Have you read the Small Business Administration’s latest revision of the rules for its Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) yet? If not, that’s OK – the rules just changed again.
I am exaggerating, but not by much. At times, rules were issued and revised on almost a daily basis. Major changes occurred in the night, or over weekends. But was that any way to spend $659 billion – one of the largest economic programs in our history? Congress certainly didn’t plan to save the economy on an ad hoc basis, when it first began to act in April. Similarly, many states’ planned on closings measured in weeks – over six months ago. But as job losses kept rising, Congress was ready to try anything that might work – and to change when it the economy continued to sputter.
For example, the Paycheck Protection Flexibility Act in early June fixed some of the problems that arose in the early funding, particularly requirements to rehire employees – even though many businesses were closed by government order. But giving money away wasn’t easy. In just six months, 24 separate PPP “interim” final rules were announced, according to a lenders’ trade group. https://www.naggl.org/resource/resmgr/ppp/IFR_Chart.docx
Of course, the PPP wasn’t the only effort to spend our way out of the problems. So many federal, state and local relief efforts were approved that it became difficult to keep up with all of them. So what have 5,212,128 approved PPP loans, totalling $525,012,201,124 bought us?
(The data is through the program close on August 8, 2020, according to the SBA’s PPP dashboard. https://www.sba.gov/funding-programs/loans/coronavirus-relief-options/paycheck-protection-program.)
Not much, apparently. But Congress worked so much that the legislators needed a vacation. As a result, President Trump reacted by to bypassing Congress with Executive Orders of questionable legal legality to try to fix some of the problems, and avoid further economic meltdown. But across the nation, businesses remain closed.
One respected political journal proclaimed, “The Paycheck Protection Program Was a Flop”. (https://slate.com/business/2020/07/paycheck-protection-program-was-a-flop.html)
At the same time, PPP fraud became a stumbling block to further relief. “Paycheck Protection Fraud Is Massive and Unsurprising”, as massive fraud became apparent in loans to ineligible borrowers, or without any job preservation. (www.forbes.com/sites/peterjreilly/2020/08/29/paycheck-protection-fraud-is-massive-and-unsurprising/#7dfbb8ac4df6)
Despite their pain, larger businesses ignored significant relief programs, particularly the Main Street Lending program perceived to be expensive and onerous. Schools that tried to reopen have switched to online learning – with all of the problems it presents for students from families without reliable internet access, or for those with disabilities. On a positive note, the national unemployment rate climbed fell from a high of 14.7% in April, to 8.4% in August, perhaps as a result of the PPP largesse.
Continuing its frenetic pace, Congress will likely consider another massive relief bill when it returns from its recess. However, further aid must overcome political disputes over key provisions:
- Maintaining increased unemployment benefits that ended in late July.
- “Liability reform” to protect reopening schools and businesses against claims by both employees, students and customers who may contract the virus.
- Restoring lost business deductions for routine expenses paid with PPP funds – causing increased taxes for businesses already hammered by the effects of the virus.
- Another round of PPP grants and stimulus payments – they worked so well the first time, why not spend again?
- Blanket PPP forgiveness for borrowers under $150 million (85% of all such loans), to avoid the delays and expense of manual review of millions of loans for compliance with the complex program rules.
- Emergency relief for hospitality and transit firms, as safety concerns discourage both business and personal travelers.
- Support for the Postal Service, critical for both Presidential voting and shopping “by mail”.
Despite all of the stops and starts since March, one thing has become absolutely clear: “man plans, the virus laughs”. Until a vaccine has been finalized and tested for safety, the virus is in control. Business and political planning can only remain a hope – contingent on the success of our public health efforts, and universal compliance with its recommendations. Clear rules will also help – conflicts between states and federal leaders’ advice don’t help to build a national consensus on how to beat the virus. We need the same unanimity our country had in times of crisis, such as World War 2, or the oil shortages of the 1970s.
With US coronavirus deaths alone approaching 200,000, our leaders, political and cultural, must now help build that consensus to restore our economy and our health. Without it, as the Grateful Dead once sang, “Ain’t it a shame?”
P.S.: While you were reading this, the PPP rules changed again.