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Fed’s program for loaning to Main Street off to slow start

WASHINGTON — Michael Haith, owner and CEO of a Denver-based restaurant chain called Teriyaki Madness, is in an unusual position for people like him: He’s making money through food delivery and pickup and wants to borrow funds so he can expand.

Yet so far, a Federal Reserve lending program set up specifically for small and medium-sized businesses like his hasn’t been much help. He can’t find a bank that’s participating in the program, and he isn’t clear on a lot of the details about how it works. For example, he isn’t sure how much he could borrow.

“We are trying to figure it out, and trying to find a bank that is working with the government on this,” Haith said. “The guidance is pretty convoluted, and the banks seem a little wary.”

Haith’s experience underscores banks’ surprising lack of interest in the Fed’s Main Street Lending program, as well as the challenges potential borrowers are having accessing the program. Fed officials say more than 200 banks have signed up to participate since the program began two weeks ago, but that’s a small slice of the nation’s roughly 5,000 lenders. None have made any loans yet.

The sluggish start is in sharp contrast to the reaction that greeted the Treasury Department’s small business lending efforts, known as the Paycheck Protection Program. That facility, launched in early April, set off a frenzied response from millions of desperate small companies seeking a loan. The first $350 billion in PPP funding ran out in just two weeks before being replenished. Congress agreed to forgive the loans if they were mostly spent paying workers.

The Fed has come under criticism from a congressional watchdog for quickly taking steps to ease the flow of credit for large corporations but doing little for smaller companies. The Fed this month began its first-ever purchases of corporate bonds issued by companies such as AT&T, Microsoft and Pfizer.

The delay in Main Street funding may arise during a Tuesday hearing before a House committee in which Fed Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin are scheduled to testify.

Powell said in prepared remarks released Monday that the PPP has apparently met the immediate credit needs of many small businesses.

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