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The government’s release of data on businesses that have participated in the Paycheck Protection Program confirms what many in the financial advice industry already knew: Wealth management firms were among those to have taken the government loans.
The data released by the Small Business Administration and Treasury Department on Monday included loans of more than $150,000 that were made through the PPP.
The loan program was created under the $2 trillion-plus CARES Act passed by Congress in March. A list of the borrowers had not been revealed until Monday. The government did not disclose the names of businesses that took less than $150,000, in an effort to protect small businesses.
The average loan size was $107,000, according to the SBA. Loans of less than $150,000 represented 86.5% of the loans granted.
The list of bigger borrowers that was released includes wealth management firms across the country. Those firms also disclose their borrowing activity in their own public filings.
The move to take that money sparked debate within the industry. Wealth management executives cited their need to protect their businesses, and therefore their clients, by shoring up their financial reserves in the face of a crisis.
Others argued financial advice firms are not facing the same dire circumstances as businesses in sectors that have been forced to shut down due to the pandemic.
“I admire the firms that didn’t do it, but I also don’t look down on the firms that did,” said Philip Palaveev, CEO of The Ensemble Practice, which provides practice management programs and consulting services to financial advice firms.
For many firms, the urge to tap those government funds was probably driven by the Great Recession, when as much as a quarter to a third of the industry went through layoffs, Palaveev said.
“In March and April, when the industry was looking at what was happening, I think many firms were thinking that this was going to be another version of 2008-2009,” Palaveev said. “So they did anything and everything that they could.”
Another reason advisory firms were attracted to the loans: the attractive terms they offered.
“There are many, many ways of financing,” Palaveev said. “But in the sequence of decision making, nothing beats forgivable loans.
“There is no form of financing that is as favorable or as desirable as forgivable loans.”
Ethical questions raised
Not all firms that participated in the program plan to ask for loan forgiveness.
Josh Brown, CEO and co-founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management and a CNBC contributor, has publicly talked about the controversy taking a PPP loan caused for his firm. After giving the loan back, Brown now says he wouldn’t have taken the money in the first place due to negative attention.
However, accepting the money didn’t take resources away from other businesses, he pointed out.
“There’s $150 billion sitting the program,” Brown said. “Right now.
“Anybody who feels they need it can go borrow it,” he added. “So what’s the issue?”
The leftover funds now total about $132 billion, according to information the SBA released on Monday.
Who receives the money shouldn’t get as much attention as who asks for forgiveness, Brown said. His firm never had any intention of asking for forgiveness, he said.
The reason Brown’s firm took the loan was because the terms were so attractive: six months’ grace period before any repayment was due and a 1% interest rate. Following the controversy, Brown said his firm would have been better off taking a regular line of credit from a bank, which they ultimately did.
Daniel Wiener, chairman of Adviser Investments, said his firm also applied for a PPP loan and was approved. But Wiener and his firm had a change of heart before taking the loan. Now, Wiener has become a vocal critic of registered investment advisory firms taking the money, which he said were doing so “hand over fist.”
“This is a money grab, like a land grab,” Wiener said. “We can take this money and even if we pay it back, it’s only 1% interest.”
Wiener and his partners agreed that accepting the money just to weather a bear market is unethical.
“This is not for us,” Wiener said. “This is for butchers, bakers and candlestick makers.
“This is not for RIAs.”