Why Square Ditched Their Merchant Cash Advance Program

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kill 2 birds with one stoneSquare did $400 million in merchant cash advances last year. Now they are no longer even offering them. To fill the void, they’ve partnered up with Celtic Bank to issue a unique kind of merchant loan, one in which borrowers have a fixed term to repay but make their payments daily by diverting a percentage of every transaction they process to Square.

But why make this change? After all, Square reported that its merchant cash advances typically tended to cycle through to completion in approximately nine months despite there being no fixed term. Their loans will have terms of 18 months, almost ensuring that money will turn over slower, not faster.

Todd Baker, the managing principal of Broadmoor Consulting LLC, says it’s a P/E play. That’s because as part of the change, Square will not be keeping the bulk of the loans on their balance sheet. Instead, they’ll be bundled together and sold to institutional investors. That positions them to be an originator or marketplace dependent on fee income instead of a lender. “Banks and lenders trade at 12x-15x p/e while tech trades at infinity,” Baker said.

Square likely encountered trouble trying to bundle up merchant cash advances because their legal standing across states is not as defined. Celtic Bank-issued-loans however are considered to be rather protected under federal preemption laws established under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act.

But that’s not the whole story either

Online lenders were widely criticized in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks after it was learned the terrorists obtained a loan from Prosper. “The issue may end up being whether marketplace lenders are too easy of a source of cash to finance terrorist attacks,” said Guggenheim Partners analyst Jaret Seiberg in a research letter back in December.

Square’s merchant cash advance program had very little underwriting. The focus was almost entirely on a merchant’s historical sales activity. No credit check was required, nor did applicants have to supply a photo ID or financial statements. This one-click process may have played a major role in originating $400 million in merchant cash advances in 2015, but it probably raised red flags with regulators.

Notably, the new Square Capital application page makes light of this issue. “To help the government fight the funding of terrorism and money laundering activities, Federal law requires all financial institutions to obtain verify and record information that identifies each person who opens an account,” it says. “What this means for you: When you open an account, we will ask for your name, address, date of birth, and other information that will allow us to identify you. We may also ask to see your driver’s license and other identifying documents.”

There’s easy and then there’s too easy. For Square, $400 million a year in merchant cash advances may have been proof of concept for demand but also proof that it was time to slow it down just one notch and make sure they aren’t being reckless.

Few would be impressed by one-click no-underwriting funding if it meant money flowed into the coffers of terrorists even once. Similarly, institutional investors would not be too happy if it was deemed that all of the California merchant cash advances in a bundle they bought were subject to a class action lawsuit. Square can now focus on what they are known for, technology, and perhaps improve their market cap.

By moving away from merchant cash advances, Square has killed at least three birds with one stone. Long live the bank charter model.

Last modified: March 27, 2016
Sean Murray

Category: merchant cash advance

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