AP Photo/Matt Rourke A shuttered business in Philadelphia
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Nearly 400 publicly traded companies received almost $1.3 billion in loans intended to help small businesses survive, according to an independent analysis of financial record filings.

You may not think the Los Angeles Lakers, burger-chain Shake Shack, and a company owned by a Republican donor would have anything in common, but they do: They all received federal bailout funds intended for small businesses as part of the Trump administration’s Paycheck Protection Program

In fact, they were just a few of several hundred large corporations that benefited from a program intended to help some of America’s 30 million small businesses hurt by the coronavirus’ economic fallout. 

Nearly 400 publicly traded companies received almost $1.3 billion in loans, according to an independent analysis of financial record filings. The Washington Post found that several companies who received loans had more than 500 workers—the limit allowed by the program—while others were wealthy enough to pay executives $2 million a year or more. 

The PPP, offered through the Small Business Administration and its partner banks, was supposed to be directed at small businesses, but the details of the hastily written program were murky, and the federal government’s failure to implement strong and clear rules for the PPP’s first round of loans worth $349 billion meant funds frequently flowed to large corporations

Restaurants and hotel chains were among the largest beneficiaries of the PPP. Thanks to intense lobbying by the restaurants and hotel industries, lawmakers in Congress allowed individual subsidiaries and locations to apply as small businesses, even if they were part of a national or international chain. Many of these chains were consequently able to qualify for loans, even though they often have far more than 500 employees and cannot conceivably be put in the same category as mom-and-pop small businesses. 

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BuzzFeed News reported that Potbelly’s, a sandwich chain with more than 400 locations, announced it received a $10 million loan the same day it gave one of its executives a $100,000 bonus. Ruth’s Chris Steak House received a $20 million loan. One of the largest beneficiaries of the PPP program was Ashford Inc., a corporation chaired by Monty Bennett, a Dallas-based billionaire and Republican donor, that oversees a group of hotel companies. Ashford Inc. used more than 100 filings to request $126 million in loans. They ultimately received $76 million

Big, national companies that aren’t household names also got loans. As UpNorthNews reported earlier this month, three publicly traded companies based in Wisconsin—Twin Disc, Telkonet, and Sonic Foundry—received a combined total of more than $11 million in loans from the PPP. 

These sorts of large companies “were in line as soon as the window opened for this program and took a lot of resources away from those small business owners where this was their only option,” Holly Wade, director of research with the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) lobby group, told BuzzFeed News.

The reports of large companies getting loans go on and on and on, as do the stories of true small business owners getting the short end of the stick. Dennis Williams, who runs Le Crepe in Royal Oak, Michigan, applied for the PPP, but did not receive a loan. He expressed frustration that money was flowing to large companies. 

“I applied on city, state and the federal level,” he told The Gander in April. “I’m resentful that it is a process because I know when [large] companies get bailouts, they just get the money.”

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Other small business owners have echoed his anger. “It’s a reminder to small businesses that our voices are dampened,” Washington D.C. bakery owner April Richardson told CNN Business. “What are we doing this for? Why are we in business just to be told we’re not good enough because we’re not big enough?”

Even small business owners who were approved for loans didn’t always receive them. Savannah Sanders, a business owner in Mesa, Arizona, was approved for a loan to keep her business afloat, but was then informed by her bank that the federal loan program was out of money. Instead of getting money quickly, she’d have to wait for the program’s second round to receive her loan.

It felt like getting “a bomb dropped on you,” Sanders said. Sanders, who is part of a Facebook group of small business owners trying to obtain a PPP loan, said she also noticed that funds appeared to be flowing to bigger companies first. 

“It looks like most of the people [who] got funding early on were bigger companies,” Sanders told Cronkite News. “The sole proprietors and the single people with 10 employees and under were not picked.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin initially praised the program as a success for small businesses. “The vast majority of these loans—74% of them—were for under $150,000, demonstrating the accessibility of this program to even the smallest of small businesses,” Mnuchin said in an April 17 statement.

But as stories from small business owners spread across the Internet, large corporations and the Trump administration faced enormous media scrutiny and public backlash. Since then, at least 40 publicly traded companies, including Ashford, Potbelly’s, Ruth’s Chris, and Shake Shack, have returned their PPP loans. The Lakers, a private company, also returned its loan. Many other companies are now being pressured to follow suit by lawmakers and government officials. 

The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus on Friday wrote letters to five large, publicly traded companies—MiMedx, Quantum, EVO Transportation & Energy Services, Gulf Island Fabrication, Universal Stainless, and Alloy Products—demanding they return PPP loans received from the treasury. 

“Since your company is a public entity with a substantial investor base and access to capital markets, we ask that you return these funds immediately,” the letters read. “Returning these funds would allow truly small businesses — which do not have access to alternative sources of capital — to obtain the emergency loans they need to avoid layoffs, stay in business, and weather the economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis.”

Only MiMedx has agreed to return its loan so far.

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In the face of public pressure, the Trump administration has since changed the PPP’s guidance for the $310 billion second round to make it more difficult for public companies to obtain loans. Mnuchin has also threatened publicly traded companies with criminal penalties if they don’t return funds they received.

Mnuchin said the government would audit any company that received more than $2 million in loans through the PPP and warned that large companies could face “criminal liability” for keeping emergency loans intended for small businesses. “The purpose of this program was not social welfare for big business,” Mnuchin said on CNBC in April. “The purpose of this program was to help small businesses.”

Companies have until Thursday to return loans, but the fact that these giant corporations got funds in the first place has been the subject of much criticism, and even spurred calls for a federal investigation. The PPP was intended to provide a lifeline to small businesses that might otherwise struggle to raise money in the markets or borrow from banks under existing credit lines, but the program was beset by issues from the beginning. It sputtered out of the gates as the SBA worked through technical issues, questions about what costs the loan will cover, overwhelming demand, and confusing bank guidelines about who could apply. 

The program—which was spearheaded by Sen. Marco Rubio, chair of the Senate Small Business Committee and passed as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act in March—also featured several loopholes that companies could exploit. Applicants did not need to offer proof that they have been affected by the pandemic. Instead, they only needed to certify that “current economic uncertainty makes this loan request necessary” to support their operations.

Given the low interest rates of the loans and the possibility of forgiveness, companies had little incentive not to apply for loans. Some big company executives were even encouraged to apply by their bankers, the New York Times reported. The program has been criticized for allowing banks to decide which companies get funding instead of the SBA. Banks, which collect a percentage-based lender fee from the SBA for each loan, are financially incentivized to approve larger loans to wealthier clients. A 1% processing fee on a $10 million loan ($100,000) is worth more than a 5% fee on a $300,000 loan ($15,000). 

As the New York Times reported, some of the nation’s largest banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Citibank and U.S. Bank, allegedly prioritized the applications of their wealthiest clients while leaving small businesses hung out to dry. 

“The entire program was set up to benefit well-connected, well-banked businesses,” Amanda Ballantyne, executive director of the Main Street Alliance, an advocacy group for small businesses, told NBC News.

Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo are now being sued by small business owners, who allege the big banks unfairly prioritized companies seeking larger loan amounts.

Big banks are lending more in the second round of funding and also appear to be lending more to small businesses. As of May 1, more than 90% of the second round of loans were for less than $150,000, according to Treasury Department data.

It’s still too early to tell whether the PPP will prove effective in preserving small businesses and jobs. The early indications are not promising: The U.S. lost 20 million jobs in April and unemployment rose to its highest level since the Great Depression.

Not everyone seems to be pessimistic, however. Investors in large, publicly traded companies, including some of those who received PPP loans, appeared to be optimistic about the future: April marked the stock market’s best month in 33 years.