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For richer and poorer, Uncle Sam's coronavirus response widened the gulf

Experts say there are strong reasons to believe less-well-to-do business owners have suffered disproportionately and gotten less help from the government during the crisis.
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Chef Jeff Esaw of Stratford, Connecticut, wasn't able to get an emergency Paycheck Protection Program loan when he applied through the local branch of a national bank.Ron Antonelli / for NBC News

WASHINGTON — For two decades, Jeff Esaw of Stratford, Connecticut, has been serving up Southern barbecue to the gastronomes of elite hideaways dotting the state's coastline.

But economic trends haven't been as kind to Esaw, 61, as they have been to his patrons. He had to give up Jeff's Cuisine, his brick-and-mortar restaurant in nearby Norwalk — one of the few Black-owned businesses in the area — after the 2008 financial market crisis, and he estimates he lost 80 percent or more of his overall revenue from his catering business when the coronavirus shut down commerce in the state this year.

Esaw, an Army veteran, wasn't able to get an emergency Paycheck Protection Program loan when he applied through the local branch of a national bank, he said in a telephone interview. At first, he also couldn't get unemployment insurance for himself, and he fell thousands of dollars behind on his home mortgage before negotiating for partial forbearance, he said.

"I'm out here in a tent by the side of the road trying to make money," he said. "I'm like a gypsy."

Chef Jeff Esaw serves Southern barbecue at Rowayton Farmers Market on Friday.Ron Antonelli / for NBC News
The Rowayton Farmers Market, where Chef Jeff Esaw serves Southern barbecue, in Pinkney Park in Rowayton, Conn.Ron Antonelli / NBC News

Near the New York state line in Greenwich, however, Peter Brant's White Birch Farm had no problem getting a taxpayer-backed windfall. The sprawling estate houses one of his family's mansions and a thoroughbred facility for his polo horses.

On April 6, Small Business Administration records show, the horse farm received a loan of $350,000 to $1 million to support wages for a staff of about five dozen people. Five weeks later, on May 15, White Birch Farm borrowed $25.7 million from JPMorgan Chase to buy a $47 million estate in Palm Beach, Florida.

Brant, a paper-mill magnate who recently sold a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting from his collection for more than $100 million, said the paycheck protection loan — designed to help struggling small businesses meet payroll during the pandemic — was handled by the limited liability company's chief financial officer, Jack Field, who also signed for the loan on the Palm Beach estate. Under the terms of the SBA program, the federal loan is likely to convert into a taxpayer-funded grant, and even if it doesn't, the interest rate is a plum 1 percent.

"I assume that there must have been a very good reason for it because of the COVID situation," Brant said when reached on his cellphone July 17. "I didn't know the amount or the real details of that. I don't have anything to do with that."

When Congress and President Donald Trump created the loan program, they were clear that the intention was to protect workers from layoffs. No one said anything about providing for the upkeep of personal polo grounds or ensuring that the ultra-rich, like Brant, could improve their balance sheets with backing from taxpayers.

"It's disgusting," Esaw said of Brant's loan. "It really is."

Peter Brant in front of an Andy Warhol painting at Palazzo Reale in Milan on Oct. 23, 2013.Gino Begotti / Camera Press/Redux
Peter Brant's White Birch Farm, a sprawling estate that houses one of his family's mansions and a thoroughbred facility for his polo horses, had no problem getting a taxpayer-backed windfall.Ron Antonelli / NBC News

The government's treatment of two businessmen — one Black, one white; one struggling, one thriving; one left to fend for himself, one supported despite no apparent need — reflects the much larger story of the federal response to the coronavirus crisis. It has pumped trillions of dollars into America's wealthiest companies and investors, along with smaller chunks for lower- and middle-class families, in ways that reinforced and widened disparities between races and between economic classes, according to economists.

As lawmakers and White House officials grapple with the next round of coronavirus relief, it is becoming clearer who benefited the most — and the least — from federal spending and lending so far. And while the disease itself has had a disproportionate impact on infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths among poor and minority communities, actions in Washington and New York, where the Federal Reserve is centered, are further aggravating economic disparities:

  • The Federal Reserve slashed interest rates, bought more than $2 trillion in debt and created new lending "facilities," which flooded the financial system with money and rallied stocks. That has been a boon for investors, but the vast majority of stocks owned in the U.S. belong to the wealthiest 10 percent.
  • Congress and the White House pumped cash into businesses through legislation and the Treasury Department. Few small or minority-owned businesses got any substantial benefits.
  • The administration awarded billions of dollars in no-bid contracts for coronavirus-related goods and services to a relative handful of companies.

The Fed's moves clearly widened the gulf between rich and poor, said Casey B. Mulligan, the former chief economist for Trump's White House Council of Economic Advisers.

"They're buying financial assets," Mulligan, author of the new book "You're Hired! Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President," said of the Fed. "If you look at who owns financial assets, disproportionately richer people, way disproportionate, more disproportionate than, say, the distribution of wages."

Daleep Singh, executive vice president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank and head of its markets group, said in a virtual meeting July 8 with the nonprofit group Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress that "communities of color and lower-wage workers are facing higher rates of unemployment, limited access to health care, and greater exposure" to the coronavirus.

"We need to stay focused on the distributional effects of our actions and challenge ourselves to promote a more equitable recovery, while also understanding the limits of what our monetary policy and lending powers can directly achieve," he said.

The aid legislation passed by Congress and signed by Trump reinforced systemic barriers to government programs, perhaps unintentionally, according to several lawmakers, think tanks and at least one internal administration watchdog.

The SBA's inspector general reported in May that the agency ignored nonbinding language in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that expressed lawmakers' sense that disadvantaged businesses should be first in line for help.

"Because SBA did not provide guidance to lenders about prioritizing borrowers in underserved and rural markets, these borrowers, including rural, minority and women-owned businesses, may not have received the loans as intended," the inspector general, Hannibal "Mike" Ware, wrote. In other words, in the initial weeks of the economic crisis, with millions of businesses teetering on the edge of insolvency, those determined to be in the most need were not broadly given the hand up that Congress intended.

Ware also reprimanded the SBA for failing to require lenders to provide data on ownership demographics for businesses that did get loans, which means that "it is unlikely that SBA will be able to determine the loan volume to the intended prioritized markets."

"I'm out here in a tent by the side of the road trying to make money," Jeff Esaw said. "I'm like a gypsy."Ron Antonelli / for NBC News

Washington's lifelines

Trump and lawmakers from both parties are quick to credit themselves with splurging to provide aid to Americans who lost their jobs or were in danger of losing them, as well as most middle- and upper-middle-income workers. And they did.

The $2.2 trillion CARES Act, signed into law on March 27, included stimulus payments, increased unemployment benefits, tax cuts and eviction protections. Combined with an earlier coronavirus aid package that bolstered the food stamp program, the laws clearly tried to give support to Americans on all economic rungs.

All of that money accrues to the national debt — $2.4 trillion in just a few months across four relief laws — and the interest on that borrowing will have to be paid by generations of future taxpayers. The question for many current taxpayers will be whether they've fallen behind, held even or gotten ahead as a result of Washington's work, particularly as they compare their finances to those of their neighbors and the mega-rich.

Almost everyone got something, but at very different levels. For the vast majority of Americans — even those with the wherewithal to access the various streams available to them — the money simply doesn't compare to the trillions of dollars in cash and guarantees supporting corporate titans, including Wall Street banks, and their major shareholders. In April, the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimated the cost of CARES Act stimulus checks at $293 billion and the enhanced unemployment benefits at $268 billion. The paycheck protection loan fund has given out about $520 billion through July 24, some of which could be recovered by repayment with 1 percent interest. Taken together, the programs, which have garnered so much attention, account for a little more than $1 trillion so far.

For months, the SBA declined to identify any of the businesses that received loans from its program, which are fully forgiven if the recipients use 60 percent or more of the funds to cover payroll costs. But in June, under pressure from Congress, interest groups and the news media, the agency released a list of 661,218 businesses and nonprofits that got loans of $150,000 or more.

The SBA didn't identify the vast majority of loan recipients, and it collected racial or ethnic background information on the owners of only 94,501, or 15 percent, of the 660,000-plus borrowers it did name. But of that set, white-owned companies or nonprofits accounted for 78,782 loans and their Black counterparts got 1,827 loans.

Elsie Harper-Anderson, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who is studying the impact of the coronavirus on Black workers and businesses in Virginia, said that for reasons including racism in lending, many Black business owners don't have the existing relationships with banks that are an important factor in getting paycheck protection loans.

"People don't even go to banks and apply anymore because historically they have not been able to go down that road," she said. "African Americans tend to be less likely to go to banks. They start smaller businesses — they start with their own cash, loans from friends and family, credit cards, all those kinds of things."

Despite the challenge of limited data from the SBA, experts who study the subject say there are both empirical and anecdotal reasons to believe that less-well-to-do business owners — often Black and brown entrepreneurs — suffered disproportionately and received less help from the government.

Rob Fairlie, an economics professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has compiled data on self-employed business owners from government records in recent months. After a massive drop-off from February to April across racial and ethnic groups — including a loss of 41 percent of Black-owned businesses run by the self-employed from March to April — there's been a rebound. But the figure for African Americans is still down by 19 percent from February, compared to 10 percent each for Latino and Asian business owners and 5 percent for white business owners.

Among immigrants who own businesses — based on the self-employment data — the change is an 18 percent reduction.

"I'm concerned that this will increase wealth inequality as the more advantaged businesses could take advantage of PPP loans, whereas small, less advantaged businesses did not," Fairlie said.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who owns several companies, said banks — which the government tapped to administer lending — were far more likely to tend to financially healthier borrowers, and to those who had borrowed from them before, in the early days of the crisis.

"I got several PPP loans and do think the program helped me save jobs," Eberhart said. "From my vantage point, the process favored medium-sized businesses with an existing lending relationship. If you were a small business or one that had never borrowed money, it was an uphill battle to get your application submitted."

Efforts to promote lending diversity under the Paycheck Protection Program haven't been ringing successes. About $16 billion combined — or 3 percent of the total dollars — had gone through Community Development Financial Institutions and Minority Depository Institutions through July 17, according to the Treasury Department.

The early days of the crisis were the most critical time for the businesses with the least money, regardless of their owners' backgrounds, which is why the Senate advised the SBA to tell lenders to prioritize disadvantaged small businesses. But the "sense of the Senate" language in the law wasn't a requirement, and the agency chose not to lean on banks to give to them first.

At the same time, there was something of a gold rush among well-capitalized investment firms, elite private schools, politicians and celebrities to take advantage of the broad eligibility rules for the program and push payroll costs to taxpayers.

At 1 percent interest, suspended for the first six months, the loans are a great deal for borrowers even if they aren't forgiven — especially if borrowers know what to do with the money.

Business owners who received $10 million loans on April 4 could have used the money to meet payroll and then invested the same amount in an exchange-traded funds that track the S&P 500 index at the market open on April 6. If they sold the shares at the close on Friday, they would have cleared almost $2.7 million and would have been able to repay the loans before the interest kicked in. Their earnings would have been enough to cover 13 weeks of $600 unemployment payments for more than 340 people.

The commercial district on Greenwich Avenue in downtown Greenwich, Conn., on Friday.Ron Antonelli / for NBC News
Pinkney Park in Rowayton, Conn., where chef Jeff Esaw has a stand at the weekly farmers market.Ron Antonelli / NBC News

There are, of course, hundreds of millions of individual stories of how the government's actions affected each business and each American, and countless federal programs are engaged in relief efforts.

A Government Accountability Office report issued July 29 noted that one-third of the federal contract dollars obligated in response to the coronavirus through June went to 10 companies. One of them, Parkdale Mills, a privately held first-time contractor in Gastonia, North Carolina, bought out its minority stakeholder for $60 million less than a week after signing a $531.9 million deal to make surgical gowns for the government, according to Securities and Exchange Commission and federal contracting records.

And the SBA's inspector general reported last week that his office found $250 million in loans and grants related to coronavirus aid from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program that appear to have been given to ineligible recipients, as well as $45.6 million more in apparently duplicate payments.

At the same time, M.J. Gottlieb, co-founder of Loosid, a virtual platform for people in addiction recovery, said he had difficulty getting anyone from the SBA on the phone to discuss his application for Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds. Loosid was originally envisioned as a way for people in recovery to meet up for sober outings, but it quickly converted into an online hub, serving the need for social interaction but depriving Gottlieb and his business partner of their revenue plan.

He asked the SBA for a $2 million loan — based on a projected loss of $1.6 million to $2.3 million — and was rejected. Instead, he was offered a $2,000 grant.

"If they don't come around and they put us in the position where we have to close our doors, they will be effectively killing people," Gottlieb said in a telephone interview.

In many cases, the people who needed money just to keep their businesses afloat, their workers paid or roofs over their heads may have been those with the least ability to access it.

The Federal Reserve, partly reserved

The Federal Reserve began injecting steroids into the stock market on March 15. The central bank's Federal Open Market Committee announced that it would lower the interest rates banks charge one another for overnight loans — a benchmark for other lending — to near zero and that it would begin buying debt instruments like Treasury bills and other securities.

"The effects of the coronavirus will weigh on economic activity in the near term and pose risks to the economic outlook," the Fed said in a statement at the time.

Since then, the Fed has bought about $2.3 trillion in Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities and held the key interest rate in place. The Fed also bought billions of dollars in corporate debt from household-name companies like AT&T, UnitedHealth Group and Comcast (which is the parent company of NBC News).

Because investors could no longer see returns from putting their money in bonds, they placed more of it in stocks, and as companies found it easier to borrow at newly lower rates, their stocks became more attractive to investors. Ultimately, the free flow of credit, catalyzed by those moves and others, created a lot of incentive for stock market investment despite the economic downturn.

Some of the central bank's maneuvers, like lowering the federal funds rate, were unilateral, but many required Congress to step in and give the Fed a license to work with the administration on a set of hybrid programs that use instruments of high finance as levers to lend to banks and other companies.

Chef Jeff Esaw in Pinkney Park in Rowayton, Conn., where he serves Southern barbecue from his stand at the Rowayton Farmers Market.Ron Antonelli / for NBC News

In the CARES Act, Congress empowered the Treasury Department to spend $454 billion on establishing a series of "facilities," or programs, through which the Fed would provide exponentially more support to banks and other financial institutions; large, midsize and small businesses; and, indirectly, households. The basic idea is that the Treasury Department secures Fed loans for borrowers by guaranteeing $1 for every $10 in lending. In theory, that creates $4.5 trillion of lending power, but there are two big caveats: The 10-to-1 ratio isn't set in the law — it's really up to Treasury and the Fed how to structure the facilities — and the actual participation in the program hasn't approached the $454 billion cap on Treasury's spending yet.

Some of the facilities have been up and running virtually since the law was enacted, others are in their infancy, and more could be rolled out. The facilities are each designed a little differently, and some are centered more on signaling to markets that a lender of last resort exists or on highlighting temporary exchanges of credit — such as repurchase agreements, in which banks free up cash by selling securities to the Fed for short periods of time and then buying them back — than long-term lending.

What it all adds up to is a lot of money and security for Wall Street banks and major companies at a time of suffering for many households, said Aaron Klein, who was a Treasury Department economist in the Obama administration and is the policy director of the Center on Regulation and Markets at the Brookings Institution.

"Congress told the Fed to bail out corporate debt, and in doing so the Fed is accelerating the growing gap in wealth inequality as the lucky few who own the vast majority of the stock market continue get even richer, while the rest of the country struggles to make it through a painful recession," Klein said.

There are indications that Fed facilities have been designed with such strict conditions, including limits on executive compensation, that many businesses will decide against taking the federally backed loans.

That is, the Fed isn't likely to use all of the authority it has to backstop corporate debt, encourage banks to lend and bolster the stock market — unless there's a resurgence of panic in the marketplace.

"The tools that the Federal Reserve is using under its ... authority are for times of emergency, such as the ones we have been living through," Fed Chairman Jay Powell said at a recent congressional hearing. "When economic and financial conditions improve, we will put these tools back in the toolbox."

But just the whisper of Fed readiness — the announcement that a tool is in hand — can send stock indexes soaring.

"It's more important than ever to the equity market that the credit markets are working," Russell Chong, co-head of North American equity capital markets at Citigroup, told Barron's in May.

Some of the benefits of the Fed's interventions may "trickle through," said Mulligan, the former Trump economic adviser. But, he said, there should be no mistaking that the lowering of the federal funds rate is primarily a boon for the nation's largest banks.

"It shows up in their bottom line pretty clearly," he said. "It's just a handful of institutions that get to borrow at that rate — because they get a lower federal funds rate, that might show up somewhat in lower car loan rates, maybe lower mortgage rates, adjustable mortgage rates, but it really is a trickle."

There is disagreement among economists about the degree to which the rise and fall of the federal funds rate affects consumers — and Fed officials tend to see it as a relatively strong tool for helping household borrowers — but there's little question that both the immediate intent and effect of lowering it in March was to stabilize financial markets to ensure that the crisis on Main Street didn't spread to Wall Street. The move didn't provide stability so much as reverse volatility upward, which paid off handsomely for banks and many investors. That is, if anything, it may have worked better than anticipated.

Gary Gensler, an economics professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management who is a former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, said that programs like unemployment insurance will clearly help those in need and that it's hard to tell how the distribution of paycheck protection loans will ultimately affect large and small businesses. But he said it's likely that the Fed's actions mean the overall federal response will widen the gulf between rich and poor.

"Is this going to accentuate wealth inequality? Probably yes," he said. "I think it's largely because of this thing going on between Fed policy and interest rates, flooding the market with liquidity and low interest rates, supporting the stock market, and the stock market tends to be more about holders of wealth than workers."

CORRECTION (Aug. 4, 2020, 5:05 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the percentage of Black-owned businesses among those whose backgrounds were identified in the Small Business Administration's list of companies receiving Personal Paycheck Protection loans. It was 1.9 percent, not less than two-tenths of 1 percent. The article also misstated when the SBA's inspector general reported that coronavirus-related loans and grants from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program appear to have been given to ineligible recipients. The report was issued last week, not this week.