Archive for 2020

What Stimulus is Next for SMBs?

September 4, 2020
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Downtown Annapolis MarylandNext week, lawmakers will finally be back from vacation, arguing over the next stimulus package. There are various proposals, and the two competing Republican and Democrat offerings are nearly a trillion dollars apart.

It’s the Senate GOP HEALs act vs. the House Democrats HEROs act. But in between, what may be getting the most support? Standalone bipartisan bills that focus on extending and forgiving PPP loans.

Ryan Metcalf, head of the office of Government affairs and Social Impact for Funding Circle, has been following conversations on The Hill closely. 

“Up until Monday, Pelosi said they weren’t even going to even put a bill forward for a new stimulus,” Metcalf said. “But then yesterday [Tuesday] Secretary Mnuchin said he was open to doing a standalone PPP loan. It’s the one that has the most bipartisan support; they can’t meet anywhere else than PPP.”

Funding Circle is one of the world’s largest online lenders, with about $10 billion in global loans to date. Metcalf said Funding Circle mostly offers US loans in the $25,000 to $500,000 range, and as a funder for PPP, offered more loans in just eight days in August than half of their total business in July. His company had to cut off funding requests, locking out some customers that needed help, simply because the deadline had ended.

“When PPP ended on August 8th, the narrative was that PPP had died out, and there was no interest in it, but that is a complete fallacy,” Metcalf said. “We were processing loans for the smallest of small businesses- 10-15 employees- well under $50,000 loans, the people still needed help.”

 

REAL SMALL BUSINESSES: ONES WITH UNDER TEN EMPLOYEES ARE REALLY GRINDING

 

Steve Denis, Executive Director of the Small Business Finance Associaton (SBFA), has also been engaged in the process. He has been petitioning members of Congress on behalf of what he calls truly small business, those under 10 employees or nonemployers that still need help.

“‘Real’ small businesses: ones with under ten employees that are really grinding, like small hair salons, retail stores, and mechanics don’t really have traditional banking relationships,” Denis said.

SBA data from July found that most of the loans made (66.8%) were in the $50k range and to very small businesses, but the largest amount of capital went towards firms that applied for a $350k-$1M sized loan.

Denis said that the higher dollar amount PPP loans were more profitable for banks to make, so disproportionate funding went toward bigger businesses with pre-established finance connections. This disparity is backed up by research. Studies, like one from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found that firms with stronger connections to banks were more likely to be approved for PPP funds.

“The way fees are structured: there’s an incentive for big banks to prioritize bigger deals at [commission] rates like 3% or 5%,” Denis Said. “They’d rather make that on a $500,000 deal than on a $40,000 deal.”

Denis said the SBFA was lobbying for Congress to create a prioritized amount of money authorized only for smaller loans, under $100,000-$150,000, to focus on those really small businesses with less than five employees.

 

“WE NEED A FORGIVENESS BILL THAT STREAMLINES THE PROCESS”

 

Like Metcalf, Denis sees the most likely outcome is an extension of PPP- at least until the end of the federal fiscal year budget in September. If the Fed cannot agree on a budget, the government will go into shutdown- and this year would be the worst time to shut down.

“The only thing that motivates Congress to move big legislation like this are deadlines; there’s a big deadline coming up,” Denis said. “At the end of September, the fiscal year runs out and there needs to be a budget agreement.”

SBA LoansMetcalf said that the next round of PPP programs need to make sure businesses can get their first loan if they haven’t already, and streamline the loan forgiveness process to keep the SBA from getting overwhelmed.

“We need a forgiveness bill that streamlines the process; lenders will not have the resources to process forgiveness, a first PPP and second PPP as it is,” Metcalf said. “In my call with the SBA two weeks ago, they said for processing new 7(a) lender applications and all the other business they do to resume their normal business we’re looking at six months.”

The PPP proposal that Metcalf likes the best is called the Paycheck Protection Small Business Forgiveness Act, which stipulates a one-page forgiveness form for all loans made under $150,000. Metcalf said he saw support from a bipartisan group of over 90 members of Congress.

Another opportunity is the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program- offering long term loans to businesses with less than 500 employees that need financial help. Both Denis and Metcalf encouraged business owners to check out the program, which offers loans directly from the government without the need to prove forgiveness.

In the end, Denis said he was interested in the Republican “Skinny Bill” that is a cheaper breakdown of the GOP HEALS Act, but he said it is all up in the air.

“This is just me guessing,” Denis said. “I have talked to these people every day, but even members of Congress on Capitol Hill have no clue what’s going to happen.”

What is ‘Lending as a Service?’

September 3, 2020
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I‘ve heard of SaaS, but now there’s LaaS, Lending as a Service. I recently spoke with Timothy Li, CEO of Alchemy, a fintech infrastructure company that offers that and more. You can check it out below!

Lendini is Back

September 2, 2020
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Lendini LogoBensalem, PA –September 3, 2020Lendini is excited to announce its return to small business funding. Through superior efficiency and analysis, the company has improved the process of alternative funding from some of the brightest minds in finance, technology and analytics. With updated (temporary COVID-19) guidelines, they remain dedicated and committed to their merchants and ISOs in these unprecedented times.

Lendini works directly with you to prepare the best package for your client, whether that be a Business Cash Advance (BCA) or Merchant Cash Advance (MCA). Simply put, Lendini advances money based on the average monthly gross sales of a business or average monthly credit card sales. Money can be advanced quickly because securing assets and collateral is not required.

Get clients funded in 4 easy steps; application submission, information review, approval or denial, final review and your client is funded. Minimal documentation is required. The company must have 18 months in business with $7,500 per month in gross sales and an average daily balance of $750. We require a minimum of 5 deposits, monthly into the business bank account.

Funding Stipulations:

  • Bank login
  • Funding call with merchant

Required Documents:

  • Application
  • All 2020 business bank statements + MTD
  • Signed and dated agreement
  • Proof of business existence
  • Meets state registration requirements
  • Proof of ownership
  • Merchant interview
  • Driver’s license
  • Voided check (starter checks will not be accepted)

Industries accepted:

  • Restaurants (with takeout)
  • Pharmacies
  • Healthcare
  • Manufacturing
  • Transportation (freight)
  • Healthcare (primary care)
  • Automotive repair
  • Grocery stores

With $540 million dollars funded to 15,000 small businesses, Lendini offers incomparable solutions customized specifically for your client. The company prides itself in being able to offer up to $300,000 in as little as 1 business day (in most cases). Funding can be used for any business purpose you may have.

Lendini is not a bank and does not provide loans, they offer cash advances. With Lendini, business owners receive the capital they need without lengthy delays or excessive paperwork. In general, Lendini offers pre-approvals in under three hours and next day funding of approved advances. The staff provides unparalleled customer service and treats each business owner with the respect they deserve.

Par Funding, Looks Bad But May Still Have Been a Better Investment Than OnDeck?

September 2, 2020
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Mind BlownBuried deep in the bowels of the salacious news articles coming out about Par Funding, the small business funding company that was raided by the FBI and forced into a court-ordered receivership, is that Par Funding investors probably stand to recover more of their funds than early shareholders of OnDeck.

That’s the early indication based upon a report prepared by DSI, a consulting firm hired by Par’s Receiver. As of the 4th quarter of 2019, Par Funding purportedly had $420 million in MCA receivables and $21.7 million in cash while claiming that only $365 million was still owed to investors.

Could be worse?

At the heart of this case is just how solid Par’s receivables are. The SEC claims that hundreds of millions may be lost but isn’t entirely sure how much. As evidence, they point to more than 2,000 lawsuits Par has filed since inception against defaulted customers and assert the unlikelihood that Par and affiliated individuals could have reasonably claimed to have had a 1% or 2% default rate.

Par in its defense has said that the SEC has made “no attempt to address the successful recovery rate of Par Funding’s litigation or, more fundamentally, how this litigation correlates to a cash over cash default rate.”

Par has made several references to a cash-over-cash default rate in its court papers. In an August 9 filing, attorneys for Par say that the company’s cash-over-cash default rate is “perhaps the best in the industry.”

But even if it is, deBanked spoke with some accountants knowledgeable about these products that said that a cash-over-cash calculation would not normally be a formula one would use to express meaningful portfolio performance. They spoke generally as they did not have knowledge about Par’s books or personal methodologies.

And absent such knowledge of how Par calculated it, Par insists in its papers that it has the right to show that it did not misrepresent the default rate (and that it should have had that opportunity before being placed in receivership in the first place).

It doesn’t help that the SEC has made contradicting arguments about defaults. While implying that 50% of the money is in default ($300 million of $600 million funded is allegedly tied up in lawsuits, they say) they simultaneously state in their Amended Complaint that an analysis of these lawsuits reveals that Par’s “default rate is as high as 10%.”

One has to wonder, if that’s true, if a forced-receivership over such a company was warranted because the SEC thought that their default rate might be as high as… 10%.

A rival alternative business lender, OnDeck, had reported a default rate of 5% in 2013, 18 months before going public at a $1.3 billion valuation. At the time, company CEO Noah Breslow told Forbes that a 5% default rate was “on a par with banks.” [sic]

On OnDeck’s June 30, 2020 balance sheet, the company set an allowance for credit losses at $173.6M against $901.1M in receivables, approximately 19%. That, of course, reflects the impact of COVID, which Par also argues it has had to contend with and that this should be considered in the big picture.

Safely secure from any raids, executives for OnDeck gathered on a conference call in late July to announce that they had been acquired by Enova at a share price of $1.38 that locked in a loss of more than 90% from their IPO ($20). After delving into the details, an analyst for Morgan Stanley offered a bit of praise. “Congratulations on the deal, guys,” he said before pivoting to a mundane question about the impact of economic stimulus on portfolio performance.

That same week, agents for the FBI were preparing to move in on the offices of Par Funding while the SEC filed a civil complaint under seal (and botched it.) Since then narratives have emerged about Par that include guns, jets, houses, data breaches, and alleged verbal exchanges. It’s a lot to take in.

But in the end it remains to be determined how much of Par’s purported $420M in MCA receivables can be collected. Even if for argument’s sake only $42 million were to be recovered (10%), an investor who put $1 into Par in 2014 and $1 into OnDeck stock in 2014 may somehow walk away a lot better by having bet on Par.

Happy 2020.

Ocrolus Named #1 Fastest Growing Fintech By Inc.

September 1, 2020
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OcrolusOcrolus, a document analytics company, was recently named Inc.’s #1 fastest growing fintech company in the US and #1 fastest growing software company in NYC. The rating is based on percentage revenue growth between 2016 and 2019. Ocrolus placed as the #30 fastest-growing private company in America overall.

Ocrolus was founded in 2014 and has grown by 8,000% to become an industry-leading document scanning platform. Automating document applications for partners like BlueVine, Cross River, and Square, Ocrolus recently facilitated 761,455 small business applications for PPP loans.

So what sets Ocrolus apart? CEO and Co-Founder Sam Bobley credits the growth factor on just how fast and accurate the Ocrous API is.

“Lenders who were not using Ocrolus were not able to get to underwriting decisions as fast as lenders that were using Ocrolus- we saw a domino effect,” Bobley said. “Once we got a few big consumers on the platform, we were able to quickly onboard more and more funders and help them increase speed in their underwriting process.”

Bobley also said that while competitor document applications struggle with the accuracy at which they can read documents, landing somewhere in the 70-85% accuracy area, Ocrolus boasts more than 99% accuracy.

Success snowballed, and Ocrolus was helping grow businesses. The API directly addresses many financial institutions’ problems with scale- typically, more applications require more manpower to sift through paperwork.

“Typically, when a customer starts using our platform, within one year of using our platform, they double their volume, and within two years they quadruple,” Bobley said. “One of the reasons for that is they no longer have to staff up and deal with the operational complexities of handling the fluctuating volume of loans.”

With Ocrolus plugged in, customers were free from a major operating cost, and could go all out taking on new clients- which would mean more paperwork to process with Ocrolus.

Today, the company employs more than 900 team members across four offices but was founded in New York City. And like Seinfeld, Bobley loves the city, especially as a thriving hub for fintech activity.

“There’s no better place to do it than in the heart of the financial center of the US here in New York City,” Bobley said. “We’re right near where a lot of our lender customers are operating.”

On the news of recent acquisitions and reports that companies like PayPal and Intuit are ramping up their involvement in small business lending, Bobley said he sees larger entities in fintech as an opportunity for pricing transparency and better access to capital.

“I think the headline here is that financial services firms are recognizing that there’s a significant amount of businesses that used to be underserved,” Bobley said. “The bigger players are raising their eyebrows and want to get more involved, which in my opinion will be ultimately good for small business.”

And when it came time for Ocrolus to do its part for small business, Bobley said that more than 430,000 PPP applications of the 761,455 that were made using their partner network got approved, saving an estimated 1.5 million jobs.

“It’s always great when you know you can connect your work to a greater purpose for the community, so it’s really just a cool rewarding experience,” Bobley said. “It’s been fantastic, but we think we’re still in the early innings in terms of what we can do as a company- not just in small business lending but also in consumer mortgage and auto.”

Become CEO Eden Amirav Speaks Optimistically About Kabbage and OnDeck Acquisitions

August 31, 2020
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Eden Amirav, CEO and co-founder of Become, shared his optimistic insight into what the recent round of acquisitions in the fintech lending world might mean. With the purchase of Kabbage by AMEX and OnDeck by Enova, the industry is moving toward consolidation.

“For many years, we saw many different players and high competition, now we’re starting to see consolidation,” Amirav said. “When a big player like AMEX puts in close to $1 billion [allegedly] in an acquisition of the IP and tech of Kabbage- an amazing technology for underwriting- we think that it’s a very good sign of belief in the industry, it shows the huge potential that AMEX sees in it.”

Eden said from the beginning, Become was happy to be a part of the journey of Kabbage as a partner.

Become is a company that empowers small businesses to improve their fundability and choose lending options through proprietary tech that rates businesses for their loan potential. Become has been a partner with Kabbage in the past, the company says.

Last year, Become underwent a rebranding, adopting a contact-free tech-only mindset. Needless to say, that move came with some unforeseen benefits- contact-free finance is now the name of the game.

Become partnered with Kabbage for loan facilitation in PPP, and Amirav said it was a huge opportunity for alternative finance.

“At the beginning [of the pandemic] there was no supply – practically all the lenders stopped lending,” Amirav said. “We built a very quick process that allows small business to sign the PPP and get the forms ready and get access to the funds as quickly as possible.”

Amirav said that it is because of the dire need for capital and traditional institutions’ inability to respond that alternative fintech markets became so attractive. He hopes that through the purchase, Become will have the opportunity to keep working with Kabbage and feature AMEX on the platform.

“Now that PPP is over we will start seeing alternative lending come back with a more important role- and I think the fintech lending industry as a whole has proven that it has an important role in assisting small business,” Amirav said. “Banks are serving big companies and traditional clients, fintech companies are really there to serve the mom and pop shops.”

BlueVine is Back and Now With Business Checking Accounts

August 28, 2020
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bluevineBlueVine, a leading small business lender, has resumed its normal services after generating $4.5 billion in PPP loans to more than 155,000 businesses. The company had continued to offer its normal lending products even while others in the industry paused completely, the company says. Herman Man, the chief product officer, said that BlueVine has also fully launched a small business checking account platform.

“Our goal always was to be that small business banking platform,” Man said. “Last year at Money 20/20 we announced we were going to build a small business checking account. Recently, we launched it post-COVID, derailing our plans. We have a breadth of offerings now, and we are that small business platform.”

BlueVine also released a survey this week of more than 800 small business owners to learn what they need most in an ever-changing market. Their findings supported their online product offering. Distressed by COVID-19, the respondents reported an overwhelming interest in reliable customer service, day to day support, and fee-less transactions.

77% of small business owners surveyed reported demand for direct guidance in day-to-day accounting. In the face of an emergency, many respondents noted that banks were more interested in new customers than servicing current customers.

Following this emergency support trend, nearly nine out of ten or 87% of small business owners said access to emergency credit was necessary from the same bank providing them regular service. Accessing credit from the same provider was not just important, but over half or 64% reported it was exceptionally so.

Finally, 58% of business owners reported that a lack of overdraft, monthly, or maintenance fees were the essential features a business checking accounts could offer.

With the launch of a checking account platform, BlueVine can service the needs of these businesses, offering one common platform that connects factoring services, payments services, and now credit and banking services.

“If a small business wanted to take a line of credit and do it on a Friday night, using our algorithm and things that are automated, it could run through our system; if they get approved, money would be transferred into their checking account instantaneously,” Man said. “This isn’t something they have to wait until Monday morning. It will land immediately, so that’s a huge game-changer.”

Banks, Non-Banks, Fintech and More Came Through for Lendio on PPP, But it Wasn’t Easy

August 27, 2020
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Lendio LVLast week, Lendio, a facilitator of small business loans, released a report analyzing the $8 billion of PPP loans that were approved through its lending platform. A coalition of more than 300 lenders was able to give aid, saving an estimated 1.1 million jobs, Lendio indicates.

Through Lendio’s service, traditional banks approved the most funding at $3.3 billion- or about 44% of the PPP dollars on the platform. Though non-bank lenders secured the highest number of approvals at 50,264 transactions in lesser dollar amounts.

Fintech lenders funded 6% of the total loan volume through the platform.

Lendio was well situated to facilitate lending from institutions to those that needed help through funds provided by the SBA. Brock Blake, CEO, and co-founder of Lendio, said the company’s success in delivering on PPP was no accident— they had to remove all stops and almost bet on the success of the PPP program.

“Our mission at Lendio is normally ‘Fueling the American Dream’: helping the American business owner accomplish their dream,” Blake said. “We tweaked our mission during this timeframe to ‘Saving the American Dream.'”

Blake said while other companies were closing their doors and sending off employees on furlough, Lendio took on 250 new hires- and buckled down for thousands of hours of engineering work to overhaul their system. Not just loan sales, but legal processes, onboarding, training, and backend tech work had to be updated in just days.

This all came on fast, but so did the quarantine. Beginning in April, more than 100,000 business owners applied for economic relief under the PPP using Lendio’s online marketplace.

The demand for capital was outrageous.

“It was more demand in one weekend than the SBA had seen in the last 14 years combined,” Blake said. “We were helping these business owners that were watching their entire lifes’ work flushed down the drain in a matter of weeks, and they were desperate for capital.”

“OUR SYSTEMS WERE TESTED TO THEIR LIMITS”

Lendio was finding that many institutions could simply not handle the volume, Blake said, and he knew if banks were only able to process loan requests for their current customers, there would be an exploding demand for loan processing. The company took on 100 new partners who needed help during this time.

“Our systems were tested to their limits, like 1000 times more pressure than we ever saw before,” Blake said. “Some partners of ours got so much demand they couldn’t handle it and turned off their spigot. So we scrambled to find lenders that would take on new customers.”

Though it was ten times more challenging than anything Blake has done in his career, it was ten times more satisfying. Lendio doubled the number of loans it has issued since 2011, and quintupled the dollar amount the platform facilitated in just four short months. Where are they going to go from here?

For one, Lendio is one company out of many that are hoping for another round of PPP funding. Blake said he is getting customer feedback all the time asking for help, dealing with quarantine regulation that is harming business, like restaurants that have nowhere to seat patrons.

Outside of PPP, Blake said that many of the 110,000 businesses they served are now applying for other loans, or using Lendio’s bookkeeping and loan forgiveness applications. Lendio is happy to help business owners and banks through this tough time by launching digital applications.

“Before, lenders across the country were requiring business owners to come into branches [with] paper applications,” Blake said. “Now, there’s not one business owner in America that wants to walk into a bank branch. The demand for lenders to go digital is as high as it’s ever been.”

Lendio PPP Infographic

ODX Introduces New Contact-Free Banking Platform

August 26, 2020
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ODXODX, a banking originations platform, announced the launch of a new service this week—a Digital Account Opening (DAO) experience. With billions of dollars in successfully facilitated loans, the subsidiary of OnDeck made a move beyond origination; to offer banking account solutions.

Announced Tuesday, the new platform marks another addition to the ODX digital suite that enables financial institutions to reach customers digitally. DAO helps both customers and banks set up checking and savings accounts, filling the need for contactless banking in today’s market.

Brian Geary, the President of ODX, said the DAO’s release is a culmination of over a decade of customer experience merging with the company’s robust technology platform.

“We’re basically hosting the application experience, either web-enabled or mobile-enabled, as well as the workflow platform that is automating and streamlining,” Geary said. “So things like anti-fraud, compliance checks, ID verification, and in the lending case, credit decisioning, all happens on our platform.”

The new platform goes hand-in-hand with the already in place Know Your Customer (KYC) and Anti-Money Laundering (AML) programs proprietary to ODX.

This addition comes at a time when the niche of digital banking has become a necessity. Geary said in the past six months the long laid plans of financial institutions to transition their experience into digital solutions were accelerated by COVID-19. Now institutions and consumers alike are widely adopting contactless commerce.

“When branches closed or were limited in some of their face-to-face interactions, it accelerated that move to digital as well,” Geary said. “So from the customer side there was changing preferences and adoption of digital channels, and from the bank side, they are accelerating investment into digital.”

QuickBooks Capital Has Already Funded $683M in Cumulative Business Loans

August 26, 2020
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IntuitQuickBooks Capital has funded $683 million in cumulative small business loans since Intuit launched the program in late 2017. This excludes the $1.2 billion in PPP loans the company facilitated, according to the latest quarterly earnings report.

Showing optimism, Intuit recorded revenue of $1.8B in Q4 and $7.7B for the fiscal year, up 13 percent.

Among Intuit’s leading products is TurboTax, which experienced its strongest customer growth in four years. Growth was also strong with QuickBooks online payments, QuickBooks Online payroll and TSheets.

Intuit announced that it was acquiring Credit Karma for $7.1B in cash back in February.

Sketchy Virginia SBA Loan Brokers Indicted

August 26, 2020
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Ronald A. Smith and Terri Beth Miller, owners of Virginia-based Business Development Group (BDG), an SBA loan brokerage, were indicted this month over an advance-fee scheme in which many customers are alleged to have paid money to obtain SBA loans but did not in fact get them.

As part of the scheme, defendants are alleged to have made many false and misleading representations to prospective borrowers including that:

  • BDG was a large, multi-state company
  • BDG was headquartered at the Trump Building in New York City and had an additional business in Las Vegas
  • BDG has assisted certain named companies in obtaining SBA loans
  • BDG was a business established in 2005 or earlier
  • BDG was affiliated with the SBA
  • BDG had relationships with banks across the nation that allowed it to facilitate the loan approval process with SBA lenders in a customer’s area by utilizing a “Lender Linker” made up of the most preferred SBA lenders in the country
  • BDG had a program that included a “Powerful Online Grant Writer Interface Service” that was directly connected to the federal government and “handled everything from A to Z in Finding, Writing, Submitting and Securing Grants”
  • BDG offered a money back guarantee
  • BDG won the 2016 Best of Manhattan Business Award for Business Development Software and Services

BDG was really just an internet-based business whose goal was to obtain money through fraudulent pretenses and promises, prosecutors contend.

A copy of the grand jury indictment can be obtained here.

Section 1071 is Back and The CFPB Wants to Know How Much It Will Cost You to Comply

August 25, 2020
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CFPB LogoAt some point in this century, small business finance companies will be expected to comply with Section 1071 of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that was passed in 2010.

In the wake of the ’08-’09 financial crisis (remember that?!), lawmakers passed the above act that has become colloquially known as Dodd-Frank. Section 1071 gave the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau the authority and the mandate to collect data from small business lenders (and similar companies).

The costs, risks, and challenges with rolling out this law have been discussed on deBanked for 5 years, yet little progress has been made to finally implement it. But it’s starting to move along and the CFPB would now like to know how expensive it will be for businesses to comply.

If you are engaged in small business finance, you should seriously consider submitting a response to their survey. The CFPB is specifically cataloging responses from merchant cash advance companies, fintech lenders, and equipment financiers.

You can start the survey here.

Indictments Purportedly “Imminent” in Richmond Capital Group Case

August 25, 2020
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An attorney representing at least two individual defendants in the Richmond Capital Group case with the New York State Attorney General, has apparently been informed by a federal prosecutor that indictments are coming.

Richmond Capital Group was sued by the NY AG on June 10th, the same day that the Federal Trade Commission brought its own action.

Both before and since then, two individual defendants have attempted to avoid giving testimony in the AG investigation on the basis that it could be used against them in a looming criminal matter. As no criminal charges have been filed in connection with these civil actions against any such defendant so far, it has been challenging to get a judge to sympathize with the argument that the criminal matter is complicating their compliance.

But the imminence and reality of criminal charges appears to have ratcheted up, according to a recent hearing transcript that has been made public. The attorney representing two defendants in the AG case told the judge that the criminal matter is now in the hands of Louis Pellegrino, Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. According to a phone call he recalled having with AUSA Pellegrino, the AUSA stated that he will “unequivocally” bring indictments in connection with this case and that it’s “imminent.”

Also disclosed in the hearing transcript is that the New York District Attorney is said to have originally examined this case about two years ago and declined to file any charges. A federal prosecutor then picked it up instead.

It is worth noting that although the most high profile defendant in the AG and FTC cases concerning Richmond is an inmate named Jonathan Braun, Braun was not one of the defendants represented by the above referenced attorney and so as far as statements made about indictments go, nothing indicates that these in any way refer to him.

CEO Of Online Lender Arrested For PPP Fraud

August 19, 2020
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Mercedes-MaybachSheng-wen Cheng, aka Justin Cheng, the CEO of Celeri Network, was arrested on Tuesday by the FBI. Celeri offers business loans, merchant cash advances, SBA loans, and student loans.

Cheng applied for over $7 million in PPP funds, federal agents allege, on the basis that Celeri Network and other companies he owns had 200 employees. In reality he only had 14 employees, they say.

Cheng succeeded in obtaining $2.8M in PPP funds but rather than use them for their intended lawful purpose, he bought a $40,000 Rolex watch, paid $80,000 towards a S560X4 Mercedes-Maybach, rented a $17,000/month condo apartment, bought $50,000 worth of furniture, and spent $37,000 while shopping at Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Burberry, Gucci, Christian Louboutin, and Yves Saint Laurent.

He also withdrew $360,000 in cash and/or cashiers checks and transferred $881,000 to accounts in Taiwan, UK, South Korea, and Singapore.

This, of course, is all according to the FBI. Statements made to Law360 indicate that Cheng maintains his innocence.

A press release published by Celeri late last year said that the company had raised $2.5M in seed funding that valued the company at $11M.

Fintech Companies Settle “True Lender” Lawsuit With Colorado Attorney General

August 19, 2020
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court rulingAvant, Marlette Funding, and several banks consented to a settlement with the Colorado Attorney General earlier this month to close the books on litigation that has gone on for more than three years.

The lawsuits alleged that Avant and Marlette, who enjoyed bank partnerships, were themselves not covered by federal bank preemption and that they had violated the Uniform Consumer Credit Code of the state by among other things, charging excessive costs to consumers.

After a lengthy battle, Avant, Marlette, WebBank, and Cross River Bank entered into a joint settlement agreement with the Colorado Attorney General that prohibits the fintech companies from charging more than 36% APR in the State of Colorado, along with requiring that the fintech companies maintain a state lending license and engage in a long list of new and redundant measures of compliance.

The full settlement agreement can be viewed here.

Lendified Is Still Trying To Pull Through

August 18, 2020
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LendifiedOn June 29th, deBanked ran a story titled Canadian Small Business Lender Looks Doomed In Wake of COVID-19. It was about Lendified. Several of the company’s top executives had recently resigned and its financial situation was dismal.

“Lendified is in default in respect of credit facilities with its secured lenders,” the company disclosed at the time. “Forbearance and standstill agreements are being discussed with these senior lenders, with none indicating to date that any enforcement action is expected although each is in a position to do so, however, no formal agreements in this regard have been concluded as of the date hereof.”

Among the company’s last ditch plans to recapitalize was the raising of equity through a private placement. But that was made impossible by the Ontario Securities Commission who entered an order prohibiting any such transaction for “failing to file certain outstanding continuous disclosure documents in a timely manner.” The filing failures, of course, were due to the issues they were facing. This order just compounded them.

The Commission partially revoked the order on August 14th, paving the way for the private placement to continue. Lendified is only seeking up to $1.4M, the proceeds of which would be used to “pay, among other things, outstanding fees owed to the Company’s auditors and other service providers, public and filing fees, legacy accounts payable as well as for general working capital purposes.” The company further said that “Completion of the Private Placement will help the Company in its efforts to prepare and file the outstanding continuous disclosure documents with the applicable regulatory authorities.”

Lendified offers no guarantees that the private placement will be successful. The company sold off a subsidiary, JUDI.AI, in July.

Where Fintech Ranks on the Inc 5000 List for 2020

August 12, 2020
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Here’s where fintech and online lending rank on the Inc 5000 list for 2020:

Ranking Company Name Growth
30 Ocrolus 7,919%
46 Yieldstreet 6,103%
351 Direct Funding Now 1,297%
402 GROUNDFLOOR 1,141%
486 LoanPaymentPro 946%
534 LendingPoint 862%
539 OppLoans 860%
566 dv01 830%
647 Fund That Flip 724%
1031 Fundera 449%
1035 Nav 447%
1053 Fundrise 442%
1103 Bitcoin Depot 409%
1229 Smart Business Funding 365%
1282 Global Lending Services 349%
1360 CommonBond 327%
1392 Forward Financing 319%
1398 Fundation Group 318%
1502 Fountainhead Commercial Capital 293%
1736 Seek Capital 246%
1746 PIRS Capital 244%
1776 Braviant Holdings 240%
1933 Choice Merchant Solutions 218%
2001 Fundomate 212%
2257 Lighter Capital 185%
2466 Bankers Healthcare Group 167%
2501 Fund&Grow 165%
2537 Central Diligence Group 162%
2761 Lendtek 145%
3062 Shore Funding Solutions 127%
3400 Biz2Credit 110%
3575 National Funding 103%
4344 Yalber & Got Capital 76%
4509 Expansion Capital Group 70%

How An Online Lending Hedge Fund Manager Became “Unwound”

August 12, 2020
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Unwound bookIn 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.”

Brendan Ross InterviewAs 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.

Direct Lending Investments’ Reported Annual Returns

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.”

Entrance to FBI Building in Washington DCYesterday, 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.”

Checkout in the time of COVID

August 10, 2020
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point of salePoint-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.

K-Ching!

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.

Real Estate and Funding Deals With Chris Pepe

August 10, 2020
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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: