Construction should see some benefits from a small-business aid package that appears to be on its way to enactment soon. The bill has $12 billion in tax breaks and would create a $30-billion federal fund to increase bank lending to small companies, including developers and contractors. But industry officials say the bill by itself will not pull construction out of its slump.

The bill cleared a big hurdle on Sept. 16, when the Senate passed it. The House was slated to take up the measure about a week later. If the House approves the bill, President Obama is expected to sign it.

Anirban Basu, Associated Builders and Contractors’ chief economist, says, “This is among the best things that has been done since the beginning of the financial crisis in September of 2008. In fact, this probably should have been done long ago.” Basu says the bill will help stabilize such construction sectors as lodging, manufacturing and offices. But without more job creation, consumer-spending growth and a rebound in financial markets, he says the measure’s impact “will not be enormous. It will be modest.”

A key part of the bill is a $30-billion Small Business Lending Fund. The Treasury Dept. would use the fund to buy preferred stock from banks with assets of up to $10 billion. The aim is for banks to turn the added capital into more loans to small companies. Paul Merski, the Independent Community Bankers of America’s senior vice president and chief economist, says, “If the entire $30 billion ... is deployed, you could have as much as $300 billion in new small-business lending taking place.”

That doesn’t mean construction-loan windows would be wide open. For one thing, the bill would bar using the new fund for residential construction loans. Merski also notes, “You would have to have quality loan demand for construction projects and development ... for the loan underwriters to extend that credit.”

Banks do have loans “in the queue” that they would like to make, Merski says. “The key here is, the bank regulatory agencies have to quickly implement this program,” he adds. “It’s no good to have a $30-billion program on paper.”

The bill would hike limits on Small Business Administration loans. Its $12 billion in tax incentives includes doubling, to $500,000, the 2010 and 2011 capital purchases that small companies can write off in the year the goods are bought.

But depreciation breaks won’t give construction equipment firms a substantial lift, says Nick Yaksich, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers’ vice president for global public policy. He says that without a federal transportation spending plan “for the construction equipment sector, [the bill’s tax package] is like handing out fishing poles at the Dead Sea.”

How New Lending Fund Would Work
Treasury Dept. gets $30 billion to buy preferred stock in banks, S&Ls and community-development funds.
Banks with up to $10 billion in assets apply for shares of the $30 billion.
Federal aid limits: Banks with assets of $1 billion to $10 billion, up to 3% of assets. Banks with assets under $1 billion, up to 5% of assets.
Program could produce up to $300 billion in small-business loans.
Banks pay 5% dividend on preferred stock that Treasury buys. Rate can be cut to 1% if bank shows 10% rise in small-business lending. Rate can rise to 7% if bank does not boost small-business lending.
Source: Senate Finance Committee, Independent Community Bankers of America