Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

SBA’s Risky Franchise Lending

The Small Business Administration’s (SBA) stated mission is to aid small businesses and strengthen the economy. Under its popular 7(a) program, SBA provides private lenders with loan guarantees. In the case of default, SBA steps in to cover up to 85percent of the lender’s losses.

This structure encourages lenders to provide more loans, but also encourages the approval of riskier loans. The lenders are insulated from most of the risks of default.  

A new analysis conducted by the Wall Street Journal confirms that this arrangement induces SBA to provide loans that result in a large number of defaults. Default rates for some franchise companies can be as high as 40 percent. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Quiznos, Cold Stone Creamery, Planet Beach Franchising and Huntington Learning Centers Inc. ranked among the 10 worst franchise brands in terms of Small Business Administration loan defaults.

Franchisees of the 10 brands in the ranking defaulted at more than double the rate for SBA borrowers who invested in all other chains, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of charge-offs of all SBA-backed franchise loans in the past decade.

Put another way, franchisees of those 10 brands have left taxpayers on the hook for 21% of all franchise-loan charge-offs in the past decade, collectively failing to pay back $121 million in SBA-guaranteed loans from 2004 through 2013.

Thirty percent of the loans provided to Quiznos and Cold Stone Creamery franchises ended in default. The losses from loans to Quiznos franchises totaled $38.4 million during the 2004 to 2013 period, while losses to Cold Stone Creamery amounted to $34.1 million.

This is not the first time that SBA’s franchise lending has been criticized. In a report focused on franchises, SBA’s Inspector General noted in 2013 that SBA “had not implemented a program or process to monitor risk in its portfolio.” The report continues: “SBA did not monitor portfolio segments to identify risk based on default statistics…SBA continued to guarantee loans to high-risk franchises and industries without monitoring risks, and where necessary, implementing controls to mitigate the risks.”

Franchise businesses are an important component of SBA’s activities. In its new analysis, the Wall Street Journal points out that “SBA guaranteed nearly $18 billion in 7(a) loans [in 2013], including $2 billion for franchisees.”

Taxpayers are picking up the costs of these government loan guarantees. SBA charges lenders fees to mitigate the costs of default, but the fee amount seem to be too low. Most recent years, SBA has received a net outlay, or subsidy, from Congress.

What should be done? At the very least, SBA should take its inspector general’s recommendations and review its practices regarding franchise loans to reduce the number of defaults. Ideally as argued on www.downsizingovernment.org, SBA should be closed down.

Secret Service Spending

Another federal agency has screwed up. This time it is the Secret Service, which almost allowed an intruder to make a surprise visit on the Obamas. The Washington Post reports:

The Secret Service on Saturday launched a security review to learn how a man carrying a knife was able to get inside the front door of the White House on Friday night after jumping a fence and sprinting more than 70 yards across the North Lawn.

In response to the failure, Rep. Jason Chaffetz observed that “the Secret Service has a serious management problem.” According to the Post:

The service, which once enjoyed a sterling reputation as an elite law enforcement agency, has struggled with some embarrassing episodes recently and the perception that its leadership is lagging in the best security strategies. In spring 2012, the service faced a humiliating moment when a dozen agents were shipped home from a presidential trip in Cartagena, Colombia, where they were implicated in a night of carousing and boozing with prostitutes.

The latest fence-jumping incident is no laughing matter, but this line from the Post did make me chuckle: “Former agents said they fear the breach may be related to a severe staffing shortage the agency has struggled with in the last year in its Uniform Division.”

Staffing shortage? How is that possible when the Secret Service budget has doubled in real (inflation-adjusted) terms since 1998—from $0.9 billion to more than $1.8 billion? The chart shows the particularly strong growth during the George W. Bush years.  

Bipartisan Agreement against the Taxpayers

The Washington Post reports on strong disagreements in consecutive appearances by Virginia Senate candidates Mark Warner and Ed Gillespie. Obamacare, terrorism, lobbying, partisanship – lots of arguments. But take heart, the Post advises us: “Despite the positioning, both candidates agreed on a few topics.” As usual, as I’ve written before, when you hear about bipartisanship, watch your wallet. Here’s what Warner and Gillespie agree on:

For example, they each called federal sequestration cuts devastating to the Northern Virginia economy.

Gillespie said Warner was in support of sequestration, while Warner blamed Republicans for allowing the automatic spending cuts to go through after Congress failed last year to resolve the debt-ceiling crisis.

“Sequestration is stupidity on steroids,” Warner said, promising to look for places to cut spending in other areas. “You have to take on entitlement reform and tax reform.”

Both also agreed that there is an urgent need to improve Virginia’s transportation infrastructure, though Gillespie said the solution lies in bringing in more revenue through deep-sea oil drilling and Warner argued for privatizing portions of transportation improvements.

On national security, Gillespie and Warner agreed on a need to spend more on the U.S. military in the face of the threat posed by the Islamic State.
Once again, what the candidates agree on is spending the taxpayers’ money.

Patent and Trademark Employees Cheat on Bonuses

Two years after whistleblowers submitted tips to the Commerce Department Inspector General’s office, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is acknowledging extensive timekeeping fraud among its employees. Many employees have reported working more hours and achieving higher levels of production than they actually did in order to secure overtime pay and bonuses.

The Washington Post has the details:

For example, patent examiners are allowed to submit incomplete reviews in order to meet productivity deadlines that ensure their work will be rewarded with bonuses. But the work is not always completed, the officials told congressional investigators.

They also said they believe they have adequate tools to allow managers to make sure the examiners they supervise are working, primarily through e-mail and phone calls. The 32-page review had concluded that many managers feel they have little authority to oversee their employees’ work; examiners have a full day to respond to calls and are not required to log into the agency’s internal Web site, so their bosses do not know if they are at their desks at a given time…

More than 70 percent of the 80 managers interviewed told the internal review team that a “significant” number of examiners did not work for long periods, then rushed to get their reviews done at the end of each quarter. The supervisors were concerned that the practice negatively affected the quality of the work.

After the tips were received, USPTO assigned an internal team to investigate. The team produced a 32 page report detailing the abuse. However, the agency scrubbed the report before submitting it to the inspector general. According to the Washington Post, “top patent officials removed the most damaging revelations from the report, providing the agency’s inspector general with an account half the length and with many potentially embarrassing findings removed.”

The agency now claims that the issue is under control. Workers are required to log into the agency’s remote server while teleworking. Unlike many federal agencies, the USPTO is specifically authorized by the U.S. Constitution, but it still has a duty to spend money wisely. 

Customs and Border Protection’s Extravagant Houses

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the second largest agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The agency cost taxpayers $13 billion in fiscal year 2014, and its budget is growing quickly. Spending has increased 85 percent in the last ten years, after accounting for inflation.

This chart shows CBP spending since 1970, including its recent meteoric rise.

Regrettably for taxpayers, all of that money is not being spent wisely. The Washington Post recently highlighted one example of egregious CBP spending:

U.S. Customs and Border Protection “vastly overpaid” for an employee housing project near one of its checkpoints in rural Arizona, spending nearly eight times the average price of homes in the area to build each of the units, according to a federal audit.

The 21 agency homes in Ajo, Ariz, cost about $680,000 each, whereas the average price for a home in the city is $86,500, the Homeland Security Office of Inspector General said in a report on Thursday.

Auditors determined that CBP overpaid for the land, added “nonessential items” and ignored recommendations for the types of houses that should be built. A CBP study had called for one-bedroom homes, but the agency instead built two- and three-bedroom units with amenities such as quartz counter tops, three-car garages and stand-alone freezers.

The report concluded that the homes exceeded employee needs, noting that 80 percent of the agency’s field officers own permanent residences in other locations.

“CBP did not effectively plan and manage employee housing in Ajo, Arizona, and made decisions that resulted in additional costs to the federal government,” the report said.

All told, the auditors identified $4.6 million in expenses that “could have been put to better use.” They noted that CBP increased the cost of the project seven times without explaining how the extra funds would be spent.

Ajo, Arizona represents just one of six areas where CBP is building new homes for its agents. The Inspector General’s report calls on CBP to postpone further construction until it gets this wasteful spending under control.

This is one more example to add to the ever-growing list of wasteful federal spending.
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Curious how much other agencies spend? You can make your own spending charts here at www.DownsizingGovernment.org.

Cutting Business Property Taxes to Improve Competitiveness

Tax Foundation has released a study comparing country tax codes. The “International Tax Competitiveness Index” by Kyle Pomerleau and Andrew Lundeen found that “the United States has the 32nd most competitive tax system out of the 34 OECD member countries.” In other words, the United States is a bad place to invest from a tax perspective.

Factors behind America’s poor score include “the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world” and the fact that we are “one of the six remaining countries in the OECD with a worldwide system of taxation.”

Another cause of our poor score is our high property taxes. Many U.S. jurisdictions impose property taxes not just on land and buildings, but also on business machinery and equipment. These taxes are a strong deterrent to capital investment, and they should be repealed. U.S. state and local governments collect a huge $242 billion a year in business property taxes, according to E&Y.

In an upcoming Fiscal Report Card on America’s Governors, Nicole Kaeding and I mention efforts to cut property taxes on business equipment, including reforms in Indiana and Michigan. I suspect one reason for Detroit’s economic demise has been its very high property tax burden.

Using Tax Foundation data, the chart shows property taxes as a percent of gross domestic product for the 34 OECD countries.

Ryan Ellis highlights some more of the Tax Foundation results here.

The Disappointing Continuing Resolution

The House of Representatives is set to vote on a continuing resolution (CR) tomorrow to fund the federal government until December 11, 2014. A CR is stop-gap measure often used when the parties and chambers cannot agree on a full-year budget.

The CR package, as presented in draft form, is disappointing. It fails to institute much-needed fiscal reforms.

  • Spending Levels: The CR keeps the level of discretionary spending constant at $1.012 trillion. Not growing the size of government is a positive step for Congress, but there are plenty of ways to cut and reform spending. As I noted recently, the sooner Congress reforms spending the better.
  • Export-Import Bank: The CR extends the Export-Import Bank’s charter until June 30, 2015. Ex-Im subsidizes exports for American companies, but at a large cost to other American firms.
  • Internet Tax Moratorium: In 1998, Congress passed a law making it illegal for federal, state, or local governments to impose taxes on internet access, such as bandwidth or email taxes. This moratorium expires on November 1, 2014. The CR extends the moratorium until December 11, 2014, but it does not permanently extend it as  previously-passed House legislation would have. This sets up an important tax fight after the congressional elections.
  • Overseas Contingency Operations: The supplemental war budget, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, provides funding for military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. OCO funding is supposed to decrease as those activities wind-down. But this CR increases OCO above planned levels. It includes $26 billion, at an annual rate, more than the Obama Administration’s request earlier in the year. One problem with OCO funding is that it is not subject to the same federal budgetary rules and disciplines as other types of spending, which allows Congress to treat it like a slush fund.

In sum, this CR allows members to again punt on any sort of meaningful entitlement reforms or spending cuts to reduce our half trillion dollar deficit.