U.S. banks grapple with system glitches, paperwork snags as small-business program ends fourth day

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government’s $350 billion small-business rescue program was plagued by paperwork and technical issues as it lurched to the end of a fourth day on Monday, with some banks experiencing major glitches with the processing system, according to industry groups, bankers and an email seen by Reuters.

FILE PHOTO: A deli is seen closed, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Yang

The problems with the program, which is jointly administered by the Small Business Administration and the U.S. Treasury Department, threatened to delay putting much-needed funds into the hands of small businesses hurt by the coronavirus crisis.

Three banking officials told Reuters U.S. lenders were unable to process loan applications for hours on Monday after the SBA’s online portal crashed around midday. A senior administration official denied the SBA system had crashed, and said the agency continued to process loans and add lenders.

Since the program opened on Friday, banks have struggled to access the clunky system and the paperwork involved has changed more than once, industry sources said.

“We know that your efforts have been frustrated with system issues, policy questions and slower than usual responses,” the Small Business Administration’s regional offices wrote to bankers on Saturday evening, according to an email seen by Reuters.

Many lenders have had problems signing up for new user accounts with the SBA’s platform, while bankers who already had accounts have had issues unlocking them or resetting passwords, the email said. It said the SBA was working to unlock all of the existing user accounts in one batch.

SBA also alerted lenders in the email that its technology platform’s loan authorization form was “not at all” compliant with the terms of the rescue program.

“Please do not close any loans using the current version of the loan authorization!” it said.

Congress created the unprecedented program as part of a $2.3 trillion stimulus package passed at the end of March to help businesses that have either shut down or have been dramatically curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Borrowers can apply for the loans via participating banks until June 30.

Over the weekend, the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA), which represents thousands of small banks, complained to the Treasury and SBA about the “failed technology” and “massive delays” its members were experiencing with the SBA platform, which was not designed to process the huge program. [L4N2BT08Y]

Community bankers also took to social media to complain, rebutting claims by President Donald Trump, whose administration had promised the loans would be distributed in just days, that all was going well.

“Going well?! Hell nearly every community bank in the nation is locked out of the ... SBA platform!” Noah W. Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of Grand Rapids State Bank, who chairs the ICBA, tweeted on Sunday.

Big banks were having problems as well: one large lender had submitted 10,0000 loan applications to the SBA since Friday, with only five approved so far, according to one of the sources.

A senior Trump administration official on Monday defended the progress made and said launching such a huge program in just one week was unprecedented.

“As of today – Day 4 – we’ve surpassed $35 billion originated; more than 100,000 small businesses have successfully applied and more than 2,000 lending institutions are up and running,” the person said.

“Starting today, the SBA is offering a lender hotline and our 68 district offices across the country will be available to assist lenders,” the official added.

It was unclear how much of that $35 billion had been dished out to businesses as of Monday since the banks are the ones who disburse the funds. According to two industry sources, paperwork problems have prevented all but a fraction of banks from distributing the funds.

“It would have been better to have all these things resolved at the front end,” said Carrie Hunt, general counsel for the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions.

Some small businesses say they have had problems even finding a lender given that many are backed up with thousands of applications and are not processing new clients.

Grant Geiger, CEO of EIR Healthcare, which makes modular healthcare products, said he spent Friday unsuccessfully searching for a bank to take his application after his current lender said it was not yet accepting submissions.

“We were ready last week. Friday morning, we had no place to go,” he told Reuters on Monday.

Reporting by Michelle Price; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Sonya Hepinstall