycheck Protection Program started” on April 6. And when she finally was able to apply, she notes, “the money ran out.”

Crosby, who is president of Richmond’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, is media savvy and was able to publicize her predicament through television appearances on CNN and CBS, as well as in interviews with such publications as Mother Jones and Huffington Post. A “friendly acquaintance,” she says, referred her to Atlantic Union Bank, a Richmond-based regional bank, where she eventually received a PPP loan “in the high five figures” for her sole proprietorship.

“It took almost two months,” Crosby says. “I was totally frozen out of the program at first.”

Talibah Bayles heads her own firm, TMB Tax and Financial Services, in Birmingham, Ala. where she serves on that city’s Small Business Council and the state’s Black Chamber of Commerce. She told deBanked that she’s seen clients who have similarly been decamping to smaller, less impersonal financial institutions. “I have one client who just left Bank of America and another who’s absolutely done with Wells Fargo,” she says. “They’re going to places like America First Credit Union (based in Ogden, Utah) and Hope Credit Union (headquartered in Jackson, Miss.). I myself,” she adds, “shifted my business from Iberia Bank.”

Bank of Southern CaliforniaMain Street bankers acknowledge that they are benefiting from the phenomenon. “In speaking to our industry colleagues,” says Tony DiVita, chief operating officer at Bank of Southern California, an $830 million-asset community bank based in San Diego, “we’ve seen that many of the big banks have slowed down or stopped lending small-dollar amounts that were too low for them to expend resources to process.”

At the same time, DiVita says, his bank had made 2,634 PPP loans through July 17, roughly 80% of which went to non-clients. Of that number, some 30% have either switched accounts or are in the process of doing so. And, he notes, the bank will get a second crack at conversion when the PPP loan-forgiveness process commences in earnest. “Our guiding spirit is to help these businesses for the continuation of their livelihoods,” he says.

Noah Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of two Minnesota banks, reports that both of his financial institutions have been working with non-customers neglected by bigger banks where many had been longtime customers. At Grand Rapids State Bank, he says, 26% of the 198 PPP applicants who were successfully funded were non-customers. Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, handled PPP credits for 274 applicants, of whom 66% were non-customers.

“People who had been customers forever at big banks told us that they had been applying for weeks and were flabbergasted that we were turning those applications around in an hour,” says Wilcox, who is also the current chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing community banks.

“IT’S BEEN RELENTLESS”

Noting that one of his Gopher State banks had successfully secured funding for an elderly PPP borrower “who said he had been at another bank for 69 years and could not get a telephone call returned,” Wilcox added: “We’ve had quite a number of those individuals moving their relationships to us.”

For Chris Hurn, executive director at Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a non-bank SBA lender in Lake Mary, Fla., the psychic rewards have helped compensate for the sometimes 16-hour days he and his staff endured processing and funding PPP applications. “It’s been relentless,” he says of the regimen required to funnel loans to more than 1,300 PPP applicants, “but we’ve gotten glowing e-mails and cards telling us that we’ve saved people’s livelihoods.”

Yet even as the Paycheck Protection Program – which only provides funding for two-and-a-half months – is proving to be immensely helpful, albeit temporarily, there is much trepidation among small businesses over what happens when the government’s spigots run dry. The hastily contrived design of the program, which has relied heavily on the country’s largest financial institutions, has contributed mightily to the program’s flaws.

“The underbanked and those who don’t have banking relationships were frozen out in the first round,” says Sarah Crozier, director of communications at Main Street Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization comprising some 100,000 small businesses. “The new updates were incredibly necessary and long overdue,” she adds, “but the changes didn’t solve the problem of equity in access to the program and whom money is flowing to in the community.”

“IT WAS NOT WELL-THOUGHT-OUT AND A LOT OF MONEY WENT TO THE WRONG PEOPLE”

Professor David Audretsch, an economist at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on small business, says of PPP: “It’s a short-term fix to keep businesses afloat, but it missed in a lot of ways. It was not well-thought-out and a lot of money went to the wrong people.”

The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 11.1% in June, according to the most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three times the rate of February, just before the pandemic hit. The BLS also reported that 47.2% of the U.S. population – nearly half –was jobless in June. Against this backdrop, SBA data on PPP lending released in early July showed that a stunning array of cosseted elite enterprises and organizations, many with close connections to rich and powerful Washington power brokers, have been feasting on the PPP program.

In a stunning number of cases, the program’s recipients have been tony Washington, D.C. law firms, influential lobbyists and think tanks, and even members of Congress. Many businesses with ties to President Trump and Trump donors have also figured prominently on the SBA list of those receiving largesse from the SBA.

Wall StreetBusinesses owned by private equity firms, for which the definition of “small business” strains credulity, were also showered with PPP dollars. Bloomberg News reported that upscale health-care businesses in which leveraged-buyout firms held a controlling interest, were impressively adept at accessing PPP money. Among this group were Abry Partners, Silver Oak Service Partners, Gauge Capital, and Heron Capital. (Small businesses are generally defined as enterprises with fewer than 500 employees. The SBA reports that there are 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. and that they account for roughly 47% of U.S. employment.)

Boston-based Abry Partners, which currently manages more than $5 billion in capital across its active funds, merits special mention. Among other properties, Abry holds the largest stake in Oliver Street Dermatology Management, recipient of between $5 million and $10 million in potentially forgivable PPP loans. Based in Dallas, Oliver Street ranks among the largest dermatology management practices in the U.S. and, according to a company statement, boasts the most extensive such network in Texas, Kansas and Missouri. 

Meanwhile, the design of the program and the formula for the looming forgiveness process is proving impractical. As it currently stands, loan forgiveness depends on businesses spending 60% of PPP money on employees’ wages and health insurance with the remaining 40% earmarked for rent, mortgage or utilities.

closed for businessMany businesses such as restaurants and bars, storefront retailers and boutiques – particularly those that have shut down — are preferring to let their employees collect unemployment compensation. “Business owners had a hard time wrapping their heads around the requirement of keeping employees on the payroll while they’re closed,” notes Detweiler, the education director at Nav. “They have other bills that have to be paid.”

The forgiveness formula remains vexing for businesses where real estate costs are exorbitant, particularly in high-rent cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. Tyler Balliet, the founder and owner of Rose Mansion, a midtown Manhattan wine-bar promising an extravagant, theme-park experience for wine enthusiasts, says that it took him a month and a half to receive almost $500,000 from Chase Bank. Unfortunately, though, the money isn’t doing him much good.

“I HAVEN’T PAID RENT SINCE MARCH AND I’M IN DEFAULT”

“I have 100 employees on staff, most of whom are actors,” he says. “We shut down on March 13. I laid off 95 employees and kept just a few people to keep the lights on.”

At the same time, his annual rent tops $1 million and the forgivable amount in the PPP loans won’t even cover a month’s rent. “I haven’t paid rent since March and I’m in default,” Balliet says. “Now I’m just waiting to see what the landlord wants to do.”

Like many business owners, Balliet financed much of his venture with credit card debt, which creates an additional liability concern, notes Crozier of the Main Street Alliance. “It’s very common for borrowers to have signed personal guarantees in their loans using their credit cards,” she says. “As we get closer to the funding cliff and as rent moratoriums end,” she adds, “creditors are coming after borrowers and putting their personal homes at risk.”

Mark Frier is the owner of three restaurants in Vermont ski towns, including The Reservoir — his flagship — in Waterbury. In toto, his eateries chalked up $6.5 million in combined sales in 2019. But 2020 is far different: the restaurants have not been open since mid-March and he’s missed out on the lucrative, end-of-season ski rush.

Consequently, Frier has been reluctant to draw down much of the $750,000 in PPP money he’d secured through local financial institutions. “We could end up with $600,000 in debt even with the new rules,” Frier says, adding: “We live off very thin margins. We need grants not loans.”

As the country recorded 3.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 141,000 deaths as of mid-July, PPP money earmarked by businesses for health-related spending was not deemed forgivable. Yet in order to comply with regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and mandates and ordinances imposed by state and local governments, many establishments will be unable to avoid such expenditures.

“What we really needed was a grant program for companies to pivot to a business environment in a pandemic,” says Crozier. She cites the necessity businesspeople face of “retrofitting their businesses, buying masks, gloves and sanitizers and cleaning supplies, restaurants’ taking out tables and knocking down walls, installing Plexiglass shields, and improving air filtration systems.”

Covid-19Meanwhile, as Covid-19 was taking its toll in sickness and death, the economic outlook for small business has been looking dire as well. The recent U.S. Census’s “Pulse Survey” of some 885,000 businesses updated on July 2 found that roughly 83% reported that Covid-19 pandemic had a “negative effect on their business. Fully 38% of all small business respondents, moreover, reported a “large negative effect.”

Amid the unabated spikes in the number of coronavirus cases and the country’s grave economic distress, PPP recipients are faced with the unsettling approach of the PPP forgiveness process. As Congress, the SBA, and the U.S. Treasury Department continue to remake and revise the rules and regulations governing the program, businesses are operating in a climate of uncertainty as well. Currently, the law states that the amount of the PPP loan that fails to be forgiven will convert to a five-year, one-percent loan — a relaxation in terms from the original two-year loan which is not necessarily cheering recipients.

“One of the biggest problems with PPP is that the rule book has been unclear,” frets Vermont restaurateur Frier, glumly adding: “This is not even a good loan program.”

Ashley Harrington, senior counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy group based in Durham, N.C., argued in House committee testimony on June 17, that there ought to be automatic forgiveness for PPP loans under $100,000. Such a policy, she declared, “would likely exempt firms with, on average, 13 or fewer employees and save 71 million hours of small business staff time.”

She also said, “The smallest PPP loans are being provided to microbusinesses and sole proprietors that have the least capacity and resources to engage in a complex (forgiveness) process with their financial institution and the SBA.”

William Phelan, president of Skokie (Ill.)-based PayNet, a credit-data services company for small businesses which recently merged with Equifax, sounded a similar note. Observing that there are some 23 million “non-employer” small businesses in the U.S. with fewer than three employees for whom the forgiveness process will likely be burdensome, he says: “Estimates are that it will cost businesses a few thousand dollars just to get a $100,000 loan forgiven. It’s going to involve mounds of paper work.”

The country’s major challenge now will be to re-boot the economy, Phelan adds, which will require massive financing for small businesses. “The fact is that access to capital for small businesses is still behind the times,” Phelan says. “At the end of the day, it took a massive government program to insure that there’s enough capital available for half of the U.S. economy” during the pandemic.

For his part, Professor Audretsch fervently hopes that the country has learned some profound lessons about the need to prepare for not just a rainy day, but a rainy season. The pandemic, he says, has exposed how decades of political attacks on government spending for disaster-preparedness and safety-net programs have left the U.S. exposed to unforeseen emergencies.

“We’re seeing the consequence of not investing in our infrastructure,” he says. “That’s a vague word but we need a policy apparatus in place so that the calvary can come riding in. This pandemic reminds me a lot of when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans,’ he adds. “The city paid a heavy price because we didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”

Last modified: July 31, 2020
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Category: Business Lending, PPP


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