Merchant Cash Advance Term Used Before CongressDecember 18, 2013 | By: Sean Murray
I’d like to think that the term, merchant cash advance, is mainstream enough that a congressman would know what it was. I have no idea if that’s the case though. What I do know is that Renaud Laplanche, the CEO of Lending Club gave testimony before the Committee on Small Business of the United States House of Representatives on December 5, 2013.
In it, he argued that small businesses have insufficient access to capital and that the situation is getting worse. We knew that already. However, he went on to explain that alternative sources such as merchant cash advance companies are the fastest growing segment of the SMB loan market, but issued caution that some of them are not as transparent about their costs as they could be.
The big takeaway here is that he didn’t say they are charging too much, but rather that some business owners may not understand the true cost. I often defend the high costs charged in the merchant cash advance industry, but I’ll acknowledge that historically there have been a few companies that have been weak in the disclosure department. That said, the industry as a whole has matured a lot and there is a lot less confusion about how these financial products work.
Typically in the context Laplanche used, transparency is code for “please put a big box on your contract that states the specific Annual Percentage Rate” of the deal. That’s good advice for a lender and in many cases the law, but for transactions that explicitly are not loans, filling in a number to make people feel good would be a mistake and probably jeopardize the sale transaction itself. If I went to Best Buy and paid $2,000 in advance for a $3,000 Sony big screen TV that would be shipped to me in 3 months when it comes out, should I have to disclose to Best Buy that the 50% discount for pre-ordering 3 months in advance is equivalent to them paying 200% APR?
This is what happened: I advanced them $2,000 in return for a $3,000 piece of merchandise at a later date.
I got a discount on my purchase and they got cash upfront to use as they see fit. Follow me?
Now instead of buying a TV, I give Best Buy $2,000 today and in return am buying $3,000 worth of future proceeds they make from selling TVs. That’s buying future proceeds at a discounted price and paying for them today. As people buy TVs from the store, I’ll get a small % of each sale until I get the $3,000 I purchased. If a TV buying frenzy occurs, it could take me 6 months to get the $3,000 that I bought. But if the Sony models are defective and hardly anyone is buying TVs, it could take me 18 months until i get the $3,000 back.
In the first situation, if the TV never ships I get my $2,000 back. In the second situation if the TV sales never happen, I don’t get the 3 grand or the 2 grand. I’ll just have to live with whatever I got back up until the point the TV sales stopped, even if that number is a big fat ZERO.
Best Buy is worse off in the first situation, but critics pounce on the 2nd situation. APR, it’s not fair! Transparency, high rate, etc.
Imagine if every retailer that ever had a 30% off sale or half price sale one day woke up and realized the sale they had was too expensive and not transparent enough for them to understand what they were doing. If only consumers had given the cashiers a receipt of their own that explained that they would actually only be getting half the money because of their 50% off sale, then perhaps the store owners would have reconsidered the whole thing. 50% off over the course of 1 day?! My God, that’s practically like paying 18,250% interest!!!
To argue that a business owner might not understand what it means to sell something for a discount is like saying that a food critic has no idea what a mouth is used for.
I will acknowledge that issues could potentially occur if an unscrupulous company marketed their purchase of future sales as if it were a loan. That could lead to confusion as to what the withholding % represents and why it was not reported to credit bureaus. I’m all in favor of increasing the transparency of purchases as purchases and loans as loans, but let’s not go calling purchases, loans. Americans should understand what it means to buy something or sell something. Macy’s knows what they’re doing when they have a Black Friday Sale. They do a lot of business at less than retail price. They are happy with the result or disappointed with it. They’re business people engaged in business. End of the story.
In recent years, the term, merchant cash advance, has become synonymous with short term business financing, whether by way of selling future revenues or lending. When testimony was entered that many merchant cash advance providers charge annual percentage rates in excess of 40%, I do hope that Laplanche was speaking only about transactions that are actually loans. As for any fees outside of the core transaction, those should be clear as day for both purchases and loans. I think many companies are doing a good job with disclosure on that end already.
The other case that Laplanche made was brilliant. Underwriting businesses is more expensive than it is to underwrite consumers. Consumer loan? Easy, check the FICO score and call it a day. That methodology doesn’t even come close to working with businesses. He stated:
These figures show that absolute loan performance is not the main issue of declining SMB loan issuances; we believe a larger part of the issue lies in high underwriting costs. SMBs are a heterogeneous group and therefore the underwriting and processing of these loans is not as cost efficient as underwriting consumers, a more homogenous population. Business loan underwriting requires an understanding of the business plan and financials and interviews with management that result in higher underwriting costs, which make smaller loans (under $1M and especially under $250k) less attractive to lenders.
Read the full transcript:
Merchant Cash Advance just echoed through the halls of Capitol Hill. And so it’s become just a little bit more mainstream, perhaps too maninstream.
Thoughts?Last modified: December 18, 2013