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Flaws in America’s plan to save midsize business portend more trouble

  • NEW YORK TIMES / FEB. 12
                                Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

    NEW YORK TIMES / FEB. 12

    Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testified before the Senate Banking Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Goodwill of San Francisco has too many employees to qualify for the Small Business Administration’s forgivable loans, but its income has ground to a standstill as the coronavirus closes stores and chokes off the clothing donations that make up its inventory.

William Rogers, the Goodwill chapter’s chief executive, has been forced to furlough most of his 600 employees, many of them formerly incarcerated or recently homeless, and it is unclear when the nonprofit will have the business to bring them back.

At the Tuscany Suites in Las Vegas, a privately owned hotel and casino that employs more than 700 people, revenues disappeared overnight as Nevada closed up shop for social distancing. The company laid off more than 600 of its employees, said Grayson McNees, the general manager, who is now focused on cutting costs.

Both organizations are slipping through the cracks, highlighting a glaring omission in the government’s economic response to the pandemic.

The government’s small-business loans, which can be forgiven if employers hang onto their workers, are only available to companies with up to 500 employees. Congress has left it to the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve to help midsize businesses — those with roughly more than 500 employees and fewer than 10,000.

But the Fed’s recently announced program will offer those companies only cheap bank loans that cannot be forgiven — potentially saddling them with debt loads that would make a post-crisis rebound more painful. Payments on the debt will be waived for a year, but borrowers will need to return the principal eventually. Those who cannot pay the money back quickly would owe interest on the four-year loan.

That may be an unattractive prospect for many businesses facing uncertain futures, limiting program use.

“We’re keeping control of our costs to weather the storm,” McNees said, explaining that the company operated with low debt and is avoiding piling on more. The end result is that, in contrast to small businesses where forgivable loans incentivize rehiring, Tuscany Suites employees will be left jobless for now, and it is unclear how long that will last.

The Fed announced the details of that “Main Street” lending program on April 9, earmarking $75 billion to support up to $600 billion in bank loans for those companies. No start date has been given, though officials have indicated that the program could be up and running within a few weeks.

Companies in need of cash may be unable — or unwilling — to tap the Fed’s facility, leaving a giant section of corporate America vulnerable and with little help. About 19,000 American companies have 500 to 10,000 employees, and they employ 30.3 million workers, Census Bureau data shows.

Even if the San Francisco Goodwill branch is eligible for the Fed program once it gets up and running — the initial program design is not well-suited for lending to nonprofits, though the Fed may tweak that — taking a Main Street loan would be a difficult business choice. The business is largely self-funded, using the money it makes on resold clothing and goods to pay its associates, hard-to-employ people for whom the program serves as job training. Borrowing money would leave it with debt that it might struggle to pay back.

“It puts us in a precarious situation,” Rogers said. The company is relying on savings and donations that will run out within four to six months, he estimates. “Really, fundamentally, we need help.”

If the coronavirus recession is as deep and painful, and the recovery as slow, as economists increasingly worry, some Fed officials are concerned that the limited safety net for midsize companies could have dangerous implications. Companies could fold, overwhelming bankruptcy courts. Others might scale back drastically, leaving waves of people unemployed.

The Fed has little experience supporting companies directly, but its emergency lending programs — which it can use in times of crisis and has been rolling out since mid-March — are fairly well-suited to helping the biggest ones.

By pledging to buy higher-rated corporate bonds in late March, the central bank has already provided a backstop that makes investors comfortable lending to corporations. Big companies make regular use of debt, have strategies for handling their leverage and have ways to restructure without going out of business if times get tough.

The middle market is harder for the Fed to effectively support. Because many smaller companies do not issue bonds or stocks, there is nothing for the Fed to buy directly. It is instead working through banks to make loans.

That structure will put some of the most vulnerable companies at a disadvantage. Banks have to retain a 5% slice, based on the program’s current design, which has been open to comment. The idea is that by forcing banks to have skin in the game, the Fed will protect itself against piling more debt on risky, potentially soon-to-be insolvent companies. That will automatically preclude the shakiest companies.

Those with an alternative might avoid taking the loans if they do not know what the future holds.

“I’ve talked to a number of midsize businesses in our district who say a loan is not that helpful,” said Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, adding that the best the Fed can do is design the program to be as useful as possible, given that it is not a handout. “The Fed is just very limited because we are a lender, not a grant-maker.”

There has been some interest in the program: The Fed has received about 2,000 comments on its initial idea. The design could still change or be clarified, and that might determine whether companies use it.

Right now, for instance, the Fed says businesses must make “reasonable efforts” to retain employees. That is intentionally vague, but if companies believe it means they cannot furlough workers, it could dissuade takeup.

The government is offering more generous unemployment benefits, so few shuttered companies would want to pile on debt to cover payroll for workers who might actually earn bigger paychecks by filing for unemployment.

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