WASHINGTON — A provision in the most recent federal farm bill that lets banks make disaster loans through the Small Business Administration will not be implemented in time to respond to this year's hurricanes, an SBA official said.
The bill, enacted in late May, gives the SBA a year to write rules detailing how banks should make the loans.
Rear Admiral Steven G. Smith, who heads the agency's executive office of disaster strategic planning, said that he has been working on the regulations, but that the SBA has no immediate need for help from banks this storm season.
The provision "really kicks in private disaster lending in a 'catastrophic' scenario such as a Katrina or a 9/11," he said. "While we have a number of disasters, none of them really meet the designation of 'catastrophic.' "
Mr. Smith said the SBA could handle 10 to 15 times its current loan volume before it would need assistance from banks, despite all of the disasters it is already handling, including the Midwest floods and damage from hurricanes Fay and Gustav.
The SBA was already moving to set up disaster loan offices before President Bush declared the Gulf Coast region a disaster area Wednesday. Mr. Smith said that when the declaration was made for Florida businesses hit by Hurricane Fay, the SBA officers were in place just an hour later.
Even so, he said he is moving forward with plans for the rules to let bankers help offer disaster loans at a later point. "I was in New Orleans a week ago Monday and I met with Guy Williams," the president and chief executive officer of Gulf Coast Bank and Trust in New Orleans, "and a number of bankers from the Gulf Coast."
Mr. Williams "brought in about four other bankers, and we spent an hour going over some of the possibilities and things which they wanted to discuss and I wanted to discuss about how we would potentially implement this," Mr. Smith said.
Though the SBA does not appear to be in a hurry to get the implementation guidelines written, the specter of a line of approaching storms has led some analysts to speculate a severe hit would speed up the process.
"We have three hurricanes coming, and the question is how quickly can the SBA gets this program up and running," said Jaret Seiberg, a policy analyst at Stanford Group Co. "One thing we've seen in the Bush administration is their willingness to push an agency to move faster in the wake of a crisis. … If there's a major disaster along the Gulf Coast, rather than seeing the SBA overwhelmed again, I think there's going to be enormous pressure for them to get the program up and running."
The farm law allows banks to make SBA loans to disaster victims, including property owners, renters, and businesses. The agency says over 80% of its disaster loans are made to homeowners, who may borrow up to $200,000 to repair their properties and another $40,000 to replace or repair belongings. Renters can borrow $40,000 to replace or repair damaged belongings.
The law also allows private lenders to make 180-day "bridge loans" of up to $150,000 at not more then 1 percentage point above the prime rate to businesses that are otherwise eligible for a disaster loan. In all disasters, private lenders can make loans of up to $25,000 and receive an SBA guaranty within 36 hours for up to 85% of the loan amount.
The bridge loans, which would be rolled into a standard SBA disaster loan once it has been made, are designed to deliver money quickly to businesses waiting for a conventional SBA loan or an insurance payment.
The SBA said it had 600 disaster assistance officers, including Federal Emergency Management Agency liaisons and loss verifiers, "available for immediate deployment." It also said it had "a large reserve force of over 2,000 personnel" and was "contacting them all to confirm availability and readiness to deploy if needed."
Mr. Seiberg said banks were meant to step in during "situations where the normal process is overwhelmed" and help the SBA.
"For a while it looked like Gustav could be that type of storm," he said. "It seems like this is going to be a brutal hurricane season, with storms lined up one after the other on a track that leads directly to the United States."