Romney’s Dismaying Attack on Garage-Based Businesses

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during the Presidential Debate at the University of Denver on October 3, 2012 in Denver, Colorado.

The most infuriating moment of the first presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

That moment was when Governor Romney, the Republican, in response to a question about regulation, declared it “essential” and went on, “You couldn’t have people opening up banks in their — in their garage and making loans.”

That sound you heard during the debate was the echo of me ripping my hair out while throwing my drink at the television in frustration at the idea of a Republican presidential nominee who portrays himself as the defender of free markets yet who also describes garage-based businesses as a grave danger that must be regulated out of existence.

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Among the successful American businesses that began in garages are:

  • Hewlett-Packard, which began in a 12-foot by 18-foot garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif., and grew into a company with nearly 350,000 employees and more than $100 billion a year in revenue.
  • Apple, which assembled some of its first computers in Steve Jobs’ parents’ garage at 2066 Crist Drive in Los Altos, Calif. Apple now has a market capitalization of more than $600 billion.
  • Google, whose official company history explains that it set up workspace in September 1998 in Susan Wojcicki’s garage at 232 Santa Margarita, Menlo Park, Calif.
  • Amazon, which for nearly a year in 1994 and 1995 consisted of founder Jeff Bezos and five employees working in the garage of a Seattle home that Mr. Bezos had rented.
  • Mattel, the toy company that is known for Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars and that began in a Southern California garage. Senator Marco Rubio spoke about it in his maiden speech.
  • Lender’s Bagels, which began in a West Haven, Conn., garage and grew into a business with tens of millions of dollars in annual sales.

Okay, none of those garage-based startups was in the lending business. But there’s no reason that the same kind of garage-style innovation that brought growth and dynamism to the technology, toy, and bagel businesses can’t also penetrate into lending.

In fact, it’s already quietly happening. Not all loans, after all, need to involve federally insured deposits. Regulations imposed after the 2008 convulsion, particularly the Basel III capital requirements, are making the regulated banks much more reticent to make loans such as revolvers or other lines of credit that are the lifeblood of many operating businesses. Into this void have stepped an array of more lightly regulated players, such as hedge funds and investment partnerships.

Los Angeles-based Ares has what it calls a “private debt group” that says it “provides one-stop financing solutions to meet the distinct and underserved financing needs of small and middle-market companies and commercial project and real estate owners.” New York-based Ableco Finance LLC has a “recent transactions” page listing revolving credit facilities, term loans, and bridge loans it has provided for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Funded by individuals, endowments, and pension funds instead of by federally insured bank depositors or the Federal Reserve, these firms and others like them are the “garage guys” of lending. They are a sign of how the lending system is regenerating itself in a free-market way outside of the highly regulated banking system, because the highly regulated form has been so inefficient.

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To the argument that lending is more dangerous than toys, bagels, or technology and therefore needs tighter standards, the best response is airlines. What could be more dangerous than a jet plane full of vulnerable passengers who could die in a crash? Yet after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which eventually eliminated the Civil Aeronautics Board, prices went down, traffic increased, and airline accidents and fatalities declined, as Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch write in their book The Declaration of Independents.

In fairness to Mr. Romney, he’d probably be less inclined to impose smothering regulation than Mr. Obama would be. During the debate, Mr. Romney spoke for a long time under a lot of pressure, and overall he did what is widely seen as a pretty good job. But that makes the “garage” line all the more disappointing.

Is it really too much to ask for a major-party presidential candidate who sees garage-based businesses, even in the financial sector, as something to celebrate rather than as something to regulate? If neither the Republicans nor the Democrats get this, eventually some new political party that does understand it may arise on the scene. Maybe it will start in a garage.

Ira Stoll is editor of and author of Samuel Adams: A Life.