With the current uncertainty in Washington, D.C., what's in store for the Small Business Administration this year is a mostly hazy forecast. We asked some SBA watchers to share their views on what they expect to happen at the agency in the coming 12 months. Here's what they said.
The Big Issues
Access to capital. One of the SBA's most important mandates is its responsibility to facilitate the distribution of capital to the nation's small businesses. It does this through a number of programs which serve as a virtual backstop for a bank's loan program. In the SBA's 2012 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, it supported loans to 44,377 small businesses for a total of $30.25 billion, down from the record 61,689 loans to small businesses made in the 2011 fiscal year for a total of $30.5 billion. The 2011 record year was due to a slew of stimulus efforts that both increased the percentage of the loan that was backstopped by the SBA and reduced the fees associated with the loans, making them more attractive to both banks and small businesses.
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The SBA is expected to back as many loans in 2013 as it did in 2012, but not quite as much as it did in the record-breaking year of 2011, predicts Rohit Aurora, the president and CEO of Biz2Credit, an online marketplace that pairs small and midsize businesses with lenders. The 2011 record-breaking year was supported "heavily boosted" by the loan incentives offered under the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, but according to a SBA spokeswoman, lending at the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 2013 was ahead of the pace at the same time a year ago.
Federal contracting. Another critical mission of the SBA is to ensure that small businesses receive their allotted 23 percent of federal contracting work from the hundreds of billions of dollars that Uncle Sam spends each year. In each of the last two most recent years for which data are available, the government has fallen short of its goal. In fiscal year 2011, small businesses got about 22 percent of contracts, down from the 23 percent awarded in 2010. Women-owned small businesses are mandated to get 5 percent of contracts, and for that subsection, Uncle Sam also fell short, awarding about 4 percent of total contracts to women-owned small businesses in 2011 and 2010.
It continues to be a struggle for the government to meet its contracting requirements. Already, it is clear that the government won't meet its quota for women-owned small business contracts for 2013, says Barbara Kasoff, president and CEO of Women Impacting Public Policy, a national nonpartisan public policy organization, advocating on behalf of women-owned small businesses. At this point, WIPP hopes that the government will make its quota goals for 2014, says Kasoff. An SBA spokeswoman points out that the Obama administration had revived the Women's Contracting Rule, which had laid dormant, unenforced for eight years during the previous administration.
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Also, recent legislation passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 lifted the caps on women-owned small-business contract set-asides, and the new law is expected to help the SBA reach that 5 percent quota. Before this law was passed, expected final prices for contracts specifically set-aside for women-owned small business could not exceed $6.5 million for manufacturing contracts and $4 million for other contracts due to a Congressional mandate.
Also, as part of the law, the SBA will have to conduct a study to determine what industries do not have a representative number of women-owned businesses. The goal is to find more women-owned businesses that may be able to participate in the program and win contracts from Uncle Sam.
Disaster relief. It's the SBA's task to distribute very low interest rate loans to both businesses and residences hard hit by natural disasters. The agency came under fire in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for its slow response time. It took the SBA as long as 70 days to let applicants know if their loans had been approved. In fiscal year 2013, the SBA says it has averaged 17 days to get back to a loan applicant with a decision, once they have submitted all of the requested documents.
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The SBA continues to have staff on the ground in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. This week, after a controversial delay, the House passed a measure which would authorize $51 billion in aid money for Sandy victims. The bill now goes to the Senate for near-certain approval. The Senate is expected to take up the measure next week, according to news reports.
Feb. 12: the President's State of the Union Address. Whether and how much President Barack Obama addresses small business during his speech will be a bellwether for his commitment to small business in his second term.
"A clear indication of where we are is what happens in the President's State of the Union address," says Bob Coleman, the editor of the SBA-lending industry daily newsletter the Coleman Report. Last year, notably, the President largely skipped over small business during the speech. But he hammered on the importance of small business extensively in his 2012 election. "Was it simply campaign rhetoric? It was being paid lip service? Or is there going to be real administrative support for capital [for small businesses]?"
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Early February: the 2014 federal budget. Negotiations over the government's fiscal year 2014 budget have been delayed because of the "fiscal cliff" battle that brought Congress to a deadlock. The President's budget proposal for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2013, is due to be presented to Congress in no later than the first Monday of February by law. This year, as is fairly common in years past, the White House will not have its budget proposal delivered on time. A letter from the Director of the Office of Management and Budget says the budget will be presented for Congressional debate "as soon as possible." When the proposal comes out, keep an eye out for what the SBA's proposed budget will be.
Even while industry-watchers wait for the 2014 budget, the 2013 budget has not been passed by Congress yet. The government has been operating on a so-called "continuing resolution" since the end of the 2012 fiscal year in September. The "continuing resolution," essentially a stopgap measure that continues to fund a government agency at or below the previous year's levels, provides funding through March of 2013, at which point Congress will have to act.
Related: SBA Seeks More Money in 2013 for Fewer Loans
The budget for the SBA has nearly doubled since 2008, from $569 million at the end of fiscal 2008 to $919 million for fiscal 2012. For fiscal year 2013, the SBA asked for $948 million. The SBA has requested more funds to backstop fewer loans in 2013 because the agency is still paying for some pour loans it made in the mid-2000s and because guaranteeing loans in an economy with persistent unemployment and a weak real-estate market is expensive.
While there is intense political pressure from both sides of the aisle in Congress to cut government spending, there is also fairly unanimous support from both Democrats and Republicans that the government needs to do what it can to support small businesses. SBA watchers don't expect big cuts to the SBA's annual budget, which, at less than $1 billion, is hardly a drop in the bucket of the overall government deficit. Legislators "were actually making more noise about cutting SBA budget in 2011," says Rohit. "They are fighting for other things right now. . . This is peanuts."
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February: Rollout of health-care overhaul resource materials. As of Jan. 1, 2014, health-insurance marketplaces will be available to everyone in the U.S. who does not have health insurance provided through their job, as mandated by the health-care reform overhaul. This is going to mean some big changes for small businesses, and so the SBA is planning a rollout of key educational resources starting as soon as next month, an agency spokeswoman says. Keep an eye on SBA.gov.
Another question is whether SBA chief Karen Mills, who is also a member of the President's Cabinet, will be staying on. The SBA declined to comment on the future of Mills's tenure with the agency.
When the President elevated the SBA chief to a cabinet level position last year, he also proposed merging the SBA with several commerce-related federal agencies, in a bid to make government more efficient. Congress has not granted him the authority to do so, and it's unlikely that with a Republican-dominated House, Congress will grant the President increased power. Coleman says whether the SBA is rolled into a larger Commerce Department should not worry business owners looking to the SBA for assistance in lending or other programs. "I don't see storm clouds on the horizon for the industry if that happens."