Market Extra: Lenders call on Washington for more clarity on small business rescue program a day before launch Friday

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Lenders are still grappling with the U.S. government’s rollout of its $350 billion rescue lending program that aims to start shoring up small businesses battered by the coronavirus pandemic as soon as Friday.

Trump administration officials have said they want to get aid in the hands of small businesses within days of Friday’s planned rollout, as part of a broader $2 trillion stimulus package passed last week by Congress to help bolster Main Street and the larger U.S. economy.

But efforts to quickly get working capital out to small businesses, which in turn aims to staunch already skyrocketing unemployment, are being complicated by what some lenders have criticized as a chaotic process.

On Thursday, the Illinois Bankers Association added to a chorus of concerns from lenders about the outlines of the programs, saying in a statement that its members stand ready to assist clients with emergency funding, but that banks remain in a holding pattern until Washington completes rules for the Paycheck Protection Program, a cornerstone of the government’s small business rescue effort.

“Banks across the nation are waiting for instructions from the government on how to move forward, and Illinois banks stand ready to help as soon as they receive this information,” Illinois Bankers Association President and CEO Linda Koch said in the statement. “Until the rules are final, we are simply in a waiting game.”

The Paycheck Protection program will offer up to $10 million to hard-hit businesses to help cover wages for employees, sick pay and eligible mortgage and other immediate debt payments. The loans are for two-year terms at a low 0.50% fixed rate of interest, require no collateral and come with debt forgiveness options for eligible expenses.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday that he’s already prepared to ask Congress for more money beyond the initial $350 billion facility to support businesses, in an interview with CNBC, even before the first batch of funds are allocated.

“One of the things I’ve heard is this small business program is going to be so popular that we’re going to run out of our $350 billion,” he told the network.

Wall Street has been nervous about how the government will manage the coronavirus crisis. U.S. stocks on Thursday bounced higher along with crude oil prices, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +2.24%  gaining 2.2%, even as the global cases of the coronavirus topped one million.

Meanwhile, business owners struggling with coronavirus fallout can still apply online for the Paycheck Protection Program or for an advance of up to $10,000 to help cover lost revenue from the pandemic through the Small Business Administration’s website. The SBA also is offering low-interest disaster loans of up to $2 million for businesses to help cover payroll, fixed debts or other bills at an interest rate of 3.75% and other debt relief measures.

But while the government has touted aid to approved business owners in as quickly as three days, the hitch is that the SBA still needs a roster of banks and credit unions willing to start disbursing funds to their clients.

Calls and emails to the Treasury Department and the SBA seeking comment on the rollout of the rescue programs weren’t immediately returned.

One assistant branch manager at a regional bank on Thursday told MarketWatch she expected to hear more on Friday about if her bank gets approval to participate in the SBA programs. If signed off, the bank then plans to go through its client list to see which businesses might be eligible for emergency funding, she said.

“We’re waiting for the green light.”

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