The Subway Business Administration

Yesterday, President Obama announced a government initiative to help small businesses, largely through the Small Business Administration (SBA). But more on that in a bit…

A February 24th Wall Street Journal article discussed the fact that defaults of SBA-backed loans to franchisees at 500 franchises went up 52% in fiscal year 2008. Loan losses went up 167%. Sure, the economy isn’t doing too hot right now. What grabs my attention is the fact that taxpayers are backing loans to business operations like Subway, Domino’s Pizza, and Planet Beach tanning salons. Is capitalism in this country so incapable, recession or not, that the government needs to ensure an adequate supply of credit to sandwich shops? Tanning salons? A recent headline on MSNBC.com reads, “In many cities, tanning salons exceed Starbucks.”

The Journal reported that in the last eight years 42% of SBA-backed loans to Cornwell Quality Tools Co. franchisees went into default. Yet, Cornwell’s CEO says that it opened 127 new franchisees last year and indicated that “relatively few used SBA lending to enter the business,” according to the article. Proponents of the SBA argue that the agency is needed to help businesses that are unable to obtain credit or financing through traditional channels. What this story shows is there’s obviously a very good reason why these businesses couldn’t obtain private financing. It also shows that, in the case of Cornwell, there’s no “need” to have taxpayers backing loans to its franchisees when so many are opening up without such help.

Is it even true that small businesses are generally so unable to obtain credit that the government must fill the void? According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Between October 2006 and March 2008, SBA determined that 31 of the 97 lenders reviewed had failed to consistently document that borrowers met the credit elsewhere requirement or personal resources test.” In other words, a third of the borrows didn’t prove they couldn’t obtain money elsewhere. Moreover, the GAO says, “we found that lenders evaluate a borrower’s ability to obtain credit elsewhere on reasonable terms against their own conventional lending policies.” That litmus test hardly provides proof that deserving small businesses are being left out in the cold. The reality is that the SBA-backs loans to small businesses that could have obtained credit through private means – or shouldn’t have been loaned money in the first place.

Cato adjunct scholar, Dr. Veronique de Rugy, has found that “no more than 1 percent of [all] small business loans each year are SBA loans. The private sector finances most loans without government guarantee and, hence, the SBA is largely irrelevant in the capital market.” Moreover, because SBA financed loans have below market rates, small businesses who aren’t subsidized by the government are placed at a competitive disadvantage. Table 3 of de Rugy’s study for Regulation magazine (download article here and go to pdf page 7), lays bare the SBA’s irrelevance, and the competitive disadvantage the vast majority of small businesses face because of the agency’s subsidies.

The table shows the top 25 industries receiving SBA 7(a) loans for fy2002. At the top of the list are full-service restaurants, with limited-service eating places in second, and automotive repair and maintenance in third. The SBA loan ratio (SBA loans divided by total number of small business establishments in the industry) for the top three, are 1.5%, 1.2%, and 0.6%. The ratio for the top 25 industries was 0.3%; the ratio for all industries was 0.2%. I’m not a math whiz, but less than 1% isn’t very much.

Let’s circle back to the President’s announcement…

First, the President said the U.S. Treasury “will begin making direct purchases of securities backed by [Small Business Administration] loans to get the credit market moving again, and it will stand ready to purchase new securities to ensure that community banks and credit unions feel confident in extending new loans to local businesses.” That idea sounds kind of familiar to me. Oh, right.

Second, the President said “These purchases, combined with higher loan guarantees and reduced fees, will help provide lenders with the confidence that they need to extend credit, knowing they both have a backstop against their risk and a source of liquidity.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Obama’s plan, aimed at helping troubled small businesses, will increase that guarantee to as much as 90% of a loan. The plan also will temporarily eliminate many of the loan fees that help pay for the program and cover potential defaults.”

It’s this second part that should be particularly galling to regular taxpayers and the vast majority of small businesses dealing with subsidized competitors. The President mentions some temporary tax breaks, but as Raymond Keating, chief economist at the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, told the Journal, “the Obama administration would accomplish much more in terms of boosting confidence and getting the economy moving by, at the very least, moving away from imposing higher personal income, capital gains, dividend and estate taxes on investors and business owners.” Additionally, a small business owner writing in Slate, in a piece entitled “Why Small Business Hates the Taxman,” says that what rankles a lot of small businesses is “the sheer hassle of compliance with the tax laws and the complete loss of control you feel when dealing with the government.”

Instead, the administration’s idea of helping small businesses is perpetuating the same moral hazzards that has the government already bailing out reckless private interests to the tune of trillions of dollars in current and future taxpayer dollars. This is change we can believe in? Unbelievable.