Winter looked to Rich Trotter like a good time to buy machines — until the president, seeking to reverse Congress’ refusal to fund barriers he promised on the Mexican border, shut down civilian U.S. government agencies in December.
Winter is the slow season at the Rosati’s Water Ice factory in Clifton Heights. “There’s an annual cash crunch,” as winter sales, even to schools in warmer states, fall below summer demand, says owner Trotter.
But that makes it a good time to improve the plant, which employs 25 — “from seven nations,” Trotter says proudly.
Trotter made special plans to borrow so he could make payroll while adding $2 million worth of new equipment — “an automated palletizer and a flash-freezing system and a brand new room that’s big enough,” he says. His goal: fewer people working on clattering old machines in the plant, and more out selling water ice to supermarkets and schools.
It’s the kind of investment that President Donald Trump urged small businesses like Rosati’s to make when he prevailed on Congress to cut business income taxes last year.
Broker Ami Kassar of Multifunding Inc. in Fort Washington had arranged a Small Business Administration loan guarantee that would keep Rosati’s cash flowing while Trotter upgraded.
But by last week, it was starting to look like Rosati’s wouldn’t be able to get that guarantee approved by SBA, because the agency, run by Trump’s longtime friend Linda McMahon — who owns WWE, the pro wrestling circuit, with husband Vince — has gone dark as part of the federal shutdown.
“The whole system is on ice,” Kassar says. “Anybody who is currently in the middle of a loan transaction, even if the lender got their approval number before the shutdown, they are on ice.” And no new approvals are being issued.
Frozen loans are piling up at the rate of “hundreds of businesses a day,” he said. Owners are delaying and extending growth plans, spending more on fees and interest for financial middlemen and less on business expansion.
Trotter has borrowed through SBA before. “Ordinarily, the wait on SBA takes only a couple weeks,” he told me. But with the year-end backlog of unsigned loan applications, even if the agency reopens soon, “my guess is the wait will be extended to a couple months at this juncture, as there will be a glut of loans in the queue to be processed.”
Rosati’s is still making water ice, while Trotter waits for the agency to go back to work.
The SBA has approved 30,000 business expansion and building purchase loans in the Philadelphia area since 1990 — about 1,200 a year recently, down from over 2,000 in the early 2000s, before the last recession. The Obama administration approved the programs for larger loans; the agency puts out more cash than before, but to fewer businesses.
In the Philadelphia area, the biggest borrowing categories are restaurants and bars, plus doctors' and other health-care offices. Businesses here borrowed $342 million through its major programs last year, a little over 1 percent of nationwide SBA lending (the region has almost 2 percent of the U.S. population).
Many of the lenders are regional banks like Citizens and TD; others are community lenders such as Republic, WSFS, and Bryn Mawr Trust.
Waiting for their loans, some business owners are borrowing against real estate, Kassar said. For projects that need to be finished on schedule, “they might just go to a very expensive online lender, and the entire application could now be screwed up for a long time.”
Among small businesses that had been counting on the SBA are “a lot of Amazon resellers,” who often pay high short-term rates while payments catch up. Low-rate SBA loans make a big difference for these firms when they finally come through.
There is less urgency among big businesses, says David Kotok, founder of Vineland, N.J.-based Cumberland Investments. “Markets believe the shutdown is temporary. Market agents look at the childish behavior of our political leaders, roll their eyes in disdain, and move on.”