The Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, was huge. Between April 2020 and May 2021, it provided almost $800 billion to more than 11 million businesses—about a third of all U.S. businesses with 500 employees or fewer. The PPP was also flawed. Treasury and the Small Business Administration faced incomplete statutory instructions and a challenging tradeoff between speed and accuracy in distributing PPP funds.

These flaws make the PPP a realistic and valuable case study; the PPP reveals tools that can be applied to similar distributions of emergency funds. One tool is back-end adjustments, meaning that funds are first distributed and then later it is decided whether recipients may keep the money. Another tool is distribution in descending order of necessity, meaning that the first recipients to receive funds are applicants that most clearly meet the criteria of the program. A fund can follow distribution in descending order of necessity to disburse all of its funds. This approach is similar to a descending price auction for the sale of bonds or a stock of goods. Disbursing amounts in descending order of necessity also allows a fund to collect information needed to improve future distribution policy.