Small Business Administration:

Progress Made but Improvements Needed in Lender Oversight

GAO-03-720T: Published: Apr 30, 2003. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2003.

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The Small Business Administration (SBA) is responsible for oversight of its 7(a) loan program lenders, including those who participate in the Preferred Lenders Program or PLP. SBA delegates full authority to preferred lenders to make loans without prior SBA approval. In fiscal year 2002, preferred lenders approved 55 percent of the dollar value of all 7(a) loans--about $7 billion. Small businesses are certainly a vital part of the nation's economy. According to SBA, they generate more than half of the nation's gross domestic product and are the principal source of new jobs in the U.S. economy. In turn, SBA's mission is to maintain and strengthen the nation's economy by aiding, counseling, assisting, and protecting the interests of small businesses. Providing small businesses with access to credit is a major avenue through which SBA strives to fulfill its mission. Strong oversight of lenders by SBA is needed to protect SBA from financial risk and to ensure that qualified borrowers get 7(a) loans. SBA has a total portfolio of about $46 billion, including $42 billion in direct and guaranteed small business loans and other guarantees. Because SBA guarantees up to 85 percent of the 7(a) loans made by its lending partners, there is risk to SBA if the loans are not repaid. SBA must ensure that lenders provide loans to borrowers who are eligible and creditworthy to protect the integrity of the 7(a) program. Our statement today is based on the report we issued December 9, 2002, Small Business Administration: Progress Made but Improvements Needed in Lender Oversight (GAO-03-90). The report and our remarks will focus on our evaluation of (1) SBA's 7(a) lender oversight program and (2) SBA's organizational alignment for conducting oversight of preferred lenders and Small Business Lending Companies (SBLC). In addition, we will comment on SBA's latest response to our findings and recommendations. Our overall objective is to provide the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship with information and perspectives to consider as it moves forward on SBA reauthorization.

SBA has made progress in developing its lender oversight program, but there are still areas in need of improvement. While SBA has identified appropriate elements for an effective lender oversight program, it has been slow to change programs and procedures to fully incorporate all of these elements. In addition, financial risk management issues have become more critical for SBA, as its current loan programs focus on partnering with lenders, primarily banks, that make loans guaranteed up to 85 percent by SBA. However, our work showed that SBA had not yet consistently incorporated adequate measures of financial risk into the PLP review process or the SBLC examination program. The current PLP review process, which SBA uses to ensure compliance with the program mission, rules, and regulations, involves a cursory review of documentation maintained in lenders' loan files rather than a qualitative assessment of borrower creditworthiness or eligibility. SBA's standards for borrower eligibility (the "credit elsewhere" requirement) are broad and therefore subject to interpretation. SBA had not developed clear enforcement policies for preferred lenders or SBLSs that would specifically describe its response in the event that reviews discover noncompliance or safety and soundness problems. SBA had been slow to finalize and issue SBLC examination reports. In addition, SBA had been slow to respond to recommendations for improving the SBLC examination program. Without continued improvement to better enable SBA to assess the financial risk posed by 7(a) loans and to ensure that its lending partners are making loans to eligible small businesses, SBA will not have a successful lender oversight program. Although SBA has listed the oversight of its lending partners as an agency priority, the function does not have the necessary organizational independence or resources to accomplish its goals. In our past work analyzing organizational alignment and workload issues, we have described the importance of (1) tying organizational alignment to a clear and comprehensive mission statement and strategic plan and (2) providing adequate resources to accomplish the mission. However, two different offices--Lender Oversight and Financial Assistance, both of which are in the Office of Capital Access (OCA)--carry out SBA's lender oversight functions. OCA also promotes and implements SBA's lending programs. This alignment presents a possible conflict because PLP promotion and operations are housed in the same office that assesses lender compliance with SBA safety and soundness and mission requirements. Additionally, split responsibilities within OCA and limited resources have impeded SBA's ability to complete certain oversight responsibilities, which could result in heightened risk to its portfolio or lack of comprehensive awareness of portfolio risk.

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