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SBA Loan Default: SBA to Increase Enforcement Efforts?

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A Republican senator is wondering whether the Small Business Administration’s 7(a) loan program puts taxpayer money at risk without proper administration.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama wrote to new SBA chief Maria Contreras-Sweet to express his belief that the SBA “has not met the high standards required in providing loan guarantees.” Specifically, the senator worries that the agency’s 7(a) lending program, which backstops private lender banks by guaranteeing up to 85 percent of the value of small business loans they make, permits banks to lend with minimal regard to whether the borrower will be able to pay.

Sessions took issue with the SBA’s 7(a) loan program, which backed $17.9 billion in non-real estate loans in the 12 months ended September 2013. To further his stance, Sessions cited to reports from the press and the SBA Inspector General that show high default rates on 7(a) loans made to various franchise owners such as  Quiznos, Cold Stone Creamery, and Huntington Learning Center. Because the government guarantees a large percentage of those loans, “the lender still makes a profit while taxpayers shoulder the cost of the default,” wrote Sessions. “This is what economists call moral hazard.”

Sessions’s letter asks Contreras-Sweet to answer to 17 points, and a specific focus on franchise loans: “Please explain whether or not the SBA has excluded certain franchises because of high default rates, and provide the percentage of defaults necessary to exclude a franchise. If the SBA does not exclude franchises based on default rate or otherwise, please state whether the SBA believes it has the authority to do so.”

The missive also suggests that the SBA should transfer more risk to banks, and asks the SBA to provide data on banks that have been excluded from SBA programs for funding a large number of bad loans. Sessions also takes issue with banks’ practice of selling portions of 7(a) loans to outside investors: “Does the SBA believe that lenders would take more care in issuing loans if guaranteed loans were not transferable?”

The GAO found last September that the SBA has a pattern of starting new programs without gathering “information needed to assess their performance,” auditors wrote. The watchdog was writing specifically about pilot programs. Sessions argues that larger, established programs also merit a closer look.

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