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PPP: Who’s screwing small businesses most – SBA, politicians, or banks?

(BUSINESS NEWS) With another round of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) being finalized, entrepreneurs wonder if they’ll get screwed yet again (they will).

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If you’re a small business owner, freelancer, solopreneur, or entrepreneur who has built a company that isn’t publicly traded, there is a chance you applied for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) relief, a $349 billion program designed to benefit businesses that can’t obtain credit elsewhere or who are underbanked.

And you’re meekly asking around to see if you’re the only one who got the dreaded “we ran out of money” email from your local bank after you jumped through several hoops to apply into a black hole with no responses or returned phone calls.

The $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act unanimously passed in the Senate on March 25, and signed by President Trump on March 27. The Act includes the PPP which gave Americans hope in the form of 2-year loans of up to $10 million for companies with under 500 employees, forgivable if applied to payroll, mortgage interest, rent, and/or utilities.

Meanwhile, over 40,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. It’s hard to be outraged under these conditions, but people are angry. Sure, some are violating stay-at-home orders to protest, but I don’t believe it’s simply because the economy is frozen, but because we were all given a false sense of hope. The PPP was thrown into choppy waters as a life preserver, but it was never intended for actual small businesses. The growing anger is from entrepreneurs and freelancers embarrassed to ask others if they’re the only ones to get rejected.

The truth is that most were rejected. And now carry that pit of fear in their stomachs, which is blossoming into anger. Sure, President Trump said that companies will have to “return” funds if they were “inappropriate,” given how many major institutions got funds, but that doesn’t help anyone today.

Politicians are nearing a deal on the second round of PPP, but small businesses are confiding in each other that they don’t believe they’ll receive help this time, either. With roughly 700K pending applications, and an estimated $310 billion which could become available in the second round of PPP, that rounds out to $442K per applicant, but will the cap remain in the millions, edging out smaller companies? Again?

There is a growing sense of dread and jadedness in this community that is becoming contagious as we compare notes (all of which look suspiciously similar).

If your local politician doesn’t understand how the entrepreneur community views them right now, show them this quick (but poor quality) clip from The Campaign:

You may think the growing outrage is because there are so many open mouths right now expecting the government to swoop in and feed them, but that’s not it. The rage is because once again, the little guy got screwed.

Under the PPP, Harvard University received $9 million, and responded to the public outrage by promising to apply funds to financial assistance to students. That’s neat, but what does that have to do with paycheck protection!? It’s literally in the name of the damn program. They have the largest endowment in the nation, sitting at a sweet $49.5 billion, so you can see how a copywriter in Dallas whose landlord is waiting to be able to file eviction is frustrated.

Under the PPP, according to recent Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, 71 publicly traded companies received emergency funding. SEVENTY. ONE. You can see how a 10-person graphic design firm in Nashville is frustrated.

Under the PPP, Ruth Chris Steak House (who has a $250 million valuation and 150 locations) received $20 million. They said in a statement that they applied so they can be “well positioned to emerge from this situation a strong and viable entity.” Are you effing kidding!? Please tell that to the day care operator in Kansas City who already laid everyone off and was told by politicians that the PPP was their lifeline. Strong and viable? Small businesses just want to stay open.

Under the PPP, Potbelly sandwich shops received $10 million despite having over 400 locations and an $89 million valuation. SEC filings also indicate that Kura Sushi USA received $6 million, Fiesta Restaurant Group (operating Taco Cabana and Pollo Tropical) snagged $10 million, and J. Alexander’s Holdings received $15 million for their 47 restaurants in 16 states.

Notice a trend here?

Shake Shack made a public splash by giving back the $10 million they received under the PPP, noting they had access to other funding, given that they have a $16 billion valuation, 7,600+ employees, 200 of whom were already laid off, and roughly 800 furloughed. The company explained that they applied because the CARES Act allowed any restaurant with under 500 employees per location to qualify.

Did you catch that? ALL RESTAURANTS WITH UNDER 500 EMPLOYEES PER LOCATION QUALIFIED. How many single restaurant locations do you know of that employs over 500 people?

Shake Shack accidentally explained why the first round of PPP failed. It was never designed for small businesses, and especially not for freelancers or gig workers as politicians had so optimistically promised.

False hope.

Meanwhile, you have JPMorgan Chase bragging that they gave out more PPP funding than any other bank. Credit unions and small banks aren’t processing the same volume, and it is unclear as to whether the SBA is favoring large banks, large accounts at large banks, or if the little guys just took too long to figure out how to get help for their customers. But what is clear is that banks have gotten paid, as $6 billion was given to banks processing PPP funding. Did the SBA favor large companies, or did banks?

Either way, banks got paid billions. Smaller account holders did not.

Also frustrating, the Small Business Administration (SBA) refusing to be transparent about who the PPP recipients are, whereas SBA loans are typically public information (company names, executives, addresses, etc.) and they say only nominal amounts have funneled down to hospitality, in clear conflict with reality. Further, few have received aide under the SBA’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (and grew frustrated at conflicting information ranging from large amounts available, to $10K grants, to maybe only $1K per employee).

It remains unclear who is screwing the little guy here – politicians, the SBA, banks, or all three simultaneously.

Small business owners Duncan and Rita MacDonald-Korth started a petition calling on the second round of PPP funding to be limited to companies with under 250 employees, and that half of all funding be reserved for those with under 50 employees. They call the first PPP round “flawed from top to bottom,” having done “very little to help genuine small businesses and instead has benefited large companies who have used subsidiary entities to benefit disproportionately and unfairly.”

Companies are banding together to sue Wells Fargo, Chase, and U.S. Bank claiming the banks “front-loaded applications for larger loans and focused on loans for $150,000 and under at the tail end of the program before it lapsed.”

Sure, you have companies like software company 75F in Minnnesota who have gained attention for publicly rejecting the help they applied for, but given the $18 million they raised in venture capital funding last year, solopreneurs are quietly reading that headline from home, wondering if they’ll ever be in line for help if companies like that qualified for PPP.

On Twitter, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), chairman of the committee overseeing small businesses, has softened over time, now saying that the PPP wasn’t designed to reach multiple subsidiaries of a national brand, and that “should be corrected.”

Should be corrected? You’re damn right.

There is growing fear which breeds anger, and actual small businesses are getting screwed, thinking they’re alone in their failure.

With the PPP’s lack of transparency and misallocation of funds to massive businesses, it is no wonder people are enraged. People are realizing they’re not the only one feeling betrayed by this false sense of hope, and we’re seeing entrepreneurs begin to compare notes. Trouble is brewing.

Business News

Pier 1 couldn’t weather the storm so they’re shutting all ports for good

(BUSINESS NEWS) Pier 1 was already on the verge of closing last year, and if we know anything about 2020, I think you know where I’m going with this.

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As the world keeps turning and we adjust to our new normal here in the ol’ US of A, we are beginning to see what the new shopping skyline will be like, and it will be missing some well-known high rises.

Pier 1, the noted home décor retailer, has announced that they have received approvals to shut down and liquidate all retail operations in its ~550 remaining stores as well as its e-commerce operations.

In the last few years, the company has seen a decline in their market due to heavy hitters like Target and Walmart as well as online competitors. The company which had reached up to 1000 stores had been forced to strip down to half that.

In February of this year Pier 1 filed for bankruptcy protection while it attempted to find a buyer for its remaining assets. The ultimate plan to keep the company afloat was unfortunately doomed to failure. The coup de grace occurred during the global pandemic. Pier 1, just like thousands of stores across the country, was forced to shut down all of their stores. But their main competitors were able to keep the doors open, and taking advantage of the “essential” aspects of their grocery items.

With buyers hesitating to jump into the deep end during COVID-19 the CEO & CFO Robert Riesback announced that “ultimately, due to the combination of a challenging retail environment and the new reality and uncertainty of a post-COVID world, the company and its advisers determined that an orderly wind-down is the best way to maximize the value of Pier 1’s assets”.

With all of these events, their petition to the courts was streamlined, and they asked the federal judge to close the Pier 1 brand “as soon as reasonably possible”. The final plans for the company’s assets are in place, intellectual property and e-commerce business is due to be sold in July, and all store locations to be closed as soon as feasibly possible.

The liquidation sales have already started around the nation. Playing off the need for change that most of the quarantined are experiencing, the company is hitting ~$20M in sales per week as people are reaching for those items that they may never see again. While it may be the last stand it’s definitely going out with a bang. After 58 years on the market Pier 1 is leaving behind a unique view point, and will most definitely not be going into the grave alone.

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Business News

Reopening the nation: Best done by sector or calendar?

(BUSINESS NEWS) Analysis suggests reopening economies in phases in each country. How will we find harmony between economic, epidemiological, and political leaders?

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After months indoors Americans are eager to reopen the economy. The United States has experimented with a series of stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and quarantines (the difference between these strategies being geographical and frankly, not always clear). However, the movement to stay home started with closed borders and reduced travel, and gradually became more restrictive as America fell in step behind other countries just in time to become the world’s hotspot for coronavirus infections.

After fraught disagreement between economists, scientists, and politicians, only a few things are certain to date: the economy has collapsed, 30 million people have lost jobs, more than 1.6 million people have been infected, and nearly 100,000 people have died as of this writing.*

Conversations have shifted from saving lives to saving both lives and livelihoods. Economists are making the case that a contracted economy magnifies health risks, and therefore potential mortality unrelated to or complementary to COVID-19 deaths. As such, it is time to consider various strategies for reopening the economy as a public health strategy not independent of hygienic and other measures.

Seven mostly friendly-looking suited-up white dudes from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland have analyzed a series of reopening strategies for the world to consider at this confusing, scary, and still uncertain juncture of how to proceed with defibrillating closed economies worldwide.

They concluded that a phased reopening by sector would balance the need to stimulate economic activity while minimizing epidemiological risk. They suggest that the order of sectors to reopen in each country should be chosen based on their inability to conduct core business from home, importance to the national economy, value added per worker, and business viability. You can read their full argument and the other strategies they evaluated here.

“This strategy has the virtue of being adaptive — as data is gathered following each sector-wide reopening, adjustments can be made concerning the timing of subsequent phases, and protective measures adopted in previously released sectors can be copied and improved as more is learned about the epidemic,” the team said.

The United States has already begun a regional reopening approach where Trump conceded that the states would determine their own reopening plans in phases. This strategy has already caused tension between states and municipalities (for example as between the large state of Texas and its highly populated capitol Austin).

Though the HBR argument is compelling, again, we find ourselves at a frustrating clash of experts in their fields. No matter how the economy is reopened, an increase in infections is likely if not inevitable as soon as more people return to a high-contact lifestyle – a point that scientists and epidemiologists have emphasized heavily. It also gives no mention of the role of testing and tracking the spread of the disease, and the path to population-level immunity whether by herd or vaccine.

Furthermore, this economic approach appears not to consider complementary supply chains and the interconnectedness of local, national, and global economies. Limiting travel was a key factor in slowing the spread and allowing control to become more localized, but much of the economy relies on the movement of people and things across communities.

Unfortunately, these decisions are ultimately made at the policy level. The United States government has proven itself incapable of a united approach to stemming the severity of this disease. Vaccines are in development, but it seems likely that when one is selected and approved for mass distribution, the decision will also be a political one. All of these considerations are ones Americans should bring to the ballot box in November. Or rather – to the mailbox with an absentee ballot, if we don’t manage to completely destroy our democracy between now and then.

*Such statistics, though widely cited, may be underreported or misrepresentative of the whole picture, as we learned about artificially deflated test rates in Texas last week.

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Business News

Survey indicates that small businesses are optimistic despite COVID-19

(BUSINESS NEWS) Facebook survey captures tumult of spring 2020 on small and medium business, with a dash of optimism going into the summer.

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This story contains information that probably will not evoke shock and awe by now, but is nonetheless upsetting. Stop now and check to see if you need a news cycle break before ingesting more garbage depressive news about the economy – but if you can wade through it, I promise it ends on a high note!

Though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is running amuck in the political world like one of those signs at restaurants that say “unattended children will be given ice cream and a puppy,” Facebook continues to effectively build an online community of more than 2.6 billion people worldwide – including more than half of the population in the United States. Given their audience and ease of access to business owners, they decided to use their powers for good for once to survey small and medium businesses.

The survey returned responses from 38,078 business owners and managers, 39,104 employees, and 8,694 personal enterprises in the United States (total of 85,876 respondents). Respondents’ industries spanned manufacturing, retail, services, logistics, hospitality, construction, and agriculture. Thirty-three percent of businesses were urban, forty-two percent were urban, and twenty-five percent were rural.

Here’s where it gets depressing: thirty-one percent of businesses reported closing in the last three months, with 71 percent of those closing since March 1. For personal businesses, 52 percent are closed. Of those businesses still operating, 60 percent reported a reduced workload, and 60 percent also report struggling with finances. Employee wages, bills, and rent were the top areas of financial concern.

So how is this important segment of the economy surviving the crisis? Forty-one percent of business owners and managers said they could pull from personal savings, but 45 percent said zero-interest loans were the most helpful option to subsidize lost business.

Unsurprisingly, 79% of businesses say they have made some change to operations to accommodate their customers and keep things moving, like using digital tools and delivery services.

The survey found some interesting geographical differences, for example, that businesses in the Southeast have made slightly more physical adjustments to business like offering curbside pickup and home delivery. They also found differences in strategy by leadership gender: “Businesses led by women are more likely to be using digital tools, particularly with online advertising (43%) and digital payment tools (40%), compared to just 37% and 34%, respectively, of businesses led by men.” And the differences don’t stop at the strategic level. More women owner-managers (33%) reported that managing life in a pandemic at home was affecting their ability to focus on work than men (25%).

Amongst all the chaos, people are optimistic about the future. In fact, 57% of owner-managers are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future of business. For employees, the results were surprisingly similar. Even though only 45% of SMB owner-managers and 32% of personal businesses reported that they would rehire the same workers when their businesses reopened, 59% of both the employed and unemployed were at least somewhat optimistic about their future employment.

And now for a quote from President Barack Obama’s 2008 New Hampshire Primary speech amidst our last recession, without a smidge of tacky irony or liberal preaching: “We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: ‘Yes we can.’”

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