Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress on Wednesday that he has continued to loosen the rules of the Paycheck Protection Program to make sure the vast majority of borrowers will have at least some of their loans forgiven, but that he does not ever plan on releasing the names of borrowers to the public.
The Small Business Administration typically discloses names of borrowers from the loan program on which the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is based. But Mnuchin said he won’t be doing the same with the PPP, despite a rocky rollout in which dozens of publicly held companies received millions of dollars in loans.
“We believe that that’s proprietary information, and in many cases for sole proprietors and small businesses, it is confidential information,” Mnuchin testified before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
Senators of both parties credited the nearly $700 billion program, which was created in March, with driving down unemployment. Despite extensive problems with the program’s launch, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that without the program “tens of millions of Americans would have been permanently separated from their livelihoods.” Officials have not released any data to confirm these projections, however.
Days before the hearing, the Labor Department announced that the U.S. gained 2.5 million jobs in May, a far better outcome than experts had predicted and one that lowered the unemployment rate to 13.3%.
“We would have faced the extinction of small business as we know it,” said Rubio, the committee chair.
While the program ran out of the first $349 billion it was designated in just 13 days, recently it has a new problem: Employers aren’t borrowing from it much anymore. Over $130 billion remains untapped in the second round of funding. This has prompted Congress and President Donald Trump to loosen the rules again, extending the period in which the funds must be spent from eight to 24 weeks, to help industries still struggling mightily such as restaurants and hotels.
Borrowers are now focused on making sure that the loans they received will be forgiven, effectively turning them into grants. Originally the program rules ― written to ensure that money went to workers ― required that borrowers spend 75% of their funds on payroll to have their loans forgiven.
Last week that threshold was reduced to 60%, and Mnuchin confirmed to Rubio early in the hearing that even borrowers who spend less than that on payroll will be eligible for partial loan forgiveness, so long as 60% of the amount forgiven went to payroll.
That would allow, for instance, a borrower who received $10,000 in funds and spent $3,000 on payroll to be eligible to have $5,000 forgiven, depending on other factors.
As a result of recent rule changes, Mnuchin said he expects to see a jump in applications from business owners who had been on the sidelines. Small Business Administration Administrator Jovita Carranza testified that “we don’t have actual numbers at SBA” regarding new applicants to the program but that businesses appreciated the changes.
Despite the program’s constantly changing rules, lawmakers and administration officials are in agreement on the loosening restrictions because the country’s economic situation remains so dire. Despite the jump in jobs during May, 21 million people remain out of work, and the country’s unemployment rate of 13.3% is higher than any period since the Great Depression.
Even though $130 billion in the PPP remains, Mnuchin also voiced support for another legislative stimulus package, saying that restaurants and hotels in particular seem to be in need of further support.
“I definitely think we are going to need another bipartisan legislation to put more money into the economy,” he said.
House Democrats have proposed a roughly $3 trillion spending package, which would provide more aid for states and cities, among other things. Senate Republicans and the White House have rejected the plan and have said they want more time to decide how to proceed.
Mnuchin also weighed in on an issue that has divided Republicans related to a large increase in unemployment benefits that the White House and Congress approved in March. Some Republicans have said the extra $600-per-week benefit created disincentives for people to come to work, and they want to let this money expire in July. But Mnuchin said that so far there is not evidence of such deterrence.
“I think we’ve seen from the recent numbers that didn’t have a big impact because people want their jobs, but we will have a significant amount of unemployment, and we’re going to need to look at doing something there,” he said.
Senators also raised the possibility of targeting future aid to minority-owned businesses or businesses in areas of particular distress, given the dramatically higher numbers of unemployment and economic distress being suffered by black workers and business owners in particular.
Strikingly, while the unemployment rate for white workers dropped from 14.2 to 12.4% in May, the unemployment rate for black workers actually rose, from 16.7 to 16.8%. Rubio also pointed to recent data showing that in majority-black neighborhoods, 95% of small businesses had a cash buffer of less than two weeks. In majority-white neighborhoods, only 30% of businesses were in such dire straits.
“Clearly, the 30% in those neighborhoods need help,” Rubio said. “There’s no one disputing that. But 95 percent versus 30 percent is a big disparity.”
When the SBA rolled the PPP out April 3, it immediately ran into a multitude of problems, and some larger companies with many affiliates received millions in funds, only to be advised later to return the money. Mnuchin said at the hearing that at least $12 billion had been returned to the government, where it is again made available to borrowers.
Mnuchin and Carranza both repeatedly came under questioning for the government’s failure to release more information about recipients of funds. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) inquired about the number of loans issued to affiliates, which allowed some large public companies to receive many loans.
The Washington Post is among five news organizations that have sued the Small Business Administration for access to loan data.
Carranza said repeatedly that she could not disclose information about individual borrowers.
“I wouldn’t be able to speak about a particular loan situation,” she said, calling it “proprietary information.”