Archive for 2020
Here’s where fintech and online lending rank on the Inc 5000 list for 2020:
|351||Direct Funding Now||1,297%|
|647||Fund That Flip||724%|
|1229||Smart Business Funding||365%|
|1282||Global Lending Services||349%|
|1933||Choice Merchant Solutions||218%|
|2466||Bankers Healthcare Group||167%|
|2537||Central Diligence Group||162%|
|3062||Shore Funding Solutions||127%|
|4344||Yalber & Got Capital||76%|
|4509||Expansion Capital Group||70%|
In 2017, Ethan Senturia, the founder of a defunct online lending company, published a tell-all book about his startup’s rise and fall. He called it Unwound. It’s the fall that stood out. Senturia’s poorly modeled business had been heavily financed by an up-and-coming online lending hedge fund manager named Brendan Ross.
I first encountered Ross in 2014 on the alternative finance conference circuit. Ross’s major theory was that small businesses overpay for credit and that the padded cost served as a hedge against defaults and economic downturns.
“The asset class works even when the collection process doesn’t,” Ross said during a Short Term Business Lending panel at a conference in May 2014. “The model works with no legal recovery.”
As an editor, I helped secure a lengthy interview with Ross that Fall. In it, he placed a special emphasis on building “trust.” It’s a word he used seventeen times over the course of the recorded conversation. “Everything is about trust and eliminating the need for it whenever possible,” he proclaimed.
Ross stressed that his fund invested in the underlying loans of online lenders, not in the online lenders themselves. “I need to be the owner of the loan. I need it sold to me in a way that is completely clean.”
Ross would eventually connect with Senturia at Dealstruck, an online small business lender whose philosophy seemed to contradict Ross’s mantra of small businesses overpaying for credit. Dealstruck, it would turn out, had a tendency to have them underpay…
Senturia told the New York Times that year that Dealstruck’s mission was “not about disintermediating the banks but the very high-yield lenders.”
It’s a concept that failed pretty miserably. Senturia recalled in his book that “We had taken to the time-honored Silicon Valley tradition of not making money. Fintech lenders had made a bad habit of covering out-of-pocket costs, waiving fees, and reducing prices to uphold the perception that borrowers loved owing money to us, but hated owing money to our predecessors.”
As the loans underperformed, Senturia became aware that the hedge fund backing them, Ross’s Direct Lending Investments, might also be doomed. Senturia recalled an exchange with Ross in 2016 in which Ross allegedly said of their mutually assured destruction, “I am like, literally staring over the edge. My life is over.”
One would expect that in light of that conversation being made public through a book, that investors would question Ross’s report that his fund delivered a double digit annual return (10.61%) the same year his life was over.
Some actually did question it. deBanked received tidbits of information in the ensuing years, always seemingly off the record, that something was not right at Ross’s fund. There was little to go off other than the unlikelihood of his consistently stable stellar returns. Ross had been an especially popular investment manager with the peer-to-peer lending crowd and a regular face and speaker at fintech events. CNBC also had him on their network several times as a featured expert.
All told, Ross managed to amass nearly $1 billion worth of capital under management before his demise.
In 2019, Ross suddenly resigned. His fund, Direct Lending Investments, LLC, was then charged by the SEC with running a “multi-year fraud that resulted in approximately $11 million in over-charges of management and performance fees to its private funds, as well as the inflation of the private funds’ returns.”
Yesterday, the FBI arrested Ross at his residence outside Los Angeles. A grand jury indicted him “with 10 counts of wire fraud based on a scheme he executed between late 2013 and early 2019 to defraud investors…” An announcement made by the US Attorney’s Office in Central California revealed that the charges had been under seal for approximately two weeks prior.
The SEC simultaneously filed civil charges against him.
No reference is made to Dealstruck in any of it. The Dealstruck brand was later sold to another company that has no connection to Ross or Senturia where it is still in use to this day. Instead, the SEC and US Attorney focus on Ross’s actions allegedly undertaken with another online lender named Quarterspot. Quartersport stopped originating loans in January of this year.
Ross allegedly directed the online lender to make “rebate” payments on more than 1,000 delinquent loans to create the impression that they were current. Quarterspot has not been accused of any civil or criminal wrongdoing.
The SEC included in its complaint that Ross expressed concern about the scale of loan delinquencies.
“…more loans are going late each month than I can afford and still have normal returns, so that the can we are kicking down the road is growing in size,” he wrote in an email. It was dated February 8, 2015.
It’s a sentiment that seems to disprove his early premise that “the asset class works even when the collection process doesn’t.”
Ross is innocent until proven guilty, but an excerpt of an interview with him in 2014 is now somewhat ironic.
“I [understand] that people end up sometimes in the [industry] who have had colorful careers in the securities space. It doesn’t make it impossible for me to work with them,” he said. “But if they had been in the big house for white collar crime, then that is probably a non-starter.”
Point-of-sale (POS) lenders, also referred to as buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) firms, allow shoppers to break up their individual purchases into installments, often without interest. By adding BNPL as an option at checkout or further upstream in the purchase process, the consumer’s buying power is increased and they are often less likely to abandon their checkout cart. It is a win / win for all stakeholders.
For these reasons, POS lending is one of the fastest growing segments in unsecured credit, with volume increasing at 40 percent year-over-year. COVID has further accelerated the demand for credit options at checkout.
According to McKinsey, annual growth is expected to jump to 150 percent thanks to an explosion in online shopping and government subsidy programs boosting retail sales. In Canada, firms such as Uplift, Paays, and PayBright are all seeing merchant demand skyrocket for their services, with the latter onboarding over 250 merchants per month.
POS lenders are able to subsidize APRs by charging the merchant a fee of 4-6 percent of the purchase price. This is on average 2 percent more than the fees charged by credit cards companies. Despite the larger fee, BNPL is very attractive for retailers for a number of reasons. By providing point of sale financing retailers see:
- 30% increase in basket size
- 25% reduction in cart abandonment
- 20% increase in repeat traffic
With installment payments as an alternative, credit cards have seen a decrease in popularity among young shoppers, particularly on smaller ticket items under $500. There are a number of reasons why:
1. Clunky signup experience. Signing up for a credit card at checkout requires lots of paper, personal information, signatures and significant patience – antithetical to the one-tap checkout shoppers are accustomed to. Alternatively, BNPL approval is instant at checkout. 75% of merchants even advertise POS financing far before the register, at the beginning of the customer journey which can increase conversion by two to three times.
2. Challenge to qualify. 19 percent of consumers ages 22 to 30 lacked the credit history to be approved for credit cards in the first place. Many BNPL products do not perform credit checks, and those that do use alternative data sources to underwrite thin-file borrowers.
3. High APRs. With their parent’s household debt in their rear view mirror, many younger shoppers have an aversion to carrying revolving credit balances. Millennials on average carry two fewer cards than their parents. Psychologically, $1000 on your credit card looks scarier than four installments of $250 over time.
4. Customer confusion. Inactivity fees, late fees, over-the-limit fees, cash advance fees, are all poorly understood and masked within dense monthly statements. BNPL offers an elegant digital first experience and straightforward reporting.
The Supporting Cast
Today POS lenders are competing in a land grab for merchant partnership. But for FIs and fintechs who have yet to plant their flags, there are still ways of participating in the BNPL boom.
- Banks. Banks have largely participated indirectly in the BNPL sector, by providing portfolio financing to fintechs or by offering installment options for larger ticket items within their existing credit card programs. Wayne Pommen, CEO of PayBright, sees more bank and fintech collaboration in the next few years: “I predict more buying and partnering, Banks are too far behind to build this themselves.” Marcus Pay, the recently launched retail banking arm of Goldman Sachs is the only group to directly compete in the POS financing ring, with JetBlue as their launch partner.
- Platforms. E-commerce enablers that power millions of independent merchants are piling in to embed POS financing within their platforms. Marketplaces Ebay and Etsy have partnered with Afterpay and Klarna, while the digital infrastructure whale Shopify has an agreement with Affirm.
- Cards. Traditional credit card companies who have the most to lose from BNPL are getting ahead of the trend in several ways. Visa took a controlling stake in Klarna in 2007. More recently they launched Visa Installments, a developer tool for issuers in the Visa network to pilot branded installment products. Though Visa Installments stretches the definition of BNPL, David Fry, CEO of travel financing startup Paays does not mind the ambiguity. “I am not religious about the distinction between cards and installments. What we care about is what the customer is looking for, and what they have to pay to get access to that product”.
POS Lending has the potential to transform consumer lending as it’s evolution is inextricably tied to the growth of e-commerce. It is all about understanding the needs of the shopper and their digital journey. POS lenders are making it increasingly easy for merchants to streamline the buyer path to purchase.
I recently spoke with Christopher Pepe, Head of ISO Relations at World Business Lenders. Pepe explained why WBL’s practice of securing loans against real estate has enabled their business to keep lending and to do deals unsecured lenders and MCA providers are not equipped to handle.
You can watch the full interview here:
While the news media, regulatory agencies, and law enforcement are high-fiving each other over the course of events in the Par Funding saga (a lawsuit, a receivership, an asset freeze, and an arrest), there lies a major problem: The SEC already suffered a major defeat.
On July 28th, rumors of a vague legal “victory” for Par Funding circulated on the DailyFunder forum. The context of this win was unknowable because the case at issue was still under seal and nobody was supposed to be aware of it.
Cue Bloomberg News…
In December 2018, Bloomberg Businessweek published a scandalous story about a Philadelphia-based company named Par Funding. And then not a whole lot happened… that is until Bloomberg Law and Courthousenews.com published a lengthy SEC lawsuit less than two years later that alleged Par along with several entities and individuals had engaged in the unlawful sale of unregistered securities.
At the courthouse in South Florida, those documents were sealed. The public was not supposed to know about them and deBanked could not authenticate the contents of the purported lawsuit through those means. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the mixup happened when a court clerk briefly unsealed it “by mistake” thus alerting a suspiciously narrow set of news media to the contents. deBanked was the first to publicly point this out.
In court papers, some of the defendants said that they learned of the lawsuit that had been filed under seal on July 24th from “news reports.” Bloomberg Law published a summary of the lawsuit on its website in the afternoon of July 27th.
“It is fortuitous that the Complaint was initially published before it was sealed,” an attorney representing several of the defendants wrote in its court papers. “Otherwise, [The SEC] would have likely accomplished its stealth imposition of so-called temporary’ relief, that would have led to the unnecessary destruction of a legitimate business.”
The day after this, on July 28th, a team of FBI agents raided Par Funding’s Philadelphia offices as well as the home of at least one individual. Rumors about the office raid landed on the DailyFunder forum just hours later, along with links to the inadvertently public SEC lawsuit now circulating on the web.
The New York Post caught wind of the story and published a photo of an arrest that had taken place fifteen years ago, creating confusion about what, if anything, was happening. Nobody, was in fact, arrested.
The SEC lawsuit was finally unsealed on July 31st, along with the revelation that Par Funding and other entities had been placed in a limited receivership pursuant to a Court order issued just days earlier. The receivership order was a massive blow to the SEC. It failed to obtain the most important element of its objective, that is to have the court-ordered right to “to manage, control, operate and maintain the Receivership Estates.” The SEC specifically requested this in its motion papers but was denied this demand and others by the judge who leaned in favor of granting the Receiver document and asset preservation powers rather than complete control of the companies.
The language of the Court order was interpreted differently by the Receiver, who immediately fired all of the company’s employees, locked them out of the office, and then suspended all of the company’s operations which even prevented the inbound flow of cash to the company (of which in the matter of days amounted to nearly $7 million). The SEC did successfully secure an asset freeze order.
In court papers, Par Funding’s attorneys wrote that: “The Receiver’s and SEC’s actions are ruining a business with excellent fundamentals and a strong financial base and essentially putting it into an ineffective liquidation causing huge financial losses. In taking this course of action against a fully operational business, the key fact that has been lost by the SEC, is that their actions are going to unilaterally lead to massive investor defaults.”
The Receiver, in turn, tried to fire Par Funding’s attorneys from representing Par. Par’s attorneys say that the Receiver has communicated to them that it is his view “that he controls all the companies.”
“The SEC is simply trying to drive counsel out of this case, as an adjunct to all the other draconian relief that they insist must be employed to ‘protect the investors,'” Par’s attorneys told the Court. “Due Process is of no regard to the SEC.”
As lawyers on all sides in this mess assert what is best for “investors,” seemingly lost is the collateral damage that is likely to be thrust on Par’s customers. The Philadelphia Inquirer has repeated the SEC’s contention that Par made loans with up to 400% interest. Bloomberg News has called Par a “lending company” whose alleged top executive is a “cash-advance tycoon.”
A review of some of Par’s contracts, however, indicate that they often entered into “recourse factoring” arrangements. “This is a factoring agreement with Recourse,” is a statement that is displayed prominently on the first page of the sample of contracts obtained by deBanked.
Parallels between the business practices of Par Funding and a former competitor, 1 Global Capital, have been raised at several junctures in the SEC litigation thus far. But some sources told deBanked that in recent times, Par has been offering a unique product, one that is likely to create disastrous ripple effects for hundreds or perhaps thousands of small businesses as a result of the Receiver’s actions (even if well-intentioned).
Par offered what’s known as a “Reverse Consolidation,” industry insiders told deBanked. In these instances Par would provide small businesses with weekly injections of capital that were just enough to cover the weekly payments that these small businesses owed to other creditors.
One might understand a consolidation as a circumstance in which a creditor pays off all the outstanding debts of a borrower so that the borrower can focus on a relationship with a single lender. In a “reverse” consolidation, the consolidating lender makes the daily, weekly, or monthly payments to the borrower’s other creditors as they become due rather than all at once. Once the other creditors have been satisfied, the borrower’s only remaining debt (theoretically) is to the consolidating lender.
Par does not appear to have offered loans but sources told deBanked that Par would provide regular weekly capital injections to businesses that could not afford its financial obligations otherwise. Par, in essence, would keep those businesses afloat by making their payments.
That all begs the question, what is going to happen to the numerous businesses when Par breaches its end of the contract by failing to provide the weekly injections?
As the Receiver makes controversial attempts to assert the control it wished it had gotten (but didn’t), the press dazzled the public on Friday with the announcement that an executive at Par Funding had been arrested on something entirely unrelated, an illegal gun possession charge. The FBI discovered the weapons while executing a search warrant on July 28th but waited until August 7th to make the arrest.
It remains to be seen what the 1,200 investors will recover in this case or what will become of the Receiver in the battle for control, but sources tell deBanked that the authorities are all fighting over the wrong thing.
They should all be asking “what’s going to happen to the small businesses when their weekly capital injection doesn’t come in the middle of a pandemic?”
“It’s actually shocking to me how tone deaf those who claim to represent our industry are when it comes to policy,” is how Steve Denis, Executive Director of the Small Business Finance Association, described the Innovative Lending Platform Association’s response to and influence over the drafting of bill A10118A/S5470B. Known as New York’s APR disclosure bill, S5470B has been passed by the state legislature, and if signed by Governor Cuomo, will require small business financing contracts to disclose the annual percentage rate as well as other uniform disclosures.
Speaking to deBanked over the phone, Denis expressed disappointment with both the bill as well as comments made by ILPA’s CEO, Scott Stewart, in a recent article.
“Small businesses in New York are struggling right now,” the Director noted. “They’re waking up every single day wondering if they should even stay open or close permanently, and companies and organizations in our space are using their resources to push a disclosure bill that nobody has asked for. There’s no widespread issue with disclosure. There’s been no outpouring of complaints to regulators. No bad reviews on Trustpilot. This is a really bad solution in search of a problem. We have real problems right now, we should be coming together as an industry to help solve them. We want to make sure that capital is available to small businesses on the other side of this pandemic, and this group of tone deaf companies are spending resources trying to push a meaningless disclosure bill that’s just going to hurt the access to capital for real small businesses who are grinding and trying to figure out how to stay open. It’s unbelievable.”
The SBFA showed deBanked a list of issues and complaints made to the New York legislature regarding S5470B. According to the trade group, these were largely ignored and the bill was pushed through with the issues left in. Among these were problems relating to definitions and terms. No definition for the application process is included, nor is there one for a finance charge. As well as this, one senator was quoted using the term “double dipping” to refer to consumers refinancing debts that have prepayment penalties; which Denis said was “creating a whole new term that’s never been used or defined before, and applying it to commercial finance, something that’s never been done.”
Accompanying these complaints was one regarding how APR is calculated, as S5470B includes two different calculations for this, producing different results while not clearly defining when to use each.
When asked why he believes these issues were allowed to remain in the language of the bill, Denis was baffled.
“I think that the companies and organizations that support this legislation don’t fully understand what’s actually in the bill. […] They have no problem pounding the table and taking credit for its passage, but I guess they don’t realize it will subject them and the rest of the alternative finance industry to massive liability, massive fines—upwards of billions of dollars worth of fines.”
Denis’s fear going forward is that funders in New York will tighten up their channels going forward or cease funding entirely, given the increased riskiness of funding under the terms of S5470B if Cuomo signs it into law. Before that happens though, the Director mentioned that he believes there will be legal challenges to the bill in the future, saying that its wording is just too unclear and poorly drafted. Adding to this, Denis said that he believes many members of New York’s state government are aware that this bill is imperfect and were comfortable with the thought of it being edited once passed. Looking forward, Denis wants the SBFA to be deeply involved in those edits, saying that they’re willing to work with the Governor, the state assembly, and the New York Department of Financial Services.
“We’re for disclosure, we think there should be standard disclosure. … Our message to the Governor’s office is ‘Let’s take a step back.’ The Department of Financial Services needs to look at our industry, they need to get to know our industry. They are the experts that understand the space, they understand disclosure, and they understand what they need to do to bring responsible lending to New Yorkers. And we would like to work with the NYDFS and a broader industry to put forward a bill that’s led by the Governor and the Governor’s office that brings meaningful disclosure and meaningful safeguards to this industry.”
LendingPoint announced this week that it is partnering with the online marketplace eBay to provide funding to sellers on its platform. Titled eBay Seller Capital, the program will offer terms of up to 48 months, with no origination or early payback fees, and which will be capped at $25,000 during its pilot program.
“We’re committed to empowering entrepreneurs to make their dreams a reality, and we are continuing to partner with our sellers to provide them with the tools they need to thrive, eBay’s VP of Global Payments Alyssa Cutright said in a statement. “We’re excited to make flexible financing options available that are integrated with our new payments experience. The program with LendingPoint will enable critical funding opportunities for eBay sellers, especially during this time of economic uncertainty.”
In its early stages now, eBay Seller Capital will only be available for selected sellers, with the plan being for it to be made available to all eligible sellers in the US later this year. Beyond the program, LendingPoint has made clear in its statement that it aims to “expand their offering to provide eBay sellers with more tools to help run their businesses,” however, when asked, CEO and Co-Founder Tom Burnside did not give details of these future plans.
“I don’t want to leave the proverbial cat out of the bag yet with that,” Burnside commented in a call, “but what I will tell you is that I think when we are done eBay will be able to offer best-of-class seller financing.”
LendingClub’s Q2 financials revealed that the company loaned $325.8M for the quarter, down 90% year-over-year. The company also recorded a net loss of $78.5M.
“In the current challenging environment, we have remained focused on the things we can control and are successfully executing against our strategic priorities,” CEO Scott Sanborn commented. “We are pleased with our ability to maintain strong levels of liquidity, are encouraged by the payment behavior of our members and the resilience of the loan portfolio and remain focused on the acquisition of Radius Bank.”
The company had $338M in the bank at quarter-end, up from the $244M in the bank at year-end 2019.
Square Capital, the small business lending division of Square, resumed offers for its “core flex loans” in late July, the company announced. However, there will be “stricter eligibility criteria.”
Square Capital made no core flex loans in Q2, having paused in mid-March on news of the impending crisis.
The company pivoted to PPP lending in Q2 in the interim and through this program managed to fund over 80,000 small businesses for a grand total of $873 million. The average came out to approximately $11,000 per loan.
Square says that in PPP they “expanded awareness of Square Capital as 60% of [their] PPP borrowers had never before received a loan through Square.”
Loss rates during Q2 were about 2.5x prev-COVID levels, a range they accurately predicted might happen at the end of Q1.
Par Funding’s attorneys at Fox Rothschild filed a strong response with the Court over the apparent actions taken by the Receiver to lock out its employees and suspend ACH debits, the docket shows.
“On the afternoon of July 28, the SEC advised that Mr. Stumphauzer (the appointed receiver) would cause the immediate dismissal of all the employees of the businesses and that no employees of the business would be permitted to enter the premises – leading to over 100 employees being barred from the business premises for the last week despite the fact that thousands of merchants around the country rely on ongoing communication with CBSG to ensure the ongoing viability of their business operations.”
“To date, not a dollar has been taken in by the Receiver to pay investors, and they have not been paid. The Receiver’s and SEC’s actions are ruining a business with excellent fundamentals and a strong financial base and essentially putting it into an ineffective liquidation causing huge financial losses. In taking this course of action against a fully operational business, the key fact that has been lost by the SEC, is that their actions are going to unilaterally lead to massive investor defaults.”
Par’s attorneys are expected to file a more comprehensive opposition by the end of the week.
deBanked did not reach out to any party for comment given the unlikelihood that any would be shared on pending litigation.
A series of Bloomberg News stories in 2018 appear to have put a handful of companies in the cross-hairs of regulators, recent legal filings indicate, and Bloomberg is enjoying unusual status in the saga.
One example is the copy of a federal lawsuit brought by the SEC that appeared on Bloomberglaw.com on Monday, July 27th. A summary of the lawsuit and the full 58-page complaint were broadcast through the Bloomberg-branded website in Google News and were quickly picked up by industry observers who pointed out that the complaint referenced an ongoing undercover investigation by law enforcement agencies.
It was an unusual reveal.
Except when deBanked tried to authenticate the documents by attempting to retrieve an original copy through the court system, we were unsuccessful because the entire case was sealed.
The case and an identical copy of the complaint, which Bloomberg had been circulating all week, were finally unsealed on Friday, July 31st. The case number was the only thing different.
The odd sequence of events suggests that Bloomberg Law may have inadvertently blown the lid on a case almost a week before anyone was supposed to know about it, including the defendants. Over the weekend, one defendant was upset that he had not been able to access the docket until the evening of July 31st. That was 4 days after the world had already gotten a glimpse of it.
ZenBusiness, the Austin-based business formation services company, recently announced that it reached an agreement to acquire Joust for an undisclosed amount. Offering financing options to freelancers and entrepreneurs, Joust services, like PayArmour, will continue under its new ownership, rebranded as ZenBusiness Money when it relaunches in October.
“The acquisition of Joust and upcoming launch of ZenBusiness Money furthers our mission to provide the nation’s 57 million micro businesses with exceptional and friendly tools that simplify the process of forming and running their business,” ZenBusiness CEO and Co-founder Ross Buhrdorf noted in a statement. “We are excited to welcome the world-class fintech experience the entire Joust team brings to the ZenBusiness family as we continue to grow the features of our platform.”
With there still being an urge to work from home, all of ZenBusiness’s newly acquired employees will work remotely. Given the oddness of being bought in the middle of a global pandemic, Buhrdorf explained in a call how while covid-19’s economic impacts have led to an increased interest in their product, this uptick is not something new, but rather an inevitability.
“There’s no denying our businesses have accelerated as a result of covid-19. I don’t want to get carried away there because this was a growing trend before this. Lots of companies were turning employees into contractors, and so this was a growing trend. I think that the pandemic accelerated that, either out of necessity or it was, ‘hey, the world’s a changed place, I need to start up a side gig.’”
Joust CEO Lamine Zarrad followed up on this point by mentioning that this pattern is linked to why ZenBusiness is a B Corp, with the hope being that they will be able to provide support to Americans as they encounter new financial challenges.
“We are now a public benefit corporation, and Joust’s missions has always been oriented towards social good. And we’re excited to help these individuals who are now becoming entrepreneurs and wading into these waters that are completely uncharted.”
Following recent lawsuits filed by the FTC, Commissioner Rohit Chopra made the following statements earlier today in an announcement about merchant cash advances:
As the Commission proceeds into litigation in these matters and further studies this market, I hope that we will uncover additional information about business practices in this opaque industry. In particular, we should closely scrutinize the marketing claim that these payday-style products are “flexible,” with payments contingent on the credit card receivables of a small business. In reality, this structure may be a sham, since many of these products require fixed daily payments, and lenders can file “confessions of judgment” upon any slowdown in payments, with no notice or due process for borrowers.
This raises serious questions as to whether these “merchant cash advance” products are actually closed-end installment loans, subject to federal and state protections including anti-discrimination laws, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and usury caps. The stakes are high for millions of small businesses.
Kristy Kowal, a silver medalist in the 200-meter breast stroke at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia, had recently relocated to Southern California and embarked on a new career when the pandemic shutdown hit in March.
After nearly two decades as a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, Kowal was able to take early retirement in 2019 and pursue her dream job. At last, she was self-employed and living in Long Beach where she could now devote herself to putting on swim clinics, training top athletes, and accepting speaking engagements. “I’ve been building up to this for twenty years,” she says.
But fate had a different idea. The coronavirus not only grounded her from travel but closed down most swimming pools. At first, she tried to collect unemployment compensation. But after two months of calling the unemployment office every day, her claim was denied. “‘Have a great day,’ the lady said, and then she hung up,” Kowal reports. “She wasn’t rude; she just hung up.”
Then, in June, the former Olympian heard from friends about Kabbage and the Paycheck Protection Program. Using an app on her smart phone, Kowal says, she was able to upload documents and complete the initial application in fewer than 20 minutes. A subsequent application with a bank followed and within a week she had her money.
“I was down to ten cents in my checking account,” says Kowal, who declined to disclose the amount of PPP money for which she qualified, “and I’d begun dipping into my savings. This gives me the confidence that I need to go back to my fulltime work.”
Kowal is one of 4.9 million small business owners and sole proprietors who, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, has received potentially forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP, a safety-net program designed to pay the wages of employees for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, is a key component of the $1.76 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Since the U.S. Congress enacted the law on March 27, the PPP has been renewed and amended twice. It’s now in its third round of funding and Congress is weighing what to do next.
Kowal’s experience, meanwhile, is also a wake-up call for the country on the prominent role that both fintechs like Kabbage as well as community and independent banks, credit unions, non-banks and other alternatives to the country’s biggest banks play in supporting small business. Before many in this cohort were deputized by the SBA as full-fledged PPA lenders, a significant chunk of U.S. microbusinesses – especially sole proprietorships — were largely disdained by the brand-name banks.
“After the first round,” notes Karen Mills, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, “more institutions were approved that focused on smaller borrowers. These included fintechs and I have to say I’ve been very impressed.”
Among the cadre of fintechs making PPP loans – including Funding Circle, Intuit Quickbooks, OnDeck, PayPal, and Sabre — Kabbage stands out. The Atlanta-based fintech ranked third among all U.S. financial institutions in the number of PPP credits issued, its 209,000 loans trailing only Bank of America’s 335,000 credits and J.P. Morgan Chase’s 260,000, according to the SBA and company data. Kabbage also reports processing more than $5.8 billion in PPP loans to small businesses ranging from restaurants, gyms, and retail stores to zoos, shrimp boats, beekeepers, and toy factories.
To reach businesses in rural communities and small towns, Kabbage collaborated with MountainSeed, an Atlanta-based data-services provider, to process claims for 135 independent banks and credit unions around the U.S. The proof of the pudding: Eighty-nine percent of Kabbage’s PPP loans, says Paul Bernardini, director of communications at Atlanta-based Kabbage, were under $50,000, and half were for less than $13,500.
The figures illustrate not only that Kabbage’s PPP customers were mainly composed of the country’s smaller, “most vulnerable” businesses, Bernardini asserts, but the numbers serve as a reminder that “fintechs play a very important, vital role in small business lending,” he says.
The helpfulness of such financial institutions contrasts sharply with what many small businesses have reported as imperious indifference by the megabanks. Gerri Detweiler, education director at Nav, Inc., a Utah-based online company that aggregates data and acts as a financial matchmaker for small businesses, steered deBanked toward critical comments about the big banks made on Nav’s Facebook page. Bank of America, especially, comes in for withering criticism.
“Bank of America wouldn’t even take my application,” one man wrote in a comment edited for brevity. “I have three accounts there. They are always sending me stuff about what an important client I am. But when the going got tough, they wouldn’t even take my application. I’m moving all my business from Bank of America.”
Lamented another Bank of America customer: “I was denied (PPP funding) from Bank of America (where) I have an individual retirement account, personal checking and savings account, two credit cards, a line of credit for $20.000, and a home mortgage. Add in business checking and a business credit card. Yesterday I pulled out my IRA. In the next few days I’m going to change to a credit union.”
Many PPP borrowers who initially got the cold shoulder from multi-billion-dollar conglomerate banks have found refuge with local — often small-town — bankers and financial institutions. Natasha Crosby, a realtor in Richmond, Va., reports that her bank, Capital One, “didn’t have the applications available when the Paycheck Protection Program started” on April 6. And when she finally was able to apply, she notes, “the money ran out.”
Crosby, who is president of Richmond’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, is media savvy and was able to publicize her predicament through television appearances on CNN and CBS, as well as in interviews with such publications as Mother Jones and Huffington Post. A “friendly acquaintance,” she says, referred her to Atlantic Union Bank, a Richmond-based regional bank, where she eventually received a PPP loan “in the high five figures” for her sole proprietorship.
“It took almost two months,” Crosby says. “I was totally frozen out of the program at first.”
Talibah Bayles heads her own firm, TMB Tax and Financial Services, in Birmingham, Ala. where she serves on that city’s Small Business Council and the state’s Black Chamber of Commerce. She told deBanked that she’s seen clients who have similarly been decamping to smaller, less impersonal financial institutions. “I have one client who just left Bank of America and another who’s absolutely done with Wells Fargo,” she says. “They’re going to places like America First Credit Union (based in Ogden, Utah) and Hope Credit Union (headquartered in Jackson, Miss.). I myself,” she adds, “shifted my business from Iberia Bank.”
Main Street bankers acknowledge that they are benefiting from the phenomenon. “In speaking to our industry colleagues,” says Tony DiVita, chief operating officer at Bank of Southern California, an $830 million-asset community bank based in San Diego, “we’ve seen that many of the big banks have slowed down or stopped lending small-dollar amounts that were too low for them to expend resources to process.”
At the same time, DiVita says, his bank had made 2,634 PPP loans through July 17, roughly 80% of which went to non-clients. Of that number, some 30% have either switched accounts or are in the process of doing so. And, he notes, the bank will get a second crack at conversion when the PPP loan-forgiveness process commences in earnest. “Our guiding spirit is to help these businesses for the continuation of their livelihoods,” he says.
Noah Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of two Minnesota banks, reports that both of his financial institutions have been working with non-customers neglected by bigger banks where many had been longtime customers. At Grand Rapids State Bank, he says, 26% of the 198 PPP applicants who were successfully funded were non-customers. Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, handled PPP credits for 274 applicants, of whom 66% were non-customers.
“People who had been customers forever at big banks told us that they had been applying for weeks and were flabbergasted that we were turning those applications around in an hour,” says Wilcox, who is also the current chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing community banks.
Noting that one of his Gopher State banks had successfully secured funding for an elderly PPP borrower “who said he had been at another bank for 69 years and could not get a telephone call returned,” Wilcox added: “We’ve had quite a number of those individuals moving their relationships to us.”
For Chris Hurn, executive director at Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a non-bank SBA lender in Lake Mary, Fla., the psychic rewards have helped compensate for the sometimes 16-hour days he and his staff endured processing and funding PPP applications. “It’s been relentless,” he says of the regimen required to funnel loans to more than 1,300 PPP applicants, “but we’ve gotten glowing e-mails and cards telling us that we’ve saved people’s livelihoods.”
Yet even as the Paycheck Protection Program – which only provides funding for two-and-a-half months – is proving to be immensely helpful, albeit temporarily, there is much trepidation among small businesses over what happens when the government’s spigots run dry. The hastily contrived design of the program, which has relied heavily on the country’s largest financial institutions, has contributed mightily to the program’s flaws.
“The underbanked and those who don’t have banking relationships were frozen out in the first round,” says Sarah Crozier, director of communications at Main Street Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization comprising some 100,000 small businesses. “The new updates were incredibly necessary and long overdue,” she adds, “but the changes didn’t solve the problem of equity in access to the program and whom money is flowing to in the community.”
Professor David Audretsch, an economist at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on small business, says of PPP: “It’s a short-term fix to keep businesses afloat, but it missed in a lot of ways. It was not well-thought-out and a lot of money went to the wrong people.”
The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 11.1% in June, according to the most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three times the rate of February, just before the pandemic hit. The BLS also reported that 47.2% of the U.S. population – nearly half –was jobless in June. Against this backdrop, SBA data on PPP lending released in early July showed that a stunning array of cosseted elite enterprises and organizations, many with close connections to rich and powerful Washington power brokers, have been feasting on the PPP program.
In a stunning number of cases, the program’s recipients have been tony Washington, D.C. law firms, influential lobbyists and think tanks, and even members of Congress. Many businesses with ties to President Trump and Trump donors have also figured prominently on the SBA list of those receiving largesse from the SBA.
Businesses owned by private equity firms, for which the definition of “small business” strains credulity, were also showered with PPP dollars. Bloomberg News reported that upscale health-care businesses in which leveraged-buyout firms held a controlling interest, were impressively adept at accessing PPP money. Among this group were Abry Partners, Silver Oak Service Partners, Gauge Capital, and Heron Capital. (Small businesses are generally defined as enterprises with fewer than 500 employees. The SBA reports that there are 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. and that they account for roughly 47% of U.S. employment.)
Boston-based Abry Partners, which currently manages more than $5 billion in capital across its active funds, merits special mention. Among other properties, Abry holds the largest stake in Oliver Street Dermatology Management, recipient of between $5 million and $10 million in potentially forgivable PPP loans. Based in Dallas, Oliver Street ranks among the largest dermatology management practices in the U.S. and, according to a company statement, boasts the most extensive such network in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.
Meanwhile, the design of the program and the formula for the looming forgiveness process is proving impractical. As it currently stands, loan forgiveness depends on businesses spending 60% of PPP money on employees’ wages and health insurance with the remaining 40% earmarked for rent, mortgage or utilities.
Many businesses such as restaurants and bars, storefront retailers and boutiques – particularly those that have shut down — are preferring to let their employees collect unemployment compensation. “Business owners had a hard time wrapping their heads around the requirement of keeping employees on the payroll while they’re closed,” notes Detweiler, the education director at Nav. “They have other bills that have to be paid.”
The forgiveness formula remains vexing for businesses where real estate costs are exorbitant, particularly in high-rent cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. Tyler Balliet, the founder and owner of Rose Mansion, a midtown Manhattan wine-bar promising an extravagant, theme-park experience for wine enthusiasts, says that it took him a month and a half to receive almost $500,000 from Chase Bank. Unfortunately, though, the money isn’t doing him much good.
“I have 100 employees on staff, most of whom are actors,” he says. “We shut down on March 13. I laid off 95 employees and kept just a few people to keep the lights on.”
At the same time, his annual rent tops $1 million and the forgivable amount in the PPP loans won’t even cover a month’s rent. “I haven’t paid rent since March and I’m in default,” Balliet says. “Now I’m just waiting to see what the landlord wants to do.”
Like many business owners, Balliet financed much of his venture with credit card debt, which creates an additional liability concern, notes Crozier of the Main Street Alliance. “It’s very common for borrowers to have signed personal guarantees in their loans using their credit cards,” she says. “As we get closer to the funding cliff and as rent moratoriums end,” she adds, “creditors are coming after borrowers and putting their personal homes at risk.”
Mark Frier is the owner of three restaurants in Vermont ski towns, including The Reservoir — his flagship — in Waterbury. In toto, his eateries chalked up $6.5 million in combined sales in 2019. But 2020 is far different: the restaurants have not been open since mid-March and he’s missed out on the lucrative, end-of-season ski rush.
Consequently, Frier has been reluctant to draw down much of the $750,000 in PPP money he’d secured through local financial institutions. “We could end up with $600,000 in debt even with the new rules,” Frier says, adding: “We live off very thin margins. We need grants not loans.”
As the country recorded 3.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 141,000 deaths as of mid-July, PPP money earmarked by businesses for health-related spending was not deemed forgivable. Yet in order to comply with regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and mandates and ordinances imposed by state and local governments, many establishments will be unable to avoid such expenditures.
“What we really needed was a grant program for companies to pivot to a business environment in a pandemic,” says Crozier. She cites the necessity businesspeople face of “retrofitting their businesses, buying masks, gloves and sanitizers and cleaning supplies, restaurants’ taking out tables and knocking down walls, installing Plexiglass shields, and improving air filtration systems.”
Meanwhile, as Covid-19 was taking its toll in sickness and death, the economic outlook for small business has been looking dire as well. The recent U.S. Census’s “Pulse Survey” of some 885,000 businesses updated on July 2 found that roughly 83% reported that Covid-19 pandemic had a “negative effect on their business. Fully 38% of all small business respondents, moreover, reported a “large negative effect.”
Amid the unabated spikes in the number of coronavirus cases and the country’s grave economic distress, PPP recipients are faced with the unsettling approach of the PPP forgiveness process. As Congress, the SBA, and the U.S. Treasury Department continue to remake and revise the rules and regulations governing the program, businesses are operating in a climate of uncertainty as well. Currently, the law states that the amount of the PPP loan that fails to be forgiven will convert to a five-year, one-percent loan — a relaxation in terms from the original two-year loan which is not necessarily cheering recipients.
“One of the biggest problems with PPP is that the rule book has been unclear,” frets Vermont restaurateur Frier, glumly adding: “This is not even a good loan program.”
Ashley Harrington, senior counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy group based in Durham, N.C., argued in House committee testimony on June 17, that there ought to be automatic forgiveness for PPP loans under $100,000. Such a policy, she declared, “would likely exempt firms with, on average, 13 or fewer employees and save 71 million hours of small business staff time.”
She also said, “The smallest PPP loans are being provided to microbusinesses and sole proprietors that have the least capacity and resources to engage in a complex (forgiveness) process with their financial institution and the SBA.”
William Phelan, president of Skokie (Ill.)-based PayNet, a credit-data services company for small businesses which recently merged with Equifax, sounded a similar note. Observing that there are some 23 million “non-employer” small businesses in the U.S. with fewer than three employees for whom the forgiveness process will likely be burdensome, he says: “Estimates are that it will cost businesses a few thousand dollars just to get a $100,000 loan forgiven. It’s going to involve mounds of paper work.”
The country’s major challenge now will be to re-boot the economy, Phelan adds, which will require massive financing for small businesses. “The fact is that access to capital for small businesses is still behind the times,” Phelan says. “At the end of the day, it took a massive government program to insure that there’s enough capital available for half of the U.S. economy” during the pandemic.
For his part, Professor Audretsch fervently hopes that the country has learned some profound lessons about the need to prepare for not just a rainy day, but a rainy season. The pandemic, he says, has exposed how decades of political attacks on government spending for disaster-preparedness and safety-net programs have left the U.S. exposed to unforeseen emergencies.
“We’re seeing the consequence of not investing in our infrastructure,” he says. “That’s a vague word but we need a policy apparatus in place so that the calvary can come riding in. This pandemic reminds me a lot of when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans,’ he adds. “The city paid a heavy price because we didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”
Rapid Finance is funding again, according to posts made by the company on social media.
“Now that most states are in the process of beginning to function normally, many small businesses are back in operation and we’re excited to announce that we have resumed accepting NEW financing applications!”
Shopify had a monster 2nd quarter. The e-commerce giant generated $36M in profit on $714.3M in revenue. As part of that the company originated $153 million worth of loans and merchant cash advances, only slightly down from the $162.4M in Q1. Still that figure was up by 65% year-over-year (and was more than 2x the volume originated by OnDeck).
The company has offered capital to its US merchants since 2016 and recently begun doing the same with its UK and Canadian merchants starting this past March and April respectively, the company revealed.
Shopify CFO Amy Shapero said that company had maintained loss ratios “in line with historical periods,” despite COVID. “Access to capital is even tougher in times like these, which makes it even more important to continue lowering this barrier by making it quick and easy so merchants can focus on growing their business,” Shapero stated.
This week BlueVine announced that since partnering with the food delivery service DoorDash in late April, over 180 businesses have received funds from the Paycheck Protection Program via said partnership. Totaling over $6 million, the partnership exclusively served restaurants on DoorDash’s platform, offering them a PPP pathway through BlueVine in email correspondence as well as the DoorDash merchant portal.
“DoorDash saw a need within their merchant partner base to be able to quickly apply for and receive a PPP loan – something many were not able to do through traditional banking services – and was looking to solve the accessibility factor with a partnership,” BlueVine CCO Brad Brodigan said in an email. “Small restaurants in particular were unable to access funds they needed to stay in business and navigate through this uncertain time, and the hope was that information from a trusted source like DoorDash would help them look for solutions if their bank was unable to help them.”
The $6 million funded is part of the larger $3.5 billion in PPP money that BlueVine claims to have funded to +100,000 businesses. According to Brodigan, the median loan size for the DoorDash deals was $16,000; with the median employees on payroll being five. DoorDash will be donating all referral fees from the program to the CRA Restaurants Care Covid-19 Grant as well as the Small Business Relief Fund.
Enova CEO David Fisher kicked off his company’s 2nd quarter earnings call on Tuesday and one could tell from the pitch in his voice that he was excited. And why shouldn’t he be? Despite the catastrophe that gripped the nation over the months of April, May and June, Enova still manages to report a consolidated net PROFIT of $48 million.
But that’s not even it. After a long introduction about a major acquisition, a rather familiar voice is asked to deliver some prepared remarks.
“Thanks David, I am equally excited…”
It’s Noah Breslow, the CEO of OnDeck. Less than an hour earlier it was revealed that Enova had bought 100% of OnDeck’s outstanding shares for $90 million in a deal paid for almost entirely with stock. And now suddenly he’s here on this call talking about how great it is that the companies are combining forces.
“Following an extensive review of our strategic options, we believe this is the right path forward for our customers, employees, and shareholders,” Breslow says.
That OnDeck has been acquired is no surprise. The devastating impact of COVID in Q1 reveals weaknesses in the company’s business model and the share price drops by 80% from the period of February to July. This all while two of their competitors in the small business lending space, Square and PayPal, experience enormous gains of more than 40%.
In May, Forbes reported grim news, that OnDeck is being shopped around in “what amounts to a fire sale.”
The rumor creates further despair in an industry that is preoccupied with survival. If this can happen to OnDeck, then…?
The truth is, OnDeck’s momentum had stalled long before COVID. The company walked away from a sale to Wonga in 2012 that had valued them at $250 million and they went on to have a successful IPO in 2014 at a value of $1.32 billion on the selling point that they were a tech company.
But by mid-February of this year, the company’s market cap is down to less than $250 million, turning the clock backwards by about eight years. After losing the partnership with Chase in 2019, OnDeck seemed to have lost its swagger and direction. They planned to pursue a bank charter and do a stock buyback. Then the news pretty much stops.
COVID happens and it hits them hard. The company stopped lending entirely, although they still recorded originations of $66 million in Q2.
As a standalone entity, OnDeck’s upside had greatly diminished. Getting back to where it was pre-COVID may not have been an entirely enticing prospect for investors. Its market cap recently plummeted to less than $50 million and so by the time the Enova price of $90 million is announced, it sounds almost generous. (Knight Capital sold for $27.8M in November).
Enova says that the acquisition increases their concentration in small business lending from 15% to 60%. That puts consumer lending, their historical core business, now in the minority. This is not by accident. On the earnings call, Enova executives say that they believe that “there will be strong demand for capital from small businesses as the economy begins to open back up.” They even believe the opportunity is better than the consumer lending market right now, particularly from a regulatory perspective, they say. Therefore it makes sense to “double down or triple down” on the small business side, they contend.
Enova’s small business lending business was largely spared by COVID. Unlike OnDeck’s brutal Q1, Enova had reported something “very much manageable” thanks to not having “large exposures to entertainment, hospitality and restaurants.”
“Our portfolio has been extremely stable,” Enova says on the call. With the acquisition of OnDeck, the company appears to be gearing up for the opportunity they believe awaits in small business lending right around the corner.
Late last week the New York State legislature voted to pass A10118A/S5470B, a bill that might lead to greater clarity and consumer knowledge according to Scott Stewart, CEO of the Innovative Lending Platform Association, a trade association of small business lenders.
Referring to it as “our model disclosure legislation,” Stewart explained in a phone call the work that the ILPA put in to help the bill through as well as what sort of impacts can be expected from S5470B.
“The implications are that small businesses, certainly in New York to begin with, but we think throughout the country, will have the opportunity to really see, understand, and compare various different sources and products for financing their small businesses in terms of their expansion and success. That’s something we’re very proud of and I think that’s something the small business borrower really deserves to see. They deserve to see and understand exactly what they’re doing and when they’re taking out financing products for their businesses.”
What exactly these business owners will understand better relates to the details of the bill, which requires small business financing contracts to disclose the annual percentage rate as well as other uniform disclosures. If signed by New York Governor Cuomo, the bill could have ramifications on small business lenders, MCA, and factoring providers.
ILPA, founded in 2016 and comprised by the likes of Kabbage, OnDeck, and BlueVine; worked alongside legislators to help with the drafting of the bill, assisting with the wording so that it reflects their own SMART Box initiative. This being a form offered by ILPA which lists a number of metrics worth considering when seeking small business financing.
“In January 2019, our team came together and decided that it made sense in the wake of 1235 in California to take a proactive approach to codify SMART Box as legislation in a state, and we selected New York because we felt we had a favorable legislature there,” Stewart said. “I think it’s an incredible achievement. You see the big margins that it passed by in both the Assembly and the Senate and we’re very, very proud of that. I think it really speaks to our cooperative approach to building legislation. And now, as we move toward the implementation phase, we’re going to be in a place where, hopefully in the next six months or so, small businesses will begin receiving really clear disclosures on the capital and credit that they’re trying to take out.”
As noted though, the bill must be signed by Governor Cuomo before becoming law, and then it will affect New York only. Beyond the Empire State though, Stewart is hopeful that ILPA will be able to implement the terms of S5470B in other states.
“Now that we have hopefully harmonized the legislative landscape between California, with 1235, and New York; hopefully we’ll be able to export that to other states. We don’t have any accurate plans at this time to do that, but we feel like if two of the larger states in the nation have very similar disclosure regimes then we’re on the track toward seeing this nationwide.”
I recently spoke with Lending Valley CEO Chad Otar, who told us that not only is his funding company still working remotely, but that he’ll probably never return to an office ever again. Watch below: