ARC loans: How they work

Struggling companies can apply for up to $35,000 in debt-relief loans through a stimulus program, but the terms are restrictive.

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By Emily Maltby, CNNMoney.com staff writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Called "America's Recovery Capital," ARC loans are designed to make up to $35,000 available to struggling small business owners to temporarily help them keep up with payments on existing loans, including credit card debt. Authorized as part of February's stimulus bill, the program will run through Sept. 30, 2010, or until its funding runs out, whichever comes first.

Here's a primer on how the emergency loans work.

Eligibility: Sorry, startups, this isn't for you. ARC loans are only open to businesses that have been in operation for at least two years and have been profitable in at least one of the last two years. (Startup businesses can apply for financing through other SBA programs, including the agency's flagship 7(a) loan program.)

Borrowers can use ARC loans to make payments for up to six months on their existing debt, with no repayment due on the loan for another year. After that, the business has five years to pay back the loan principal. The government covers the interest payments.

Applicants must prove they are experiencing financial hardship, as evidenced by declining sales (a drop of at least 20% over the past year), frozen credit lines, rising business costs (again, 20% or more in the past year), or difficulty meeting payroll, paying rent or making loan payments.

But borrowers also have to be running a "viable" business. The SBA wants to see cash-flow projections for at least the next two years illustrating that the business will be able to repay its ARC loan and other debt obligations. Borrowers must have "acceptable" business credit scores, and they can't be more than 60 days past due on any loan they'd like ARC funds to help cover. Lenders may also require collateral to back up the loan.

Qualifying debt: Because of arcane government rules, ARC loans can't be used to make payments on loans backed by the SBA before Feb. 17, 2009, the date the stimulus bill took effect. However, borrowers can use the loans for relief from virtually any other business debt, including a commercial mortgage or lease, home equity loans used to finance business operations, bank loans made outside the SBA program, notes payable to suppliers, and credit card debt.

That last one is a key feature. Borrowers can use ARC loans to cover payments on their personal credit cards if the money was borrowed for business expenses. "We do recognize the merging of the owners' and businesses' finances," says Eric Zarnikow, the SBA's associate administrator for capital access.

How to apply: The SBA won't make ARC loans directly. As with most of its lending programs, it will instead offer guarantees on loans made by banks. If the business owner defaults, the SBA pays off the debt. (The business owner still takes a hit on their credit report.)

Each bank sets its own procedures and timeline for issuing loans, so business owners looking to apply should contact a participating bank. Each business can receive only one ARC loan, for a maximum of $35,000, but that loan can be used to make payments on more than one debt.

The SBA will began processing applications for the loans on June 15, but individual banks may take longer to draft their own application procedures.

What's in it for banks: ARC loans are a sweet deal for borrowers: They carry no fees, require no payments for at least a year, and have their interest payments fully subsidized by the government.

That, and the fact that they're specifically targeted at businesses in trouble, makes them especially risky. Banks have been wrangling with the SBA for years about underwriting standards for their small business loans: The government can penalize lenders for high default rates in their portfolios, which has made some banks nervous about participating in the ARC loan program. Collecting the government guarantee on a loan gone bad can be onerous, and banks have to absorb the administrative costs of pursuing delinquent loans and liquidating those that default. The SBA says it expects ARC loans to default at a higher rate than its other programs, and will adjust its expectations for lenders accordingly.

Because the loans are fully guaranteed by the government, ARC loans are fairly safe for banks. But the interest rate on them isn't very competitive. The SBA has set the interest rate it will pay for the loans at prime plus 2%. For October, that rate would be 5.25%.

That's a lower interest rate than the SBA sets for its other loan programs. However, unlike ARC loans, those programs don't offer a 100% loan guarantee -- on a traditional SBA loan, if a business defaults, banks would be stuck with some of the loss.

Availability: The SBA estimates that around 10,000 small businesses will receive ARC loans, but it's uncertain how quickly the loans will be dispersed.

"It's a little challenging to anticipate what the demand will be," Zarnikow says. "There will be ramp-up time as lenders train operators."

In the Recovery Act, Congress allocated $255 million to support the ARC loan program. That money covers only the program's subsidies, for interest payments and defaults, allowing the money to stretch to support a larger dollar-volume of lending. Each lender will be limited to 50 loans per week. If a bank makes less than 50 loans, they can carry the unused allocation over to other weeks, but lenders will be capped at a maximum of 1,000 loans through the program's duration. To top of page

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