Brooks Troxler is a small-business owner in North Carolina who’s known as “Trox the tech” for his ability to fix any computer problem. Business is growing and he had big plans to start 2019 by cutting the ribbon on a new property, but the partial U.S. government shutdown means he can’t finish the purchase.
The Small Business Administration stopped processing new loans on Dec. 22. Troxler and thousands of others can’t get their SBA loans approved, meaning they can’t get money they need to start or expand their companies.
If Troxler doesn’t get the $550,000 loan soon, he won’t be able to buy his dream commercial property — an acre on a heavily traveled road — a major upgrade from the small space he leases now. He’ll also lose all the money he has sunk into appraisals, paperwork, fees and environmental assessments in the past few months to make this deal happen.
“I’m praying this shutdown ends quickly,” said Troxler, who employs seven people at Trox Tech in Charlotte. “We were 99 percent done. We were at the finish line, and now it’s like they pulled me back.”
President Trump has said the shutdown could last “months or even years,” a scenario that is starting to alarm banks and business owners, who returned from a quieter holiday week to find that parts of the economy are essentially frozen.
So far, the U.S. economy continues to power ahead despite the closure of about a quarter of the federal government. JPMorgan estimates the U.S. economy is losing more than $1.5 billion a week because of the shutdown, a fraction of the $20 trillion economy.
But scores of businesses are becoming collateral damage, triggering a domino effect as the shutdown drags on and companies that aren’t getting loans or payments are unable to pay other firms. Cities such as the District of Columbia, Honolulu and Oklahoma City, which have a significant number of federal workers and contractors, are taking a deeper hit, Moody’s expert Nick Samuels said.
“If it lasts longer than a month or so, we could see larger knock-on effects to private sector activity,” said Michael Feroli, chief U.S. economist for JPMorgan. “In the past, there has been a noticeable effect on measures of consumer and business sentiment.”
Businesses can’t get SBA loans, and farmers can’t get Agriculture Department loans or money from Trump’s fund to help farmers hurt by China’s tariffs. Private companies can’t get paperwork processed for initial public stock offerings because the Securities and Exchange Commission is operating with a skeletal crew. Brewers can’t get new beers approved because the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is closed.
The E-Verify system to check if workers are in the country legally is down. Some companies can’t ship goods overseas because they can’t get approval until the Commerce Department fully reopens. And some mortgages are on hold while the Federal Housing Administration is short-staffed.
All of this is a major hit to commerce in America that comes on top of the 800,000 federal employees who won’t get paid this week and are struggling to pay their bills.
“I feel helpless,” said Amanda Cylc, who has spent months preparing to open a fitness studio in her hometown of Pittsburgh and is now in limbo. “I had no idea this was going to affect me like this until I got a letter from my broker last week.”
Cylc can’t finalize her $350,000 loan until the SBA reopens. Without funding, her contractors are likely to move on to other projects.
“Let’s open up the government,” she said. “This is ridiculous.”
Lenders and business owners say the situation is starting to reach a tipping point as grace periods can only be extended so long.
“As we are hearing every day from businesses across the country, the adverse consequences of the shutdown are wide and growing,” wrote Neil Bradley, executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a letter Tuesday to Congress. “With each passing day, the situation will only get worse.”
Troxler was supposed to close his property deal by now. The seller has given him a few more days to come up with the money, but he’s heard that big businesses such as AutoZone are calling the property owner and offering cash.
“I’ve got a couple of words for Donald Trump. Tell him to give me a call,” said Troxler, who voted for Trump but is desperate to get this loan. “The politicians don’t see how this is affecting small businesses like me.”
The SBA is a key funding source for small and midsize business. It guarantees about 5,000 loans a month — $25 billion a year — so small businesses can get affordable interest rates, said Tony Wilkinson, president of the National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders. Until the SBA is operational again, lenders aren’t willing to complete the loans.
Even if the shutdown ends soon, there will be a backlog at the SBA.
“It’s not like the government reopens and everyone lives happily ever after. There is a real drag,” said Lynn Ozer, president of small-business lending at Fulton Bank. “I’ve been doing SBA lending for 40 years. I know how disruptive it’s been in the past. It takes weeks to get out of it.”
Most trade is flowing normally through American ports, because customs officials are considered essential government workers. But shipments of high-tech commercial and military products that require government export licenses are stalled, causing a mounting backlog for exporters, according to trade lawyers and former U.S. officials.
The Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security approved 29,655 licenses for tangible goods, software and technology in 2017 — almost 600 actions each week, according to the most recent data available.
Doug Jacobson, a D.C. trade attorney, said he has several clients with requests pending. One client, which he was not authorized to name publicly, needs a license to ship industrial valves to Japan. It’s a pro forma request that’s certain to be approved, but the shutdown is preventing the company from filing its application. Without the paperwork, the goods can’t move.
A second Jacobson client is selling a company and the buyer needs a Commerce Department verdict as to how many of its products require export licenses. That request has been pending since Dec. 8, the attorney said.
“The process has now ground to a halt,” he said. “And once it reopens, there’ll be a big backlog that will take a month or more to resolve.”
Some aerospace exports are stalled because Commerce and State aren’t providing licenses for foreign military sales. The export-dependent industry needs government approval to ship technical information as well as goods across borders, said Remy Nathan, vice president for international affairs at the Aerospace Industries Association.
An interruption in those flows will delay sales and disrupt development of new equipment for the U.S. military.
Similar issues are affecting financial institutions that need Treasury Department approval to engage in transactions involving individuals or businesses that are covered by U.S. sanctions. Major banks such as Citibank, Bank of America and JPMorgan routinely have requests for formal approvals or informal guidance pending at the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Across the government, important rulemaking work has ground to a halt. At the Environmental Protection Agency, new ozone particulate matter standards are hung up. The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs is idling on dictates for tracking workplace injuries, and a key International Trade Commission assessment of Trump’s new trade deal with Mexico and Canada is in limbo. The SEC’s plans to issue new regulations for firms that advise investors on corporate proxy issues are being delayed.
Large companies such as T-Mobile and Sprint that are trying to merge are finding their deal delayed because the Federal Communications Commission is part of the shutdown. Companies such as Uber, Lyft and Airbnb that are eyeing going public aren’t able to get paperwork processed at the SEC. Parts of the agency’s enforcement division, which goes after bad actors, are also on furlough.
The shutdown’s impact on the housing market could linger for months, industry experts say, especially for federal workers.
“Buying a home is a statement of confidence,” said Mike Fratantoni, chief economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association. “They are going to be much more likely to buy if their employment is stable and their [financial situation] is stable. The events of the last two months have shaken both of these.”
While most loans backed by the Federal Housing Administration are continuing, about 5 percent are held up because they need special approval and no one is at FHA to deal with them, according to the National Association of Realtors.
Economists usually ignore shutdowns, but there’s concern that the length of this one is starting to hurt business confidence. Fitch Ratings also warned Wednesday that an extended shutdown might damage the country’s Triple-A credit.
For business owners like Troxler and Cylc, the impact is already real.