When Should Public Programs be Privately Administered? Theory and Evidence from the Paycheck Protection Program
What happens when public resources are allocated by private companies whose objectives may be imperfectly aligned with policy goals? We study this question in the context of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which relied on private banks to disburse aid to small businesses rapidly. Our model shows that delegation is optimal when delay is sufficiently costly, variation across firms in the impact of funds is small, and the alignment between public and private objectives is high. We use novel firm-level survey data that contains information on banking relationships to measure heterogeneity in the impact of PPP and to assess whether banks targeted loans to high-impact firms. Banks did target loans to their most valuable pre-existing customers. However, using an instrumental variables approach that exploits variation in banks’ loan processing speeds, we find that treatment effect heterogeneity is sufficiently moderate, delay is sufficiently costly, and bank and social objectives are sufficiently aligned that delegation was likely superior to delaying loans to improve targeting.