SBLF restrictions draw criticism

When Michael Clarke, president and chief executive of Reston-based Access National Bank, first heard about the Treasury Department’s Small Business Lending Fund, he figured the bank could always use another infusion of capital to lend, no matter what his misgivings might be about “getting in bed with the government.”

So the bank applied. But when the agency offered $28 million, Access National, after some deliberation, turned down the award. And it’s not the only one.

A handful of community banks are withdrawing their SBLF applications amid concerns over the program’s restrictions, while others are still awaiting approval with a month left before the program expires.

Around 2 percent of the 932 institutions that have applied to the program have withdrawn their applications, according to the Treasury. Officials at the agency would not share names or the reasons cited for withdrawal.

For Access National, a closer examination of the terms of the investment turned up a number of restrictions it considered worrisome.

Some had to do with how Treasury defined qualified business loans, a key criteria for determining what the repayment terms on the capital might be.

Banks that do a lot of small business lending are eligible to repay the government with a 1 percent dividend rate, but that rate could jump to 7 percent if lending does not increase in the first two years.

Clarke said Access was concerned about restrictions barring the government-guaranteed portion of Small Business Administration loans from counting as new lending activity. Treasury imposed the condition to prevent banks from using one government source of funds to back another. But because Access National is one of the area’s largest SBA lenders, Clarke said he finds that stipulation “punitive.” He is also none too pleased about the exclusion of loans purchased from other community banks.

Access National boasts 54 percent commercial loan growth in the past year, but Clarke would rather not gamble on the continuation of that activity.

“Loan demand has moderated and the quality of borrowers has declined,” he said. “If there’s a double-dip recession and we need to lean even more on the SBA program, we could be paying the worst rate overnight.”

Anemic loan demand or an increase in capital on hand have led some banks to reconsider participation in SBLF, said Paul Merski, chief economist at the Independent Community Bankers of America.

Still, there are hundreds of applicants, he pointed out, sitting on the sidelines, wondering whether they will be approved before the Sept. 27 deadline.

“The intent and design of the program is good,” Merski said, “but the roll out and execution has been troublesome.”

Just 3 percent of the $30 billion SBLF fund has been distributed to 80 banks to date. Four Washington area banks have received money: EagleBank of Bethesda received $56.6 million, Reston’s WashingtonFirst Bank got $17.4 million, Virginia Heritage Bank of Fairfax got $15.3 million and Bethesda-based Monument Bank got $11.4 million.

“After we filed the application, it was probably a good four months before we heard from Treasury,” said H.L. Ward, president and chief executive of Monument.

While Monument had no trepidation about the terms, Ward found the process “convoluted” because of the “sheer volume of documents that had to be generated and the coordination between Treasury’s attorney and our attorney.”

Treasury has come under fire from Congress for the delay in doling out funds, but explained that having each application approved by a bank’s primary supervisor has slowed the process.

“We are being careful to ensure that banks that are in a place to increase their small business lending are those that are getting funding ... and that takes time,” said Jason Tepperman, director of the Small Business Lending Fund. “We’re anticipating completing all of our approvals within the coming days.”

 
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