The federal government's $349 billion aid program for small businesses devastated by the coronavirus pandemic was advertised as first-come, first-served. As many business owners found out, it was anything but.

That's because some of the nation's biggest banks, including JPMorgan Chase, Citibank and U.S. Bank, prioritized the applications of their wealthiest clients before turning to other loan seekers, according to half a dozen bank employees and financial industry executives who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the banks' operations.

Customers of Citi's private bank, where the minimum account size is $25 million, didn't have to use an online portal to apply for a loan; they could simply submit paperwork to their banker, who would put in an application on their behalf. At Chase, the nation's largest bank, nearly all private and commercial banking clients who applied for a small-business loan got one, whereas only one out of every 15 retail banking customers who sought loans was successful. Some banks provided highly personalized, so-called concierge service to their richest clients by enlisting representatives to walk them through every step and submit their paperwork.


At JPMorgan, nearly all of the 8,500 commercial and private banking clients who applied for a loan got one. That included companies like the sandwich chain Potbelly and the pharmaceutical company MannKind. At the same time, only 18,000 of more than 300,000 small-business banking customers who applied through Chase's retail bank, where they normally did business, got loans, according to the bank. In all, Chase handed out $14 billion through the program -- more than any other bank, but still less than half of the $36 billion that customers had sought.

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