July 11, 2009

Okay, let's see if I'm following this. The administration is talking about lending money to small businesses because the banks to which they've already funneled billions didn't do the thing all that money was supposed to do: make them open up the taps and lend working capital to businesses.

Are we clear now?

The Obama administration is developing an initiative to take money from the $700 billion program for the banking system and make it available to millions of small businesses, which officials say are essential to any economic recovery because they employ so many people, according to sources familiar with the plan.

The new effort -- which would represent a striking shift from the rescue program's original mandate -- would direct billions of bailout dollars toward a program that aims more at saving jobs than righting the financial system.

A proposal being floated by senior Treasury Department officials calls for using the bailout funds to expand an existing government program that helps small companies borrow money from banks a low rates to keep their businesses going, the source said. These "working capital" loans would come with few restrictions and could be used for buying inventory, holding onto employees and paying off short-term debt.


The initiative would expand a Small Business Administration lending program called 7(a), the agency's most popular lending program. Lines of credit for small companies could greatly increase in size. If the firm failed despite receiving this help, the government would cover most of the losses on the federal loan, perhaps as much as 90 percent. Lines of credit act like the credit cards for companies -- short-term revolving debt used to pay a variety of immediate expenses.

Discussions about the plan have reached the highest levels of the administration. In a meeting at the White House last week, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner expressed support of his staff's proposal, while National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers was more skeptical. Neither has made up his mind, officials said.

"Larry has supported every small business idea we have implemented so far," said Gene Sperling, a counselor to Geithner, who has been working on small business issues. "When we have a brainstorming session on new ideas, Larry as always asks the toughest questions in the room."

The debate over the proposal has centered on whether taxpayers would be protected and whether banks that make these loans would lower their standards if the government promises to cover most of any loan losses, according to participants present or briefed on the discussions. The spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversations were considered private.

On one hand, administration officials want to prevent healthy small businesses from closing their doors and adding their workers to the growing ranks of the unemployed. But small companies have poorer record of repaying loans compared to large corporations and would be the riskiest investment made under the bailout program to date.

The officials said the discussions are in the early stages and that no plan is expected before the fall. Ideas currently on the table may evolve or be scrapped altogether, they said.

Anything that creates or maintains jobs is good, but I wonder if this will really do that. I think too many of those small businesses are already gone.

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