Second small-business relief program overwhelmed at start, lenders say

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Not even 10 minutes after a government relief loan program for small businesses relaunched on Monday, lenders reported that the U.S. Small Business Administration system was overwhelmed and inaccessible with a flood of applications.

Lenders from across the country were saying they couldn’t get into the SBA’s system when the Paycheck Protection Program relaunched at 10:30 a.m. New York time, said Paul Merski of the Independent Community Bankers of America. The system was down as early as 10:34 a.m., according to a person familiar with the matter.

That echoes the first round of the program, when lenders found themselves repeatedly locked out of the loan platform. Concerns about the SBA’s ability to handle a flood of new applications, as well as how long the additional funding for the program will last, and whether struggling mom-and-pop shops will get the aid they need, are the biggest concerns as the program restarted Monday with an additional $320 billion in funding. Congress approved the money last week after the initial $349 billion for the initiative ran out after just 13 days.

An SBA spokesman said the agency notified lenders on Sunday that it would pace the rate of applications into its E-Tran system, meaning that all lenders should be able to submit at the same rate. The pacing mechanism prevents any one lender from submitting thousands of loans into the system at once, and a lender that goes above that limit will get timed out of the system, the spokesman said.

The program allows for loans of as much as $10 million per borrower and is meant to help small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic keep workers on their payrolls. The loans become grants if companies use them for payroll and approved expenses for two months.

The initial program, which launched April 3, was marred by delays and glitches after guidance on how to process loans wasn’t released until the night before, and many big banks weren’t ready to participate or held back until rules because clearer. Advocates complained that many small mom-and-pop shops were shut out as outrage built over larger, public companies and big chains getting funded.

Even before the first new application is processed Monday, advocates are concerned the additional funding could also be exhausted in a matter of days, won’t be enough to meet demand, and might not reach the entities that need it the most.

The SBA and U.S. Treasury Department have sought to avoid pitfalls from the first round. They issued new guidance last week reaffirming that companies must certify they were affected by the pandemic and telling large firms with access to other capital they shouldn’t apply — and that firms can return loans by May 7 without penalty. Hedge funds and private-equity firms were told they were ineligible.

Companies including Shake Shack and the operator of Ruth’s Chris steak houses are returning their loans, adding millions of dollars back to the program. Congress also set aside $60 billion for small financial institutions with $50 billion or less in assets to ensure better access for smaller firms.

Still, large banks including Wells Fargo and Bank of America have been preparing to submit a barrage of hundreds of thousands of loan applications that weren’t process from the first round or have accepted since then. The SBA’s E-Tran was overwhelmed with the volume in the first round and was inaccessible at times, delaying the processing of some loans.

To ensure access for all of the more than 5,000 lenders approved to participate in the program, the SBA announced on Sunday it’s capping loans from each bank at $60 billion and also allowing them to submit applications in batches of at least 15,000.

Bloomberg News