Standing before half a dozen American flags during a press conference at his country club in Bedminster, New Jersey, President Donald Trump heralded what has become a central plank of his argument for re-election in November: his administration's handling of the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Through the historic relief package that I signed into law, we saved over 50 million American jobs," he said in the Aug. 15 remarks. Referring to his Democratic opponents, he said, "They don't like these kind of numbers because they think it'll hurt them in the election."
The estimate that the $660 billion taxpayer-funded Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) saved some 51 million jobs has been trumpeted by the Republican Party, its Congressional leadership and the president's reelection campaign. On Monday, Trump touted it again at a rally west of Charlotte, North Carolina, site of the Republican National Convention.
However, the PPP likely did not save 51 million jobs, or anywhere close to it, according to Reuters interviews with economists and an analysis of the program's data. Half a dozen economists put the number of jobs saved by the initiative at only a fraction of 51 million – ranging between one million and 14 million.
"I don't think there is an economist who would say that the program has saved 50 million jobs," said Richard Prisinzano, who was a financial economist at the US Department of the Treasury for 13 years before leaving in 2017. His rough estimate, Prisinzano said, is between five and seven million jobs saved, based on his own adjustments to other researchers' work at MIT and elsewhere.
Officials in Trump's own administration give varying explanations for the 51 million figure. In interviews with Reuters, officials from the Treasury Department and the Small Business Administration(SBA), which oversee the PPP program, said the 51 million refers to the total number of workers reported by businesses approved for a loan - not the number of jobs that were saved.
White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow gave some support to that assessment in an interview with Reuters, saying he surmised the jobs figure was the sum of all jobs at businesses that received PPP loans.
"We saved a lot of jobs, there's no question about that," he said.
The PPP was part of some $3 trillion of bailout measures passed in the spring. At the time, there was little debate that funding was needed for small businesses as the economic blows from Covid-19 hit the United States.
Since then, congressional Democrats have challenged the data on the program, released by the administration in July. "We've seen some inaccuracies with the data in terms of how they calculate how many jobs were protected and saved," said New Jersey Democratic representative Andy Kim in August, who sits on the Small Business Committee.
An economist with the conservative Heritage Foundation also questioned the figures. "This data does not tell us how many of those jobs may have existed without the PPP loans. Additionally, everyone involved has an incentive to use inflated estimates," said Adam Michel, senior policy analyst for fiscal policy at the foundation.
Michel, who has not analyzed the data himself, cited the same research that former Treasury official Prisinzano did - a paper co-authored by economists at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, MIT and ADP Research Institute. That study concluded that about 2.3 million jobs had been saved through early June.
White House economic adviser Kudlow said the Treasury and SBA had access to the list of companies and bank loans, and they made the calculations.
"You had to put on the form how many employees you have when you're applying for the loan," he said. "My guess is they added them up."
The uncertainty surrounding the 51 million figure was fueled by a discrepancy between the information the SBA asked lenders to gather from borrowers and the information it asked those same lenders to enter into its loan processing portal.
The SBA asked lenders only to gather each borrower's number of employees, but when lenders subsequently processed the loan in the SBA portal, the agency also asked for the "number of jobs retained." Lenders often put the number of employees into the portal's "jobs retained" box, according to numerous people familiar with the process. Skewing the numbers in the other direction, some lenders left "jobs retained" blank or put in zero, the people said.
Both the SBA and Treasury made officials available to speak with Reuters about the PPP on condition that they not be named.
The senior Treasury official said the 51 million figure was not just a sum of the job totals at recipient companies; it was supported by economic modeling as well. However, he added, "we can't with any kind of certainty say that all 51 million of those would have otherwise lost their job."
A screenshot of US President Donald Trump's 2020 election campaign tweet published on August 24, 2020. @TrumpWarRoom via REUTERS
Because the figure isn't a count of jobs saved, the official added, "we've been careful to always use the word 'jobs reported' or 'jobs supported' by the program."
The SBA official confirmed that, when borrowers filled out their applications, they supplied "just the number of employees. It wasn't jobs retained."
On Aug. 21, a week after Reuters interviewed the administration officials, the SBA appended a note to its monthly loan tallies, saying that to enhance accuracy the SBA would for now label data as jobs reported, not jobs retained.
Also on Aug. 21, the Small Business Administration reissued the full PPP dataset, fixing some of the problems that appeared when it was first made public in July. But the data still had holes. About 84,850 loans for amounts at $150,000 or above, had a zero in the jobs reported column, or the column was left blank. That problem applied to about 13 percent of loans at that amount.
The administration will have to wait until businesses apply for loan forgiveness to get a solid estimate of how many jobs were saved, economists and officials said.
'THE JOBS PRESIDENT'
Nailing down the numbers with the Trump campaign also remains difficult. Pressed for details on the 51 million figure Tuesday, campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in an email that "the PPP protected American companies which collectively employ 51 million Americans."
That's different from what the campaign claimed the day before on Twitter when it posted a note saying, "President Trump's Paycheck Protection Program saved 51 MILLION jobs."
An animated "counter" ticked rapidly from one million to 51 million just below the message: "He's the Jobs President and he's fighting for YOU!"