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Small Business Group Advocates For Community Anchor Loan Program (CAP) In Wake Of PPP Wind Down and Possible RefreshApril 17, 2020
At last tally, more than 800,000 small business PPP applications have gone unfunded since the program reached its limit, many of which are genuine mom-and-pop shops that employ less than 25 people.
Congress is considering another round of additional PPP funding but Americans may be worrying that such funds will once again go into the hands of some of America’s largest chains. (44.5% of the $349B PPP funds went toward loans over $1 million)
Outspoken successful businessman Mark Cuban has proposed a solution, a lottery system next time around to improve the chances that smaller businesses get their share of the pie. While the public debates the merits of such an approach, one organization (the SBFA) is calling for something much more direct, a targeted fix via a Community Anchor Loan Program (CAP) that would appropriate $10 billion for businesses that were PPP-eligible for loans under $75,000 but did not receive funds.
Deployment of this capital under CAP can and should be administered by non-bank alternative lenders with proven success with this particular small business market, they say.
The proposal also calls for 25% of the funds to specifically be allocated for minority, women, and veteran-owned and agricultural businesses.
In a letter the SBFA submitted to Congress earlier this week, the organization said:
“Women and minority-owned businesses are historically smaller and employ fewer people and, in some communities, are under-banked without the established relationships required to secure a PPP loan. Small farms and agricultural businesses are important to communities and often have trouble qualifying for traditional financing.”
The Small Business Finance Association is a non-profit advocacy organization whose mission “is to take a leadership role in ensuring that small businesses have access to the capital they need to grow and thrive.”
On May 23, the Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into unfair or deceptive practices in the small business financing industry, including by merchant cash advance providers.
The agency is looking into, among other things, whether both financial technology companies and merchant cash advance firms are making misrepresentations in their marketing and advertising to small businesses, whether they employ brokers and lead-generators who make false and misleading claims, and whether they engage in legal chicanery and misconduct in structuring contracts and debt-servicing.
Evan Zullow, senior attorney at the FTC’s consumer protection division, told deBanked that the FTC is, moreover, investigating whether fintechs and MCAs employ “problematic,” “egregious” and “abusive” tactics in collecting debts. He cited such bullying actions as “making false threats of the consequences of not paying a debt,” as well as pressuring debtors with warnings that they could face jail time, that authorities would be notified of their “criminal” behavior, contacting third-parties like employers, colleagues, or family members, and even issuing physical threats.
“Broadly,” Zullow said in a telephone interview, “our work and authority reaches the full life cycle of the financing arrangement.” He added: “We’re looking closely at the conduct (of firms) in this industry and, if there’s unlawful conduct, we’ll take law enforcement action.”
Zullow declined to identify any targets of the FTC inquiry. “I can’t comment on nonpublic investigative work,” he said.
The FTC investigation is one of several regulatory, legislative and law enforcement actions facing the merchant cash advance industry, which was triggered by a Bloomberg exposé last winter alleging sharp practices by some MCA firms.
The Bloomberg series told of high-cost financings, of MCA firms’ draining debtors’ bank accounts, and of controversial collections practices in which debtors signed contracts that included “confessions of judgment.”
The FTC long ago outlawed the use of COJs in consumer loan contracts and several states have banned their use in commercial transactions. In September, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation prohibiting the use of COJs in New York State courts for out-of-state residents. And there is a bipartisan bill pending in the U.S. Senate authored by Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown to outlaw COJs nationwide.
Mark Dabertin, a senior attorney at Pepper Hamilton, described the FTC’s investigation of small business financing as a “significant development.” But he also said that the agency’s “expansive reading of the FTC Act arguably presents the bigger news.” Writing in a legal memorandum to clients, Dabertin added: “It opens the door to introducing federal consumer protection laws into all manner of business-to-business conduct.”
FTC attorney Zullow told deBanked, “We don’t think it’s new or that we’re in uncharted waters.”
The FTC inquiry into alternative small business financing is not the only investigation into the MCA industry. Citing unnamed sources, The Washington Post reported in June that the Manhattan district attorney is pursuing a criminal investigation of “a group of cash advance executives” and that the New York State attorney general’s office is conducting a separate civil probe.
The FTC’s investigation follows hard on the heels of a May 8 forum on small business financing. Labeled “Strictly Business,” the proceedings commenced with a brief address by FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, who paid homage to the vital role that small business plays in the U.S. economy. “Hard work and the creativity of entrepreneurs and new small businesses helped us grow,” he said.
But he expressed concern that entrepreneurship and small business formation in the U.S. was in decline. According to census data analyzed by the Kaufmann Foundation and the Brookings Institution, the commissioner noted, the number of new companies as a share of U.S. businesses has declined by 44 percent from 1978 to 2012.
“It’s getting harder and harder for entrepreneurs to launch new businesses,” Chopra declared. “Since the 1980s, new business formation began its long steady decline. A decade ago births of new firms started to be eclipsed by deaths of firms.”
Chopra singled out one-sided, unjust contracts as a particularly concerning phenomenon. “One of the most powerful weapons wielded by firms over new businesses is the take-it-or-leave-it contract,” he said, adding: “Contracts are ways that we put promises on paper. When it comes to commerce, arm’s length dealing codified through contracts is a prerequisite for prosperity. “But when a market structure requires small businesses to be dependent on a small set of dominant firms — or firms that don’t engage in scrupulous business practices — these incumbents can impose contract terms that cement dominance, extract rents, and make it harder for new businesses to emerge and thrive.”
As the panel discussions unfolded, representatives of the financial technology industry (Kabbage, Square Capital and the Electronic Transactions Association) as well as executives in the merchant cash advance industry (Kapitus, Everest Business Financing, and United Capital Source) sought to emphasize the beneficial role that alternative commercial financiers were playing in fostering the growth of small businesses by filling a void left by banks.
The fintechs went first. In general, they stressed the speed and convenience of their loans and lines of credit, and the pioneering innovations in technology that allowed them to do deeper dives into companies seeking credit, and to tailor their products to the borrower’s needs. Panelists cited the “SMART Box” devised by Kabbage and OnDeck as examples of transparency. (Accompanying those companies’ loan offers, the SMART Box is modeled on the uniform terms contained in credit card offerings, which are mandated by the Truth in Lending Act. TILA does not pertain to commercial debt transactions.)
Sam Taussig, head of global policy at Kabbage, explained that his company typically provides loans to borrowers with five to seven employees — “truly Main Street American small businesses” — that are seeking out “project-based financing” or “working capital.”
“The average small business according to our research only has about 27 days of cash flow on hand,” Taussig told the fintech panel, FTC moderators and audience members. “So if you as a small business owner need to seize an opportunity to expand your revenue or (have) a one-off event — such as the freezer in your ice cream store breaks — it’s very difficult to access that capital quickly to get back to business or grow your business.”
Taussig contrasted the purpose of a commercial loan with consumer loans taken out to consolidate existing debt or purchase a consumer product that’s “a depreciating asset.” Fintechs, which typically supply lightning-quick loans to entrepreneurs to purchase equipment, meet payrolls, or build inventory, should be judged by a different standard.
A florist needs to purchase roses and carnations for Mother’s Day, an ice-cream store must replenish inventory over the summer, an Irish pub has to stock up on beer and add bartenders at St. Patrick’s Day.
The session was a snapshot of not just the fintech industry but of the state of small business. Lewis Goodwin, the head of banking services at Square Capital, noted that small businesses account for 48% of the U.S. workforce. Yet, he said, Square’s surveys show that 70% of them “are not able to get what they want” when they seek financing.
Square, he said, has made 700,000 loans for $4.5 billion in just the past few years, the platform’s average loan is between $6,000 and $7,000, and it never charges borrowers more than 15% of a business’s daily receipts. The No. 1 alternative for small businesses in need of capital is “friends and family,” Goodwin said, “and that’s a tough bank to go back to.”
Panelist Gwendy Brown, vice-president of research and policy at the Opportunity Fund, a non-profit microfinance organization, provided the fintechs with their most rocky moment when she declared that small businesses turning up at her fund were typically paying an annual percentage rate of 94 percent for fintech loans. And while most small business owners were knowledgeable about their businesses — the florists “know flowers in and out,” for example — they are often bewildered by the “landscape” of financial product offerings.
“Sophistication as a business owner,” Brown said, “does not necessarily equate into sophistication in being able to assess finance options.”
Panelist Claire Kramer Mills, vice-president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, reported that the country’s banks have made a dramatic exit from small business lending over the past ten years. A graphic would show that bank loans of more than $1 million have risen dramatically over the past decade but, she said, “When you look at the small loans, they’ve remained relatively flat and are not back to pre-crisis levels.”
Mills also said that 50% of small businesses in the Federal Reserve’s surveys “tell us that they have a funding shortfall of some sort or another. It’s more stark when you look at women-owned business, black or African-American owned businesses, and Latino-owned businesses.”
On the merchant cash advance panel there was less opportunity to dazzle the regulators and audience members with accounts of state-of-the-art technology and the ability to aggregate mountains of data to make online loans in as few as seven minutes, as Kabbage’s Taussig noted the fintech is wont to do.
Instead, industry panelists endeavored to explain to an audience — which included skeptical regulators, journalists, lawyers and critics — the precarious, high-risk nature of an MCA or factoring product, how it differs from a loan, and the upside to a merchant opting for a cash advance. (To their credit, one attendee told deBanked, the audience also included members of the MCA industry interested in compliance with federal law.)
A merchant cash advance is “a purchase of future receipts,” Kate Fisher, an attorney at Hudson Cook in Baltimore, explained. “The business promises to deliver a percentage of its revenue only to the extent as that revenue is created. If sales go down,” she explained, “then the business has a contractual right to pay less. If sales go up, the business may have to pay more.”
As for the major difference between a loan and a merchant cash advance: the borrower promises to repay the lender for the loan, Fisher noted, but for a cash advance “there’s no absolute obligation to repay.”
Scott Crockett, chief executive at Everest Business Funding, related two anecdotes, both involving cash advances to seasonal businesses. In the first instance, a summer resort in Georgia relied on Everest’s cash advances to tide it over during the off-season.
When the resort owner didn’t call back after two seasonal advances, Crockett said, Everest wanted to know the reason. The answer? The resort had been sold to Marriott Corporation. Thanking Everest, Crockett said, the former resort-owners reported that without the MCA, he would likely have sold off a share of his business to a private equity fund or an investor.
By providing a cash advance Everest acted “more like a temporary equity partner,” Crockett remarked.
In the second instance, a restaurant in the Florida Keys that relied on a cash advance from Everest to get through the slow summer season was destroyed by Hurricane Irma. “Thank God no one was hurt,” Crockett said, “but the business owner didn’t owe us anything. We had purchased future revenues that never materialized.”
The outsized risk borne by the MCA industry is not confined entirely to the firm making the advance, asserted Jared Weitz, chief executive at United Capital Service, a consultancy and broker based in Great Neck, N.Y. It also extends to the broker. Weitz reported that a big difference between the MCA industry and other funding sources, such as a bank loan backed by the Small Business Administration, is that ”you are responsible to give that commission back if that merchant does not perform or goes into an actual default up to 90 days in.
“I think that’s important,” Weitz added, “because on (both) the broker side and on the funding side, we really are taking a ride with the merchant to make sure that the business succeeds.”
FTC’s panel moderators prodded the MCA firms to describe a typical factor rate. Jesse Carlson, senior vice-president and general counsel at Kapitus, asserted that the factor rate can vary, but did not provide a rate.
“Our average financing is approximately $50,000, it’s approximately 11-12 months,” he said. “On a $50,000 funding we would be purchasing $65,000 of future revenue of that business.”
The FTC moderator asked how that financing arrangement compared with a “typical” annual percentage rate for a small business financing loan and whether businesses “understand the difference.”
Carlson replied: “There is no interest rate and there is no APR. There is no set repayment period, so there is no term.” He added: “We provide (the) total cost in a very clear disclosure on the first page of all of our contracts.”
Ami Kassar, founder and chief executive of Multifunding, a loan broker that does 70% of its work with the Small Business Administration, emerged as the panelist most critical of the MCA industry. If a small business owner takes an advance of $50,000, Kassar said, the advance is “often quoted as a factor rate of 20%. The merchant thinks about that as a 20% rate. But on a six-month payback, it’s closer to 60-65%.”
He asserted that small businesses would do better to borrow the same amount of money using an SBA loan, pay 8 1/4 percent and take 10 years to pay back. It would take more effort and the wait might be longer, but “the impact on their cash flow is dramatic” — $600 per month versus $600 a day, he said — “compared to some of these other solutions.”
Kassar warned about “enticing” offers from MCA firms on the Internet, particularly for a business owner in a bind. “If you jump on that train and take a short-term amortization, oftentimes the cash flow pressure that creates forces you into a cycle of short-term renewals. As your situation gets tougher and tougher, you get into situations of stacking and stacking.”
On a final panel on, among other matters, whether there is uniformity in the commercial funding business, panelists described a massive muddle of financial products.
Barbara Lipman: project manager in the division of community affairs with the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, said that the central bank rounded up small businesses to do some mystery shopping. The cohort — small businesses that employ fewer than 20 employees and had less than $2 million in revenues — pretended to shop for credit online.
As they sought out information about costs and terms and what the application process was like, she said, “They’re telling us that it’s very difficult to find even some basic information. Some of the lenders are very explicit about costs and fees. Others however require a visitor to go to the website to enter business and personal information before finding even the basics about the products.” That experience, Lipman said, was “problematic.”
She also said that, once they were identified as prospective borrowers on the Internet, the Fed’s shoppers were barraged with a ceaseless spate of online credit offers.
John Arensmeyer, chief executive at Small Business Majority, an advocacy organization, called for greater consistency and transparency in the marketplace. “We hear all the time, ‘Gee, why do we need to worry about this? These are business people,’” he said. “The reality is that unless a business is large enough to have a controller or head of accounting, they are no more sophisticated than the average consumer.
“Even about the question of whether a merchant cash advance is a loan or not,” Arensmeyer added. “To the average small business owner everything is a loan. These legal distinctions are meaningless. It’s pretty much the Wild West.”
In the aftermath of the forum, the question now is: What is the FTC likely to do?
Zullow, the FTC attorney, referred deBanked to several recent cases — including actions against Avant and SoFi — in which the agency sanctioned online lenders that engaged in unfair or deceptive practices, or misrepresented their products to consumers.
These included a $3.85 million settlement in April, 2019, with Avant, an online lending company. The FTC had charged that the fintech had made “unauthorized charges on consumers’ accounts” and “unlawfully required consumers to consent to automatic payments from their bank accounts,” the agency said in a statement.
In the settlement with SoFi, the FTC alleged that the online lender, “made prominent false statements about loan refinancing savings in television, print, and internet advertisements.” Under the final order, “SoFi is prohibited from misrepresenting to consumers how much money consumers will save,” according to an FTC press release.
But these are traditional actions against consumer lenders. A more relevant FTC action, says Pepper Hamilton attorney Dabertin, was the FTC’s “Operation Main Street,” a major enforcement action taken in July, 2018 when the agency joined forces with a dozen law enforcement partners to bring civil and criminal charges against 24 alleged scam artists charged with bilking U.S. small businesses for more than $290 million.
In the multi-pronged campaign, which Zullow also cited, the FTC collaborated with two U.S. attorneys’ offices, the attorneys general of eight states, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the Better Business Bureau. According to the FTC, the strike force took action against six types of fraudulent schemes, including:
- Unordered merchandise scams in which the defendants charged consumers for toner, light bulbs, cleaner and other office supplies that they never ordered;
- Imposter scams in which the defendants use deceptive tactics, such as claiming an affiliation with a government or private entity, to trick consumers into paying for corporate materials, filings, registrations, or fees;
- Scams involving unsolicited faxes or robocalls offering business loans and vacation packages.
If there remains any question about whether the FTC believes itself constrained from acting on behalf of small businesses as well as consumers, consider the closing remarks at the May forum made by Andrew Smith, director of the agency’s bureau of consumer protection.
“(O)ur organic statute, the FTC Act, allows us to address unfair and deceptive practices even with respect to businesses,” Smith declared, “And I want to make clear that we believe strongly in the importance of small businesses to the economy, the importance of loans and financing to the economy.
Smith asserted that the agency could be casting a wide net. “The FTC Act gives us broad authority to stop deceptive and unfair practices by nonbank lenders, marketers, brokers, ISOs, servicers, lead generators and collectors.”
As fintechs and MCAs, in particular, await forthcoming actions by the commission, their membership should take pains to comport themselves ethically and responsibly, counsels Hudson Cook attorney Fisher. “I don’t think businesses should be nervous,” she says, “but they should be motivated to improve compliance with the law.”
She recommends that companies make certain that they have a robust vendor-management policy in place, and that they review contracts with ISOs. Companies should also ensure that they have the ability to audit ISOs and monitor any complaints. “Take them seriously and respond,” Fisher says.
Companies would also do well to review advertising on their websites to ascertain that claims are not deceptive, and see to it that customer service and collections are “done in a way that is fair and not deceptive,” she says, adding of the FTC investigation: “This is a wake-up call.”
Google Maps was convinced that I was already at my destination, but that didn’t make sense because I was still sitting in my cramped Airbnb rental apartment in Dublin and hadn’t left to go anywhere yet. “Oh man please tell me Google works in Ireland,” I said to myself while glancing at the time and counting how many minutes I’d be late to my first meeting.
I was on my way to Linked Finance, a peer-to-peer SME lender based in Dublin. Their office was uncannily close to where I was staying on Liffey Street Lower, just steps away from the Ha’penny Bridge. So close in fact, that Google Maps believed that I was going to and from the same location. I breathed a sigh of relief at the realization and ventured the short distance to the elevator that promised to deliver me to the inner universe of Irish fintech.
Alan Fagan, the company’s head of marketing, greeted me at the door. Fagan joined the company in 2015, two years after its founding. As we walk in, I notice the prominent display of the Linked Finance logo amid an ocean of eye-popping orange. The look, the feel, suddenly I feel transported to the tech scene in San Francisco. The accents overheard in the background, however, suggest I am most definitely in Ireland.
We sit down. Tea is offered. I decline. Fagan gets right into it and he sings a familiar song, that it can take a very long time for a business to get a bank loan.
It can take up 8 weeks to get funded, he says. “SMEs are the biggest employer in the country,” he explains, while hinting that facilitating loans to this demographic is as much a patriotic endeavor as it is a business one.
The nation’s Central Statistics Office puts the number of active enterprises in the private business economy at over 250,000. As of June, Linked Finance had made more than 2,100 loans for a grand total of more than €100 million.
Fagan gives me a demonstration of the platform, where individual investors (or peers) can see the name and location of the businesses whose loans are available to fund. An investor can even sort the listings by county, of which there are 26 in the Republic. Linked Finance does the underwriting, something they can do within 1 day, Fagan says.
The underwriting is tight. “We’re not a lender of last resort,” Fagan explains. They put themselves on the same (or better) credit risk footing as banks and claim that they’re able to assess risk and provide funds in a much more efficient manner. “We feel we do it better than banks,” Fagan says.
Most loans close quickly, thanks in part to their Autobid tool. Investors can be from anywhere so long as they’re over 18 and have a European Union bank account. Annual interest rates on the loans range from 6% to 17.5%.
Fagan says that although they are an online lender, many borrowers in Ireland still appreciate personal relationships. They can accommodate applicants that prefer a personal walk-through by a real person and that it can actually leave a memorable impression on their customers.
Marketing is done via a variety of direct methods but also through channel partners like accountants and financial advisors. A big name asset manager, Paris-based Eiffel Investment Group, with €1.5B under management, is among the loan investors on the Linked Finance platform.
I keep waiting for the caveat, an obstacle or twist in the model so inherently Irish, that somebody like me from half a world away would never truly grasp. But there isn’t one. The market is overtly familiar, yet more reminiscent of the UK than the States. Ireland lacks the robust regulatory framework of both countries, however. Despite that, the government does not appear to be holding the industry back. In June, Paschal Donohoe, the Minister for Finance, the government official responsible for all financial and monetary matters of the state, said “availability of credit is a key consideration for all businesses, and I am aware of the role peer to peer lending is playing in broadening competition in the SME finance market.”
Indeed, such competition has made credit more available in markets abroad.
As our time together winds down, I mindlessly attempt to plot my trip back. “Siri, take me home,” I speak into my phone. The Maps app opens and then loads to reveal a double entendre. It seems I am already very much there.
Envision a giant office filled with rows of commercial finance brokers on the phone, aggressively selling deals to faceless small town merchants. Then step into the office of Horizon Financial Group and meet brothers and business partners James and John Celifarco. The contrast could not be more striking.
The most dramatic difference between their office and that of almost every other broker, or ISO, is that you enter the office from the sidewalk. There’s no lobby and no elevator. It’s just the two brothers (plus one salesperson and one assistant) working on the other side of a glass storefront window.
The store isn’t on Madison Avenue or Rodeo Drive. It’s on a modest, roughly three-block commercial strip on Avenue S in a working class section of Brooklyn called Marine Park. There’s a deli, a pizzeria, a barbershop, a pet grooming store and a bunch of other stores that you’re likely to find on Main Street, U.S.A. In other words, Horizon Financial Group’s neighbors are the exact kind of small business owners they seek as customers. And since they opened up shop on this quaint stretch at the end of October, many of their store owner neighbors have already become customers.
“It’s a different relationship with the customer,” James said of their neighborhood clients. “You’re not on the phone. You’re face to face with these people. You’re meeting them, you’re shaking their hands, you’re getting to know them personally, which helps with the longevity of the relationship itself.”
Sitting at the glass conference table by their storefront window, James, 34, and John, 37, counted up to six clients by simply pointing out the window at other small stores across the street. Horizon Financial Group is an ISO that brokers working capital deals and does credit card processing, equipment leasing, ATM machines and commercial mortgages. (James has his New York real estate license, so he can also help local store owners buy or sell a house.) The brothers said that about 40 percent of their business is facilitating deals brought to them by other ISOs, another 40 percent comes from merchants that they find directly, and about 20 percent comes from these local customers they’ve developed from having a physical presence in the neighborhood.
“Obviously you can’t build an entire business on just these two streets,” John said, “but it’s extra business that we wouldn’t have had if we weren’t here. And when we came here, we stopped thinking ‘Who are we going to buy leads from?’ and started thinking more outside of the box.”
An example of this was their decision to approach the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce where they are now one of the chamber’s preferred vendors, which brings them business from the entire borough.
James said they’ve made contributions to the local little league and kids football, and whenever a new store opens in the area, they introduce themselves and explain what they do. It also doesn’t hurt that they grew up in Marine Park, so they already know the town pretty well. James recognized someone on the sidewalk and ran outside to say hi. It was someone who used to be a next door neighbor. There is a truly old-fashion sense of community on Avenue S.
“I buy my pizza from [the pizza store owner] and he does his credit card processing with us,” James said. “When the dry cleaner needed equipment, we got them capital, and I actually got to see the piece of equipment I helped finance. That almost never happens.”
Because there is no building guard or front desk person, customers can stop by whenever they like. As if in a sitcom, a man walked into the store saying to the brothers, “Don’t be mad at me.” It was a customer, the owner of a local paint store. “It’s not completely my fault, but I broke the phone swiper on the job.”
Reassuringly, John told him to come to his desk and he helped the customer with a replacement for a piece of credit card processing equipment.
The brothers have each been working in the small business financing industry independently for more than a decade. James established Horizon Financial Group by himself in 2009 while John was working for a different company in the credit card processing and MCA space. John joined James at Horizon Financial Group in September 2017.
John said he prefers co-leading Horizon Financial Group, itself a small business, to running a larger operation in Manhattan.
“Compared to somebody in the city with a huge rent and a huge payroll, I don’t need to do the same numbers he’s doing to end up making the same amount of money.”
John also noted that he doesn’t have to sit on a train for an hour and a half because he lives just six blocks away from the storefront office.
“A lot of people don’t like to say they’re a small company,” John said. “I couldn’t be happier that we’re a small company.”
Running a small business is familiar to the Celifarcos. Horizon Financial Group gets its name from Horizons Dance Center, a successful Brooklyn dance school founded by James and John’s mother. It has been in business for 46 years and is still going strong.
“The name is good luck,” James said.
James lives a short drive away in Rockaway with his wife and daughter. On running a small business like Horizon Financial Group, James said: “It’s also about quality of life. You don’t need to work 7 to 7. I can be on the beach with my daughter. It’s really a different approach.”
NYC-based small business lender Bond Street has stopped making new loans, according to sources who worked with them. The Wall Street Journal published a similar report earlier today. In addition, the WSJ reported that Goldman Sachs is hiring 20 of Bond Street’s employees.
Just seven months ago, Bond Street announced that they had closed a $300 million loan purchase agreement with Jefferies. The WSJ reported that an inability to raise additional equity is what threw a wrench in their future. The same situation happened to Bizfi just a few short months ago, who wound down after 10 years and shipped their portfolio off to rival Credibly to service.
Bond Street’s 1-3 year loans with APRs ranging from 8% – 25% were terms that many in the alternative business lending universe say is a fundamentally unprofitable model. The company now appears to be joining the ever growing purgatory of alternative small business finance companies. They join Dealstruck, Herio Capital, Bizfi, and Nulook Capital. CAN Capital was previously on that list but was recently restructured and revived.
Able Lending, another small business lender, denied that they were going out of business but admitted they were looking to be acquired.
Square is also reportedly in talks to hire Bond Street employees, the WSJ claims. When Bizfi closed, their employees were mainly picked up by rivals World Business Lenders, Strategic Funding, iPayment, 6th Avenue Capital, and others.
We’re at Able Lending in Austin, Texas, a financial technology company occupying three floors deep in the heart of the Seaholm power plant overlooking Lady Bird Lake. The fortress-like building anchors an inner-city complex of offices and residences, chic restaurants, boutique shops, and a Trader Joe’s.
Once the main source of electricity for Texas’s capital city, the natural gas-fired boilers have given way to a warren of glassed-in offices and meeting rooms connected by angular metallic stairways and a carpeted mezzanine.
It is here, in a tiny conference room, that Will Davis, a slim man of 35 and an alumnus of Harvard Business School, is drawing a bell curve on a whiteboard. Dressed for the balmy Texas weather in tan Bermuda shorts, a black tee-shirt and Nike running shoes, the company’s chief executive and co-founder is explaining how Able’s friends-and-family lending formula “widens” the risk curve.
“We all compete here in this box on price,” Davis says, drawing a square at the topmost point of the bell curve, indicating where the near-prime borrowers abide and where lenders are crowded in pursuit. But when loans from friends and family form 10%-15% of the total loan, he says, drawing squiggly lines just to the left of the box, a cohort with less-than-stellar credits now becomes credit-worthy.
Because of the “peer pressure” and “behavioral change” exerted by the involvement of family and friends, the formula produces a “positive-selection effect on the loan portfolio” Davis says, declaring: “We can serve more of the market.”
It all sounds very business-schoolish. But here’s the bottom line: Able’s lending model sharply reduces both risk and borrowing costs, allowing it to go head-to-head with national rivals like Funding Circle, Bond Street, OnDeck and StreetShares. Thanks in large part to its reduced risk, asserts Able’s director of development, 30-year-old Matt Irving, the Austin fintech can lend twice as much money as its competitors at half the interest rate.
Since opening its doors and firing up its computers in the fourth quarter of 2014, Able’s average loan size has climbed to $231,200 from $100,000. Of that, an average of 3.2 “backers” have accounted for $40,691, or 17.6% of the average total loan amount. The average “blended” annual percentage rate is 16.41%.
Meanwhile, Able, which has made some $48 million in loans to entrepreneurs through the end of April, 2017, reports CEO Davis, is itself on sound financial footing. According to the data-services firm Crunchbase, Able has raised $12.5 million in three rounds of venture capital financing from 21 investors. Principal equity financiers are Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Peterson Ventures, RPM Ventures, and Blumberg Capital. On Sept. 27, 2016, moreover, Able added another $100 million to its arsenal in debt financing from Community Investment Management, a San Francisco investment firm. Borrowers include owners of food trucks and apparel shops; professionals including doctors, dentists, veterinarians, and accountants; “creatives” like public relations and advertising firms; and construction companies. Since its inception, Davis says, just one borrower has defaulted, resulting in an $85,000 charge-off.
So far in 2017, the company has lent out nearly $15 million in the first quarter, but it’s on track to make $80 million this year. “We’re ramping up,” Davis declares.
Welcome to fintech in the Lone Star State. While everything may be bigger in Texas, as the saying goes, that’s not quite true of financial technology. The geographic contours of fintech operations are roughly 60% in California (especially Silicon Valley/San Francisco), 30% New York, and 10% scattered about the rest of the country, says 40-year-old Mihir Korke, the San Francisco-based chief marketing officer at Able.
Nonetheless, Texas offers fertile ground for the burgeoning fintech industry. The vaunted Texas business climate promises a relaxed regulatory regime, the absence of either a personal or corporate income tax, and a lower cost of living. All of which were cited by Able Lending, as well as an additional pair of fintech companies that specialize in factoring and merchant cash advances: Jet Capital, located in North Richland Hills in the Dallas-Fort Worth “metroplex”; and Ironwood Finance in Corpus Christi, a port city on the Gulf of Mexico.
“What’s interesting about fintech companies is that they can choose to locate where they want to do business,” says Erin Fonte, an attorney at Dykema Cox Smith in Austin whose legal practice includes mobile payments, mobile wallets and financial technology. “They don’t necessarily get a regulatory advantage because much of what they do is based on their customers’ location,” says Fonte, who is currently serving as a member of the Federal Reserve’s Faster Payments Taskforce. “That said,” she adds, “some companies have chosen to locate in Texas because of the labor and talent pool, because it’s a good source of venture capital, and it’s more affordable.”
Jet Capital’s 42-year-old chief executive, Kenneth Wardle, confirms many of Fonte’s observations. “So far, Texas has been friendly to MCA companies,” he says, using the initials for “merchant cash advance.” Especially favorable to his industry is the fact that “Texas regulators do not define an MCA as a loan,” he adds.
Prior to co-founding Jet Capital with chief operating officer Allan Thompson, 49, Wardle served as a portfolio manager at Exeter Finance Corp, a $3 billion company in nearby Irving which specializes in subprime auto financing. Wardle has also held leadership positions at AmeriCredit Corp., now GM Financial, and Drive Financial, now Santander Consumer USA.
His 20-year background has included the gritty work of repossessing cars when owners fell into arrears on their auto loans. “Most of my career in auto finance was in risk management and I’ve driven a repo truck,” he says. “You take off with the car right away and then chain it down after you’ve gone a couple of blocks so you don’t lose it out on the highway.”
Backed by more than $5 million in equity financing from a family office in Puerto Rico, Jet Capital makes cash advances of $25,000-$30,000, on average, for working capital.
The sweet spot for Jet’s financings are retail establishments, trucking companies, hair-and-nail spas, and medical doctors. Doctors in particular are prime candidates for a Jet cash advance. “They have a pretty good gap between when they perform services and when they get paid by insurance companies” during which they have to cover payroll expenses and overhead, Wardle notes. Prospecting for customers is done largely through independent sales offices, direct mail, and pay-per-click services offered by Google, among additional online channels.
“Our defaults are relatively in line with expectations” and were largely confined to the first year of business, Wardle says. “We made some underwriting and verification changes last September and October,” he adds, “and we changed our minimum credit scores. Since then we’ve seen defaults migrate in the right direction.”
Since Wardle and Thompson took occupancy of an empty office outside Fort Worth in October, 2015, Jet has grown to 12 employees who today have “a variety of roles” says Thompson, citing sales, underwriting, customer service, collections, analytics, and information technology. “They wear a lot of hats and there’s a lot of cross pollination,” he says.
Looking ahead, Wardle foresees Jet expanding its product line beyond merchant cash advances to offer lines of credit and installment loans. “Our goal is to be a one-stop, nonbank financing solution,” Wardle says.
Kevin Donahue, 37, owner of Ironwood bootstrapped the South Texas company, which opened in 2013 using personal savings of $1.5 million remaining from the sale of mobile home parks in South Dakota and Texas. He also plowed earnings into Ironwood from a subsequent job as a commercial loan broker.
Donahue, who grew up in a family of fishermen on the Oregon and California coasts and is a 2006 graduate of California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, says that he turn up in Corpus Christi somewhat by accident. While operating the mobile home park in nearby Kingsville, he got married, started a family, and put down roots.
With 20 employees, Ironwood focuses on providing merchants cash advances in the $5,000 – $50,000 range, Donahue says, “but we can go up to $1 million.” The average cash advance – usually $10,000-$15,000 – is put to use as working capital by what he dubs “Main Street” businesses: restaurants, boutiques, trucking and transportation companies, professionals, and contractors. Ironwood charges clients factoring fees that are collected via ACH.
“Many times (these businesses) don’t qualify for bank loans,” Donahue says. And even when they do qualify, he notes, “banks take forever – up to three months – while we’re using our own money and can do it in three days. We’re very low on requiring a lot of documents.”
For his part, Donahue wants to see a customer’s bank statements, a photo I.D., voided checks, and a financial report. But, he says: “Cash flow is much more important than financials.”
Clients typically find their way to Ironwood through the website, although they often arrive through referrals from brokers and real estate agents, attorneys, accountants and “anyone doing commercial lending,” he says. Donahue says he closed down a call center. “The way to get leads is more through relationships than marketing,” he says.
Trucking companies are important customers. “They work on thinner margins, the barriers to entry are lower, sometimes their customers don’t pay their bills,” Donahue says of the industry’s economics. “They have huge expenses for fuel, payroll, insurance – and they might not get paid (by their customers) for 30 days or more.”
Ironwood’s advance for a million dollars, cited earlier, was made to a trucking company in Midland, Texas, which hauled both general freight and oilfield equipment. The money was put to use both to smooth out cash flow and as growth capital. The trucking concern “used part of that for expansion, making down-payments with Volvo or Peterbilt,” Donahue recalls.
Backstopped by the titles for 18 trucks valued at roughly $1.5 million, the deal was structured as a three-year, sale-leaseback agreement with “no interest” but rather a fee, Donahue says. Payments were $32,000 monthly, he says, amounting to $152,000 above the advance.
Donahue has no trouble justifying the steep fee schedules. Not only does he release money quickly but in many instances Ironwood has stepped in to bail out businesses that could have gone belly-up. He cites a trucker in the Midwest who had a “very lucrative” business hauling Boeing jet engines worth $30 million to Seattle where they could be worked on and returned to the planes for installment. In order to fulfill the contracts – which earned the hauler $25,000 monthly — the trucking company’s owner needed to purchase pricey insurance.
The owner, however, “had horrible credit,” Donahue says, largely the result of cash flow problems after investing in a special trailer for the jet engines, compounded by a messy divorce. To secure the $10,000 for the special insurance, the trucker sold Ironwood $14,000 of their future receivables. “For his investment of $4,000 he’s making $25,000-a-month forever,” Donahue explains.
Back in Austin, Able is gearing up for another round of capital-raising to bulk up staff and, according to Korke, win licensing to do business in California. At the same time, its friends-and-family credit structure is winning kudos for reaching what researcher David O’Connell calls “the unloaned.”
A senior analyst at Aite Group, a Boston-based consulting firm, O’Connell recently completed a study disclosing that 35% of small and medium-sized businesses in the U.S were unable to obtain credit over a recent two-year period. Able’s lending model is “a good example of using covenants to structure a deal that brings down borrowing risk,” the Bostonian says. “It’s terrific.”
Able’s staff doesn’t have to travel far to witness the fruits of their efforts. On Congress Avenue, in the heart of downtown Austin, is Jae Kim’s food truck offering Korean barbecue thanks to a $100,000-plus loan from the fintech lender. Kim, the founder and chief executive at food vendor Chi’lantro, enlisted his mother to pitch in $10,000. All told, family and friends ponied up 30% of the total loan.
In the three years since he hooked up with Able, Kim has gone on to bigger things, including a television appearance last November on Shark Tank that netted him $600,000 from celebrity investor Barbara Corcoran.
Chi’lantro is now operating five restaurants and four food trucks and as Kim disclosed on Shark Tank, annual sales topped $4.7 million last year.
In an interview, he told deBanked that he counts himself fortunate to have gotten the Able “micro-loan.” It played a key role in generating the cash flow that qualified his company for a $200,000 bank loan backed by the Small Business Administration. “It was one of many opportunities, and now we have good relationships with banks,” he says.
And then, a little farther south, there’s Stephanie Beard’s “esby apparel,” a women’s clothing boutique named for her initials. Beard, 35, came to Austin in 2013 after a decade in New York designing men’s clothing at Tommy Hilfiger and Converse. Originally from North Carolina and a graduate of Appalachian State University, she had zero connections in Texas and only a little money.
But she had a big vision: She would open a store and design and sell top-quality, flattering clothes for women that had “a menswear mentality.” Men, she had discovered, buy fewer clothes than women. But men tend to buy clothes that are durable, clothes that they can wear again-and-again over many years. After she sold $65,000 worth of her casual clothing line on the website Kickstarter, Beard developed a fan base and was put in touch with Able. “Actually, they contacted me,” she says.
To qualify as an Able borrower, Beard assembled $20,000 from friends and family, she reports, including $2,500 from her future mother-in-law, another $2,500 from the proprietor of a dress shop that “wholesaled” her collection, and the rest from aficionados of her wares. Once that money was gathered, Able lent her $100,000 at a 10% APR in October, 2014, which enabled her to open her shop. The combined interest rate was 9.8%. Monthly payments have automatically been withdrawn from her business’s checking account.
She’s scheduled to repay both Able and her backers in full by this October. Total sales for the shop have cleared $1 million and Beard expects annual revenues for 2017 to hit $900,000. “A lawyer friend who helped me out with the paperwork pro bono told me that Able was practically giving money away,” she says. “I definitely was lucky.”
NEW YORK, Early Release — The Innovative Lending Platform Association (ILPA) and the Coalition for Responsible Business Finance (CRBF) today announced they are joining forces and will now operate as the ILPA – the leading trade organization representing a diverse group of online lending and service companies serving small businesses. Joining ILPA’s existing members, OnDeck® (NYSE: ONDK), Kabbage® and CAN Capital, are CRBF member companies Breakout Capital, Enova International’s (NYSE: ENVA) The Business Backer™, PayNet and Orion First Financial. United by a shared commitment to the health and success of small businesses in America, the newly expanded ILPA is dedicated to advancing best practices and standards that support responsible innovation and access to capital for small businesses.
In addition, leading national small business organizations that formerly served as the CRBF Advisory Board will now represent small business customers as formal advisors to the ILPA. The Advisory Board includes individuals from the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the National Small Business Association (NSBA), the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council (SBE Council), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and new representatives from the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO). These small business organizations have provided key input into the collective group’s best practices and standards initiatives over the past year, ensuring that the needs of their small business constituents are addressed.
The expanded ILPA remains committed to advancing online small business lending education, advocacy and best practices. In October, the ILPA introduced the SMART Box™ (Straightforward Metrics Around Rate and Total cost), a first-of-its-kind model pricing disclosure and comparison tool launched in partnership with the AEO. The SMART Box is focused on empowering small businesses to better assess and compare finance options and is now available for broader adoption by lending platforms. More details can be found at: http://innovativelending.org/smart-box/
As a leading voice for responsible business funding, CRBF launched in January 2016 with the mission to create a concrete code of ethics for the industry and to educate policymakers on the value of non-bank small business financing. The organization outlined responsible and transparent business practices for both providers as well as customers, and the expanded ILPA has leveraged that work to formulate an updated industry Code of Ethics that will guide the ILPA moving forward.
The expansion of the ILPA follows a period of broad stakeholder engagement and a demonstrated shared commitment to serving small businesses. With this unification, the cross-industry effort to bring innovative and responsible solutions to improve access to capital for Main Street small businesses continues to gain momentum.
“Fostering responsible innovation and empowering small businesses to better assess and compare finance options are priorities for the ILPA. We are delighted to join forces with the CRBF as we work together to advance small business online lending education, advocacy and best practices,” said Noah Breslow, Chief Executive Officer, OnDeck. “We are proud to be part of this growing cross-sector effort to help improve capital access on behalf of small businesses across the United States.”
“The combination of these leading organizations represents a landmark moment in the industry, signifying how major players in the small business lending space are increasingly aligned on values and best practices that benefit small businesses,” said Carl Fairbank, founder and chief executive officer, Breakout Capital. “Founded on the fundamental principles of responsible lending, education and transparency, Breakout Capital is thrilled to partner with other premier players in the industry who share our vision and believe that a unified industry voice can promote small business success more effectively. “As a founding member company of CRBF, The Business Backer is thrilled with the merger between the CRBF and the ILPA,” said Jim Salters, president of The Business Backer and CRBF Advisory Board member. “The move creates an even larger platform of industry leaders with a common voice to help ensure small businesses have access to honest and transparent funding sources.”
“The ILPA was launched as a self-regulatory exercise and is focused on empowering small businesses with clear and transparent ways to compare financing options,” said Rob Frohwein, co-founder and chief executive officer of Kabbage. “Kabbage and the ILPA are excited to join with the CRBF in order to advance ubiquitous industry standards. Together, we are eager to continue working with regulators and policymakers to expand small businesses’ ability to easily access technology-driven financing products.”
“Access to capital is a high priority for America’s small businesses. As our economy grows, small business owners need diverse sources of capital to hire new employees and expand their businesses. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauds the innovative capital providers in the ILPA for their dedication to fueling growth on Main Street,” said Tom Sullivan, vice president, small business, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“CAN Capital has been a supporter of transparency throughout our 19 year history, and we are excited to see the ILPA expand as it continues to support small business owners,” said Parris Sanz, chief executive officer of CAN Capital.
“Small business lending continues to be stubbornly elusive for many small firms and what we need is not just more lending, but better lending options,” said Todd McCracken, National Small Business Association president and chief executive officer. “This merger will expand on efforts to connect small business with a variety of fair and responsible lending resources.”
“We are excited to be part of an organization whose purpose is to create a vibrant, healthy, small business lending marketplace that serves the engine of the U.S. economy – small businesses,” said David Schaefer, chief executive officer of Orion First Financial. “As a loan servicer to small business lenders, we are particularly enthusiastic that the ILPA is embracing a diverse membership and participation from small business associations through its Advisory Board.”
“SBE Council looks forward to partnering with the expanded ILPA to continue advocating for the innovative and responsible sources of funding to which entrepreneurs and small businesses need access,” said Karen Kerrigan, president and chief executive officer of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.
“It is critical that these and other responsible lenders come together to advance initiatives like SMART Box,” said Connie Evans, president/chief executive officer of the Association for Enterprise Opportunity. “The time is ripe for united voices and action to give more people the opportunity and the tools to realize a brighter future for their businesses.”
Together, the members of the expanded ILPA have provided access to more than $14 billion dollars in capital to small businesses to help drive growth and hiring.
The alternative small-business finance community plans to lobby hard against a far-reaching proposed expansion of the New York state lending license. The proposal calls for any person or company that solicits, arranges or facilitates business and consumer loans – or other types of financing – to obtain a license. That could include MCA companies, business loan brokers and ISOs.
Critics claim the expansion, which Governor Andrew M. Cuomo included in his proposed state budget, could trigger a series of ominous and possibly unintended events in the courts and on Wall Street. “It could destroy the industry if the worst comes to fruition,” declared Robert Cook, a partner at Hudson Cook LLP.
Some opponents also contend that the public hasn’t had a reasonable opportunity to respond. “Sneaking a provision with significant impact like this into the budget and not going through regular order is really disturbing,” said Dan Gans, a Washington lobbyist who also serves as executive director of the the Commercial Finance Coalition. “They should allow all the stakeholders to have their voices heard.”
The industry’s trade groups have been quick to react. The Small Business Finance Association has been in contact with New York state legislators to help them understand the ramifications of the proposal, according to Stephen Denis, the trade group’s executive director. Meanwhile, Gans is recommending that the CFC’s board hire an Albany lobbying firm to help advance the industry’s interests.
New York’s current consumer licensing law is written broadly enough to cover any loan to an individual for less than $25,000, even if it’s made for commercial purposes, said Cook. That means the current law could cover loans to sole proprietorships but would not affect loans to corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships or limited liability partnerships, he noted.
Under the proposal in Governor Cuomo’s budget, any type of commercial loan of up to $50,000 would require a license, Cook said. Today, the state requires a license only if a loan carries a simple interest rate of more than 16 percent. Under the budget proposal, all lending would require a license, even if the interest rate is less than 16 percent. Loans made by alternative funders typically carry interest rates of 36 percent to 100 percent, he said.
New York already has a criminal usury rate of 25 percent, but lenders have two methods of avoiding that cap, according to Cook. Under one method, the parties to the loan can use a provision called the “choice of law clause” and thus agree that the contract is subject to the laws of a state that does not limit commercial usury rates, he said. Or, using the second method, the small-business finance company can solicit the loan and refer it to a bank in a state without a cap. The bank makes the loan but then sells the loan back to the small-business finance company or an affiliate, he noted.
But adopting the changes proposed in the New York budget could possibly stymie both methods of circumventing the state’s usury laws. Consider the choice of law clause, Cook suggested. The courts could interpret the proposed expansion as an effort by the state to gain more control of commercial lending. That could prompt the courts to refuse to enforce choice of law clauses involving New York state because doing so would violate a significant policy in New York, he maintained. The proposal could also gut the second way around the usury law – the bank model – by requiring employees of out-of-state banks to have a license in order to originate loans or by prohibiting rates in excess of New York’s cap, he said. Both outcomes are speculative but constitute distinct possibilities, he added.
Expanding the license would also grant additional regulatory authority to the New York State Department of Financial Services, Cook maintained. Besides requiring the license, the DFS would have the ability to regulate, supervise and examine commercial lenders, he said. In the past the department has imposed some significant regulations on licensees, including fair lending requirements and cyber security requirements, he said. “They’re a very active regulator,” he contended. “They could require commercial lenders to jump through a lot of hoops that aren’t there today.”
What’s more, time would pass while a company negotiates the initial hoops simply to obtain a license. Qualifying for the current New York license, for example, can take up to nine months, Cook said. “It’s a fairly intensive licensing process that requires a lot of information about the company, the officers and directors of the company,” he noted. “The licensing process is tough in New York.”
The expansion could also limit the industry’s access to capital, Cook warned. Some alternative funders raise money by selling loans or interests in loans on the secondary market. Requiring a license to buy those products could prompt Wall Street to look elsewhere for less-burdensome investment opportunities, he said.
The laundry list of potential bad effects has many in the industry wondering about the state’s intentions toward the industry. “It’s not clear whether the people up in Albany understand the potential effect this has,” Cook said.
To help bring about that understanding, the CFC intends to call upon its members and merchants who have benefitted from alternative finance to visit officials in the state capital, Gans said.
Gans finds reason for optimism as the associations coalesce around the issue. The state Senate in Albany tends to be pro-business, and I am confident we will find allies that will stand up to this, he said.
Denis also seems upbeat about the industry’s efforts to make itself heard in Albany. In Illinois, some legislators failed to differentiate between consumer loans and commercial loans when considering legislation last year, he noted. That might be the case in New York, too, and the SBFA might help them make the distinction, he said. As an example of the differences, he pointed out that business loans often carry high interest rates because of high risk. “We have talked to some folks in Albany, and everyone is receptive to the industry,” he said. Small business is a powerful constituency, he maintains.
Gans, Denis and Cook all said they’re not opposed to legislation or regulation that addresses problems caused by bad actors in the industry, but all three oppose government action that they believe unnecessarily limits members of the industry who are operating in good faith.
The proposed license in New York differs in at least one significant way from the California lending license that many alternative funders have obtained, Cook noted. The California license doesn’t impose a cap on interest rates, he said. If the New York proposal imposed licensing requirements but did not limit interest rates, the industry probably would reluctantly accept it, he suggested.
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