CPAs and the historic Paycheck Protection Program

A look at what we learned from navigating the PPP, and the opportunities that lie ahead.
By Erik Asgeirsson

We passed a major milestone in pandemic economic recovery recently — the closeout of the loan application period for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which ended May 31. It’s a good time to reflect on the profession’s role in making this historic business relief program a success and to consider what comes next.

Almost 12 million businesses received critically needed loans through the PPP. Those proceeds collectively amounted to around $800 billion, which dwarfs the $475 billion in outlays under the 2008 financial crisis’s signature rescue initiative, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It’s important to remember the context in which the PPP was launched. In March and April 2020, more than 21 million employees were laid off due to government-mandated shutdowns, and the economic upheaval affected small businesses in particular.

The AICPA and CPA.com — along with a small business funding coalition they formed — strongly advocated for immediate support of small businesses. Speed was critical, or these businesses wouldn’t have been able to stay intact — it had to be done in a week, not months. Based on the need to take quick action, the PPP clearly had a number of challenges with evolving guidance and issues surrounding clarity.

As we look back, however, the public-private partnership did come together to help drive a common approach to meet the program’s goals. And it did so under the most trying circumstances and did incredible work. As with all large programs, there will be plenty of reviews, questions, and lessons learned, but it’s extremely important to remember the broader perspective and historic impact of what we achieved together in supporting these small businesses.

At the AICPA and CPA.com, we’re deeply proud of the role CPAs played in bridging gaps, providing essential advice, and being an advocate for their clients throughout the PPP and other related relief programs. At the firm level, you’ve been financial first responders during the pandemic. And our combined voices made a major impact on policy discussions and were a prime source of information for policymakers as they rolled out business relief programs.

We know the past 15 months have been some of the hardest of your careers, with the seemingly never-ending tax and audit seasons and the squeezes smaller firms sometimes faced themselves with many of their clients sidelined. But as I’ve said repeatedly over the past year, the tighter bonds you’ve built with clients during this crisis are incredibly valuable. Consider what Cynthia King, a dance studio owner in New York City, had to say about her CPA, Andrea Parness, who guided her through a devastating pandemic-related shutdown and the ins and outs of the PPP process.

“My CPA has actually saved my business, helped us stay alive, and go into the future in a way that I couldn’t have imagined,” King said.

Or hear what Seattle-based IT consultant Loren Campbell said about his CPA, Holly Webb, whom he has worked with for the past two decades.

“Words are not sufficient for how integral Holly is and has been to the success and ongoing viability of my business,” he said. “She is an intrinsically trusted partner. I do not know if I would still be in business 20 years later without Holly’s patient, kind, and unbelievably competent assistance, especially in the last 13, 14 months as we’ve navigated through the pandemic.”

These kinds of CPA-client relationships have been forged in fire, and, going forward, small businesses will look to you for assistance in ways they might not have in the past. This is a unique opportunity for you to deepen your role as their trusted strategic adviser.

Through the end of this year, your clients will need help with PPP loan forgiveness applications and guidance on the implications of the employee retention credit (ERC). You can also help clients use the recovery period as a reset, sparking strategic discussions about potential business model transformations.

There are several broader lessons the profession should be absorbing, too, as we move forward:

1. The best business models are relationship-based, not transactional. Successful trusted advisers offer a continuum of services tailored to support a client’s ability to thrive and grow. Your pricing structure shouldn’t be an a la carte menu but one that fully captures your role as an adviser.

2. Agility is not a one-and-done exercise. We all know firms successfully rose to the challenge of shifting to all-remote work during the pandemic. That ability to pivot and plan for the long term is something firms need to nurture — we’ve been preaching for years that the biggest challenge the profession faces is adapting to exponential change. Don’t expect a return to pre-pandemic norms.

3. Technology adoption and firm innovation are critical. Technology-savvy firms were well positioned to support clients during the pandemic through virtual CFO and other advisory services, where cloud solutions and streamlined client collaboration tools proved to be key assets. Don’t wait for the next crisis. Emerging advisory categories such as business forecasting, supply chain risk management, and sales and use tax compliance are useful pieces to add to your firm’s lineup of services now.

4. Business funding advisory is a need that will outlast the pandemic. CPAs have proved their value to clients in this area and should build on that success. Fintech is an important new partner for the profession in this equation.

The profession’s relevance has never been stronger, particularly when it comes to sustaining small businesses. Through your work with the PPP and other relief programs, we’ve built a strong foundation for future opportunity. I hope you’re as optimistic as I am about what the recovery will bring.

Erik Asgeirsson is president and CEO of CPA.com, the AICPA’s business and technology subsidiary. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Kim Nilsen, the JofA’s publisher, at Kim.Nilsen@aicpa-cima.com.

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