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06/22/2021Fountainhead funded $4B+ in PPP
11/23/2020Fountainhead in top 100 SBA lenders
09/09/2020Interview with Fountainhead CEO Chris Hurn
02/13/2019Fountainhead to offer 7a loans


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Interview with Chris Hurn of Fountainhead


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Orlando SBA Lender Fountainhead Funds $4 Billion+ in PPP

June 23, 2021
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SBA LoanFountainhead, an Orlando-based SBA lender, funded over $4.72 billion in PPP loans to SMBs in the past 15 months. According to the SBA, the 30 member team facilitated the 12th most PPP loans in the country.

So far in 2021 alone, Fountainhead funded $3.95 billion, after a total of $760 million in 2020, preserving 430,000 American jobs, they estimated.

“We did not shy away from the latest round of PPP. Before it was introduced, we were implementing new procedures and building on what we learned from the first and second rounds in order to create a more streamlined and effective system for our customers,” said CEO and Founder Chris Hurn. “It’s no secret that the past few months have been anything but easy. While our team endured long days and nights with little time to rest, we’re extremely proud to have helped so many small businesses. Our team performed admirably. I’m so very proud of them.”

Fountainhead’s current objective is to process PPP loan forgiveness applications while also refocusing on its core business of SBA 7(a) and SBA 504 loans.

Fountainhead CEO Chris Hurn Speaks With deBanked About His Experience With 2020

September 9, 2020
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Chris Hurn, the CEO of Fountainhead, a national non-bank direct commercial lender based in Lake Mary-FL, recently told deBanked in an interview what his company has experienced in 2020. The company was recently ranked 1,502 on the Inc. 5000 list.

Watch the interview below:

Lender is Providing $5K Incentive to Veteran-Owned Businesses

November 10, 2021
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fountainheadIn an effort to promote veteran entrepreneurship, Fountainhead, the nation’s leading SBA 7(a) and 504 non-bank lender, is providing funds to veterans to assist them with closing costs of the deal should they pursue funding through the company.

Fountainhead’s CEO Chris Hurn spoke exclusively to deBanked Wednesday about what Veterans Day means to him, his business, and how giving this group a break on the cost of capital is not just a marketing ploy, but a genuine attempt to give back to an underserved and under-recognized community.

“We have always been very supportive of veterans getting into entrepreneurship,” said Hurn. “[The promotion] is basically us gifting $5,000 on a transaction if they close with us.”

“Oftentimes, that’ll be enough to cover a real estate appraisal, enough to cover the environmental reports, it may be able to cover some of the credit reports, different things like that. We do put a cap on it, we are still a for-profit enterprise, but we are covering up to $5,000 of the closing costs.”

As a lender with more than two decades of experience, Hurn believes that veterans are some of the most trustworthy and reliable business owners to do business with. “Some lenders feel like veterans don’t have business experience, I disagree with that,” he said. “I think the military teaches people to be very organized, very disciplined, which are two critical pieces for entrepreneurship.”

From the lender’s perspective, Hurn believes that it is not only good business practices that military experience can provide, but honesty and creditworthiness when it comes to paying back a loan.

“Veteran business owners tend to be extremely organized, extremely disciplined in terms of operating the business. I’m not saying [non-veteran] business owners don’t have aspects of that, but I think the military does a tremendous job on teaching those character traits, which as a lender I find very helpful to make sure I’m getting repaid.”

According to Hurn, about a fifth of his clients are veterans, and he is hoping to increase that number with this promotion.

“[Veterans] are a very good credit risk, we want to encourage them to get into entrepreneurship, and I think it’s the right thing for the business community to do all they can to help veterans.”

Small Business Finance on the 2021 Inc 5000 List

August 17, 2021
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Here’s where alternative small business finance ranks on the Inc 5000 list for 2021:

Ranking Company Name Growth
44 Crestmont Capital 7,404%
1044 Capital Dude 463%
1221 Fountainhead 394%
2298 Bankers Healthcare Group 186%
2427 Fund&Grow 173%
2628 Channel Partners Capital 155%
2803 PIRS Capital 142%
2893 Central Diligence Group 135%
3005 ApplePie Capital 127%
3027 Nav 126%
3365 Onset Financial 105%
3394 OTR Capital 104%
3547 Forward Financing 96%



Did we forget you? Let us know at info@debanked.com

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%

IN DEFAULT OR ABOVE WATER: How PPP Saved or Didn’t Save America

July 31, 2020
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This story will appear in deBanked’s Jul/Aug 2020 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE

rearviewKristy Kowal, a silver medalist in the 200-meter breast stroke at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia, had recently relocated to Southern California and embarked on a new career when the pandemic shutdown hit in March.

After nearly two decades as a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, Kowal was able to take early retirement in 2019 and pursue her dream job. At last, she was self-employed and living in Long Beach where she could now devote herself to putting on swim clinics, training top athletes, and accepting speaking engagements. “I’ve been building up to this for twenty years,” she says.

But fate had a different idea. The coronavirus not only grounded her from travel but closed down most swimming pools. At first, she tried to collect unemployment compensation. But after two months of calling the unemployment office every day, her claim was denied. “‘Have a great day,’ the lady said, and then she hung up,” Kowal reports. “She wasn’t rude; she just hung up.”

“I WAS DOWN TO 10 CENTS IN MY CHECKING ACCOUNT”

Then, in June, the former Olympian heard from friends about Kabbage and the Paycheck Protection Program. Using an app on her smart phone, Kowal says, she was able to upload documents and complete the initial application in fewer than 20 minutes. A subsequent application with a bank followed and within a week she had her money.

“I was down to ten cents in my checking account,” says Kowal, who declined to disclose the amount of PPP money for which she qualified, “and I’d begun dipping into my savings. This gives me the confidence that I need to go back to my fulltime work.”

kristy kowalKowal is one of 4.9 million small business owners and sole proprietors who, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, has received potentially forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP, a safety-net program designed to pay the wages of employees for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, is a key component of the $1.76 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Since the U.S. Congress enacted the law on March 27, the PPP has been renewed and amended twice. It’s now in its third round of funding and Congress is weighing what to do next.

Kowal’s experience, meanwhile, is also a wake-up call for the country on the prominent role that both fintechs like Kabbage as well as community and independent banks, credit unions, non-banks and other alternatives to the country’s biggest banks play in supporting small business. Before many in this cohort were deputized by the SBA as full-fledged PPA lenders, a significant chunk of U.S. microbusinesses – especially sole proprietorships — were largely disdained by the brand-name banks.

“After the first round,” notes Karen Mills, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, “more institutions were approved that focused on smaller borrowers. These included fintechs and I have to say I’ve been very impressed.”

Among the cadre of fintechs making PPP loans – including Funding Circle, Intuit Quickbooks, OnDeck, PayPal, and Sabre — Kabbage stands out. The Atlanta-based fintech ranked third among all U.S. financial institutions in the number of PPP credits issued, its 209,000 loans trailing only Bank of America’s 335,000 credits and J.P. Morgan Chase’s 260,000, according to the SBA and company data. Kabbage also reports processing more than $5.8 billion in PPP loans to small businesses ranging from restaurants, gyms, and retail stores to zoos, shrimp boats, beekeepers, and toy factories.

To reach businesses in rural communities and small towns, Kabbage collaborated with MountainSeed, an Atlanta-based data-services provider, to process claims for 135 independent banks and credit unions around the U.S. The proof of the pudding: Eighty-nine percent of Kabbage’s PPP loans, says Paul Bernardini, director of communications at Atlanta-based Kabbage, were under $50,000, and half were for less than $13,500.

The figures illustrate not only that Kabbage’s PPP customers were mainly composed of the country’s smaller, “most vulnerable” businesses, Bernardini asserts, but the numbers serve as a reminder that “fintechs play a very important, vital role in small business lending,” he says.

“BANK OF AMERICA WOULDN’T EVEN TAKE MY APPLICATION”

The helpfulness of such financial institutions contrasts sharply with what many small businesses have reported as imperious indifference by the megabanks. Gerri Detweiler, education director at Nav, Inc., a Utah-based online company that aggregates data and acts as a financial matchmaker for small businesses, steered deBanked toward critical comments about the big banks made on Nav’s Facebook page. Bank of America, especially, comes in for withering criticism.

“Bank of America wouldn’t even take my application,” one man wrote in a comment edited for brevity. “I have three accounts there. They are always sending me stuff about what an important client I am. But when the going got tough, they wouldn’t even take my application. I’m moving all my business from Bank of America.”

Lamented another Bank of America customer: “I was denied (PPP funding) from Bank of America (where) I have an individual retirement account, personal checking and savings account, two credit cards, a line of credit for $20.000, and a home mortgage. Add in business checking and a business credit card. Yesterday I pulled out my IRA. In the next few days I’m going to change to a credit union.”

Many PPP borrowers who initially got the cold shoulder from multi-billion-dollar conglomerate banks have found refuge with local — often small-town — bankers and financial institutions. Natasha Crosby, a realtor in Richmond, Va., reports that her bank, Capital One, “didn’t have the applications available when the Paycheck Protection Program started” on April 6. And when she finally was able to apply, she notes, “the money ran out.”

Crosby, who is president of Richmond’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, is media savvy and was able to publicize her predicament through television appearances on CNN and CBS, as well as in interviews with such publications as Mother Jones and Huffington Post. A “friendly acquaintance,” she says, referred her to Atlantic Union Bank, a Richmond-based regional bank, where she eventually received a PPP loan “in the high five figures” for her sole proprietorship.

“It took almost two months,” Crosby says. “I was totally frozen out of the program at first.”

Talibah Bayles heads her own firm, TMB Tax and Financial Services, in Birmingham, Ala. where she serves on that city’s Small Business Council and the state’s Black Chamber of Commerce. She told deBanked that she’s seen clients who have similarly been decamping to smaller, less impersonal financial institutions. “I have one client who just left Bank of America and another who’s absolutely done with Wells Fargo,” she says. “They’re going to places like America First Credit Union (based in Ogden, Utah) and Hope Credit Union (headquartered in Jackson, Miss.). I myself,” she adds, “shifted my business from Iberia Bank.”

Bank of Southern CaliforniaMain Street bankers acknowledge that they are benefiting from the phenomenon. “In speaking to our industry colleagues,” says Tony DiVita, chief operating officer at Bank of Southern California, an $830 million-asset community bank based in San Diego, “we’ve seen that many of the big banks have slowed down or stopped lending small-dollar amounts that were too low for them to expend resources to process.”

At the same time, DiVita says, his bank had made 2,634 PPP loans through July 17, roughly 80% of which went to non-clients. Of that number, some 30% have either switched accounts or are in the process of doing so. And, he notes, the bank will get a second crack at conversion when the PPP loan-forgiveness process commences in earnest. “Our guiding spirit is to help these businesses for the continuation of their livelihoods,” he says.

Noah Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of two Minnesota banks, reports that both of his financial institutions have been working with non-customers neglected by bigger banks where many had been longtime customers. At Grand Rapids State Bank, he says, 26% of the 198 PPP applicants who were successfully funded were non-customers. Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, handled PPP credits for 274 applicants, of whom 66% were non-customers.

“People who had been customers forever at big banks told us that they had been applying for weeks and were flabbergasted that we were turning those applications around in an hour,” says Wilcox, who is also the current chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing community banks.

“IT’S BEEN RELENTLESS”

Noting that one of his Gopher State banks had successfully secured funding for an elderly PPP borrower “who said he had been at another bank for 69 years and could not get a telephone call returned,” Wilcox added: “We’ve had quite a number of those individuals moving their relationships to us.”

For Chris Hurn, executive director at Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a non-bank SBA lender in Lake Mary, Fla., the psychic rewards have helped compensate for the sometimes 16-hour days he and his staff endured processing and funding PPP applications. “It’s been relentless,” he says of the regimen required to funnel loans to more than 1,300 PPP applicants, “but we’ve gotten glowing e-mails and cards telling us that we’ve saved people’s livelihoods.”

Yet even as the Paycheck Protection Program – which only provides funding for two-and-a-half months – is proving to be immensely helpful, albeit temporarily, there is much trepidation among small businesses over what happens when the government’s spigots run dry. The hastily contrived design of the program, which has relied heavily on the country’s largest financial institutions, has contributed mightily to the program’s flaws.

“The underbanked and those who don’t have banking relationships were frozen out in the first round,” says Sarah Crozier, director of communications at Main Street Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization comprising some 100,000 small businesses. “The new updates were incredibly necessary and long overdue,” she adds, “but the changes didn’t solve the problem of equity in access to the program and whom money is flowing to in the community.”

“IT WAS NOT WELL-THOUGHT-OUT AND A LOT OF MONEY WENT TO THE WRONG PEOPLE”

Professor David Audretsch, an economist at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on small business, says of PPP: “It’s a short-term fix to keep businesses afloat, but it missed in a lot of ways. It was not well-thought-out and a lot of money went to the wrong people.”

The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 11.1% in June, according to the most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three times the rate of February, just before the pandemic hit. The BLS also reported that 47.2% of the U.S. population – nearly half –was jobless in June. Against this backdrop, SBA data on PPP lending released in early July showed that a stunning array of cosseted elite enterprises and organizations, many with close connections to rich and powerful Washington power brokers, have been feasting on the PPP program.

In a stunning number of cases, the program’s recipients have been tony Washington, D.C. law firms, influential lobbyists and think tanks, and even members of Congress. Many businesses with ties to President Trump and Trump donors have also figured prominently on the SBA list of those receiving largesse from the SBA.

Wall StreetBusinesses owned by private equity firms, for which the definition of “small business” strains credulity, were also showered with PPP dollars. Bloomberg News reported that upscale health-care businesses in which leveraged-buyout firms held a controlling interest, were impressively adept at accessing PPP money. Among this group were Abry Partners, Silver Oak Service Partners, Gauge Capital, and Heron Capital. (Small businesses are generally defined as enterprises with fewer than 500 employees. The SBA reports that there are 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. and that they account for roughly 47% of U.S. employment.)

Boston-based Abry Partners, which currently manages more than $5 billion in capital across its active funds, merits special mention. Among other properties, Abry holds the largest stake in Oliver Street Dermatology Management, recipient of between $5 million and $10 million in potentially forgivable PPP loans. Based in Dallas, Oliver Street ranks among the largest dermatology management practices in the U.S. and, according to a company statement, boasts the most extensive such network in Texas, Kansas and Missouri. 

Meanwhile, the design of the program and the formula for the looming forgiveness process is proving impractical. As it currently stands, loan forgiveness depends on businesses spending 60% of PPP money on employees’ wages and health insurance with the remaining 40% earmarked for rent, mortgage or utilities.

closed for businessMany businesses such as restaurants and bars, storefront retailers and boutiques – particularly those that have shut down — are preferring to let their employees collect unemployment compensation. “Business owners had a hard time wrapping their heads around the requirement of keeping employees on the payroll while they’re closed,” notes Detweiler, the education director at Nav. “They have other bills that have to be paid.”

The forgiveness formula remains vexing for businesses where real estate costs are exorbitant, particularly in high-rent cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. Tyler Balliet, the founder and owner of Rose Mansion, a midtown Manhattan wine-bar promising an extravagant, theme-park experience for wine enthusiasts, says that it took him a month and a half to receive almost $500,000 from Chase Bank. Unfortunately, though, the money isn’t doing him much good.

“I HAVEN’T PAID RENT SINCE MARCH AND I’M IN DEFAULT”

“I have 100 employees on staff, most of whom are actors,” he says. “We shut down on March 13. I laid off 95 employees and kept just a few people to keep the lights on.”

At the same time, his annual rent tops $1 million and the forgivable amount in the PPP loans won’t even cover a month’s rent. “I haven’t paid rent since March and I’m in default,” Balliet says. “Now I’m just waiting to see what the landlord wants to do.”

Like many business owners, Balliet financed much of his venture with credit card debt, which creates an additional liability concern, notes Crozier of the Main Street Alliance. “It’s very common for borrowers to have signed personal guarantees in their loans using their credit cards,” she says. “As we get closer to the funding cliff and as rent moratoriums end,” she adds, “creditors are coming after borrowers and putting their personal homes at risk.”

Mark Frier is the owner of three restaurants in Vermont ski towns, including The Reservoir — his flagship — in Waterbury. In toto, his eateries chalked up $6.5 million in combined sales in 2019. But 2020 is far different: the restaurants have not been open since mid-March and he’s missed out on the lucrative, end-of-season ski rush.

Consequently, Frier has been reluctant to draw down much of the $750,000 in PPP money he’d secured through local financial institutions. “We could end up with $600,000 in debt even with the new rules,” Frier says, adding: “We live off very thin margins. We need grants not loans.”

As the country recorded 3.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 141,000 deaths as of mid-July, PPP money earmarked by businesses for health-related spending was not deemed forgivable. Yet in order to comply with regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and mandates and ordinances imposed by state and local governments, many establishments will be unable to avoid such expenditures.

“What we really needed was a grant program for companies to pivot to a business environment in a pandemic,” says Crozier. She cites the necessity businesspeople face of “retrofitting their businesses, buying masks, gloves and sanitizers and cleaning supplies, restaurants’ taking out tables and knocking down walls, installing Plexiglass shields, and improving air filtration systems.”

Covid-19Meanwhile, as Covid-19 was taking its toll in sickness and death, the economic outlook for small business has been looking dire as well. The recent U.S. Census’s “Pulse Survey” of some 885,000 businesses updated on July 2 found that roughly 83% reported that Covid-19 pandemic had a “negative effect on their business. Fully 38% of all small business respondents, moreover, reported a “large negative effect.”

Amid the unabated spikes in the number of coronavirus cases and the country’s grave economic distress, PPP recipients are faced with the unsettling approach of the PPP forgiveness process. As Congress, the SBA, and the U.S. Treasury Department continue to remake and revise the rules and regulations governing the program, businesses are operating in a climate of uncertainty as well. Currently, the law states that the amount of the PPP loan that fails to be forgiven will convert to a five-year, one-percent loan — a relaxation in terms from the original two-year loan which is not necessarily cheering recipients.

“One of the biggest problems with PPP is that the rule book has been unclear,” frets Vermont restaurateur Frier, glumly adding: “This is not even a good loan program.”

Ashley Harrington, senior counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy group based in Durham, N.C., argued in House committee testimony on June 17, that there ought to be automatic forgiveness for PPP loans under $100,000. Such a policy, she declared, “would likely exempt firms with, on average, 13 or fewer employees and save 71 million hours of small business staff time.”

She also said, “The smallest PPP loans are being provided to microbusinesses and sole proprietors that have the least capacity and resources to engage in a complex (forgiveness) process with their financial institution and the SBA.”

William Phelan, president of Skokie (Ill.)-based PayNet, a credit-data services company for small businesses which recently merged with Equifax, sounded a similar note. Observing that there are some 23 million “non-employer” small businesses in the U.S. with fewer than three employees for whom the forgiveness process will likely be burdensome, he says: “Estimates are that it will cost businesses a few thousand dollars just to get a $100,000 loan forgiven. It’s going to involve mounds of paper work.”

The country’s major challenge now will be to re-boot the economy, Phelan adds, which will require massive financing for small businesses. “The fact is that access to capital for small businesses is still behind the times,” Phelan says. “At the end of the day, it took a massive government program to insure that there’s enough capital available for half of the U.S. economy” during the pandemic.

For his part, Professor Audretsch fervently hopes that the country has learned some profound lessons about the need to prepare for not just a rainy day, but a rainy season. The pandemic, he says, has exposed how decades of political attacks on government spending for disaster-preparedness and safety-net programs have left the U.S. exposed to unforeseen emergencies.

“We’re seeing the consequence of not investing in our infrastructure,” he says. “That’s a vague word but we need a policy apparatus in place so that the calvary can come riding in. This pandemic reminds me a lot of when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans,’ he adds. “The city paid a heavy price because we didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”

The Pandemic, The Economy, and The Presidential Race

March 20, 2020
Article by:

Note from the Editor: In early February, I asked one of our regular journalists, Paul Sweeney, to look into the economy and the presidential race to size up the coming election season. As he was wrapping up his interviews over the span of a month, things took a startling turn, and COVID-19 came to the forefront and changed everything. This story is an amalgamation of reporting that started one way and quickly morphed into another. In light of how fast the situation is changing, we are publishing it now rather than waiting until early April to release it in print.


masked crowd

A version of this story will appear in deBanked’s Mar/Apr 2020 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE

Chris Hurn, who heads an Orlando-area financial firm in Florida that specializes in small business lending, says he is witnessing fear and desperation among business owners whose stores, shops and enterprises have been thrown into a tailspin by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve been overwhelmed with telephone calls and e-mails,” says Hurn, chief executive at Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a non-bank Small Business Administration lender which boasts more than $250 million in originations last year. “I’ve fielded over 300 inquiries from borrowers about these loans in just the last few days,” he added. “People are telling me that they’re being harmed and don’t know how they’ll make payroll. The SBA needs to act.”

What Hurn is experiencing in Florida is not just an isolated incident. Thousands of small businesses are under siege nationwide as Americans’ have gone into isolation in response to the pandemic, helping precipitate a full-blown economic crisis. As of March 17, the coronavirus – also known as Covid-19 – had leapfrogged across the globe since appearing in China in December, 2019, infecting people in 100 countries. There are now some 272,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases worldwide and close to 11,300 deaths, according to data compiled by scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In the U.S., the number of cases has cleared 19,000 as of March 20, the death toll has climbed above 230, and coronavirus cases have been recorded in all 50 states. The Center for Disease Control reports that the number of cases are growing at 25-30% per day. But experts warn that, because of a lack of testing, the actual number of cases is certainly higher.

Covid-19The outbreak is drawing comparisons to the worldwide influenza pandemic of 1918. Popularly known as the “Spanish Flu,” that virus may have claimed as many as 100 million lives, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. Medical officials say that persons 70 and older and those with underlying medical conditions, such as a weakened immune system, are most at risk in the current pandemic.

“What makes this disease so lethal,” says Rachel Scott, a family physician in Austin, Texas and the author of “Muscle and Blood,” a pathbreaking study of occupational diseases, “is that people in the vulnerable population who come down with the virus are prone to contract severe acute respiratory distress syndrome. In ARDS, the virus destroys the sacs in the lungs, preventing oxygen from being delivered into the blood stream. By the time people with severe ARDS are hospitalized and treated with a ventilator, it may already be too late.”

To blunt the accelerated pace of contagion, governors and mayors are putting restrictions on citizens by curbing gatherings and monitoring interactions. Governors in 44 states have forced restaurants and bars to close shop in an unprecedented regulation of U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, millions of Americans self-quarantined and self-isolated and re-examined how they interact socially, commercially and professionally. Increasingly draconian controls to moderate the trajectory of the outbreak are not only turning cityscapes into ghost towns from coast-to-coast but throwing a giant monkey wrench into the U.S. economy.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has reportedly warned Congressional leaders that the unemployment rate could spike to 20%.

“EIGHTY PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE LIVING PAYCHECK TO PAYCHECK. WE’RE IN A NATIONAL EMERGENCY”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has gone Mnuchin one better amid reports that 1.2 Americans had filed for unemployment insurance. In an interview on MSNBC Thursday, Reich said he feared that the unemployment rate is likely to hit that 20% mark in the next two weeks. “Eighty percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck,” he declared ominously. “We’re in a national emergency.”

The pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis is also casting a giant shadow over the 2020 presidential election. “It’s a black swan event that wasn’t anticipated by any of the candidates, and the reverberations for the election are going to be huge,” said Richard Murray, a political scientist and elections expert at the University of Houston.

For the past 50 years, political analysts have generally agreed, the condition of the U.S. economy was a key predictor – if not the key predictor – to the outcome of presidential elections. President Jimmy Carter, for example, had the bad fortune to preside over a problematic economy marked by oil-price shocks and energy shortages, mile-long queues at gasoline stations, and sky-high interest rates. There was even a new word — “stagflation” – coined for the phenomenon of stagnant growth and runaway inflation, recalls David Prindle, a government professor and expert on voting behavior at the University of Texas at Austin.

There were, of course, additional negative complications to Carter’s presidency. Most notable was the “Hostage Crisis” in which Iranian students attacked the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in the fall of 1979, held 44 American diplomats and aides captive for more than a year, and made Carter look hapless and helpless. Nonetheless, Ronald Reagan, a former governor of California and longtime matinee idol, hammered Carter mercilessly on the economy, demanding: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

“IN 1980, AS IN EVERY ELECTION, THERE WERE MULTIPLE CAUSES, BUT THE DECIDING FACTOR WAS THE ECONOMY”

Answering that question sent Carter packing to his Georgia peanut business. “In 1980, as in every election, there were multiple causes,” says Prindle, “but the deciding factor was the economy.”

President TrumpA healthy economy can serve as a mighty bulwark against opponents in a president’s bid for a second term. In the mid-1990s, an expanding economy and relentlessly buoyant stock prices – a Dow Jones Industrial Average so robust in the mid-1990’s that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan famously admonished investors for their “irrational exuberance” – allowed Bill Clinton to sail to re-election. (The good times also buffered Clinton during the ensuing sex scandal involving White House intern Monica Lewinsky.)

As the election year of 2020 dawned, a decently performing economy seemed to be serving President Donald Trump’s cause. Before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in early March, the U.S. economy was coming off 10 full years of job growth and the unemployment rate had sunk to 3.5 percent, its lowest level in 50 years. Wages were also rising by nearly 4 percent per annum, noted Aparna Mathur, a labor economist at the business-backed American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. “The economy is not spectacular,” she said, “but everything is moving in the right direction.”

Since then, however, the economy has been slammed as an alarmed country reacted to the pandemic. The NBA and NHL closed down their basketball and hockey seasons. Major League Baseball called a halt to spring training. The NCAA initially declared that “March Madness” would proceed and that hoopsters would perform before empty arenas, but then it pulled the plug. Even professional golf, an outdoor sport, hung up its cleats, announcing that The Masters, played at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Course in April and the crown jewel of professional golf, would be postponed indefinitely.

empty arenaAlmost overnight, colleges and universities shut down classrooms, emptied their dorms, and opted for online coursework. Some 33 million schoolchildren in 41 states have ceased attending school. Hundreds of companies, including Amazon and Microsoft in Seattle, a city hit hard by the coronavirus, are requiring their employees to “telecommute” by working at home on their laptops.

The CDC at first advised Americans not to cluster in groups of more than 25 people, then cut that figure to 10. Americans are being prodded to engage in “social-distancing” by avoiding shaking hands and separating themselves from others by a separation of three-to-six feet from others. San Francisco has gone still further, grounding cable cars, closing down clubs and bars and restaurants and effectively putting the city on lockdown.

The city of Boston called off its iconic St. Patrick’s Day parade, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights, and Starbucks forbade customers to sit down in its coffee shops. Major events like South by Southwest, the music and cultural festival in Austin, Texas, was canceled, depriving Texas’s capital city of some $350 million in economic activity.

Jilting the festival cuts deeper than the losses to airlines, hotels, bars, restaurants, and music venues, notes Alfred Watkins, a Washington, D.C.-based economist and chairman of the Global Solutions Summit, an international consulting firm. “You have all of these people in Austin who are running events and they’re hiring caterers for sandwiches and refreshments,” he said. “You have independent contractors like videographers and photographers, sound-equipment suppliers, Uber and Lyft drivers, hairstylists, and even freelance entertainment journalists — all of whom are no longer making money. For these entrepreneurs,” he added, “losing this event is a little like retailers missing out on the Christmas season. It’s when they make their money.”

The airline, travel, leisure, and tourism industries are in free-fall. Major cruise lines suspended bookings and cut short voyages after horrific reports of coronavirus outbreaks among passengers trapped at sea, temporarily putting a $38 billion industry in dry dock.

The conventions industry, which has come to a standstill after wholesale cancellations, remains a vastly under-appreciated sector of the U.S. economy, argues George Brennan, former executive vice-president of marketing at Arlington (Va.)-based Interstate Hotels and Resorts, the world’s largest independent hotel management company.

These mass gatherings are an unheralded engine of growth, he says, packing a bigger economic wallop than they get credit for. “Conventions typically draw anywhere from 2,000 to 25,000 people,” he said. “They run 6,000 to 8,000 attendees on average, and most can only be accommodated by the top 10-20 U.S. cities, which include Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlanta, New Orleans and Orlando.

“Conventions are often multi-dimensional,” he added. “Attendees usually spend three to five days in town. They often shop at clothing stores and other retailers. They’ll take in sporting events or, if they’re in New York, a Broadway play. They’ll go to attractions like the San Diego Zoo, or spend an afternoon on a golf course in Florida or California.”

Conventions generate a tremendous amount of commerce and revenues for vendors and exhibitors. As an example, Brennan cites his former employer, the hospitality industry. “At hotel conventions,” he said, “you’ll see people there selling curtains and sheets, soaps and towels.”

In addition, many trade groups – Brennan cites the National Association of Civil Engineers and the American Medical Association as examples – count on the annual convention as an important component of their organization’s annual revenues. “When you pay to attend,” he says, “a significant portion goes back to the association. The convention often covers the yearly salary for a group’s staff.”

nyseAmid the dramatic behavioral changes, the stock market registered several days of panic-selling in March, capped by a record, single-day plunge on March 16: The Dow Jones index plummeted 2,997 points, the third-worst percentage loss in history. After flirting with the level at which the Dow was reading on Inauguration Day Jan. 20, 2017, the market continued see-sawing this week, herky-jerkying between mini-rallies and skids.

Hoping to prevent a coronavirus recession, the U.S. Senate adopted by an overwhelming, 90-8 bipartisan vote a $100 billion bill sent by the Democraticac-led House that expands free testing for the coronavirus, provides for paid sick leave and medical leave for some workers, and an emergency unemployment insurance and food assistance programs. The bill was signed late Wednesday night.

Meanwhile, Congress was taking up a monumental $1 trillion economic rescue plan proposed by the White House on St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) that included a bailout for the hotel and airline industries, help for small businesses, and $500 billion in direct cash payments to Americans households.

“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a Rose Garden press conference at the White House on St. Patrick’s Day. By immediately, he added, “I’m talking about the next two weeks.”

“IF WE LOSE OUR SMALL BUSINESS ECONOMY, IT WILL BE CATASTROPHIC”

The Trump Administration’s proposed help for small businesses has a strong supporter in Karen G. Mills, former SBA administrator and senior fellow at Harvard Business School. During her tenure in the Obama Administration, Mills was a troubleshooter in several crises including the Great Recession and Hurricane Sandy. “In a worst-case scenario with this virus contagion, getting loans to people through banks is not going to be fast enough,” she told deBanked just before the White House drew up its rescue plan. “They’ll need direct loans to people and other aid. If we lose our small business economy, it will be catastrophic.”

So how will the pandemic and the state of the economy play out politically in the November, 2020 general election between President Trump and former Vice President Joseph Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee? The result remains shrouded in the fog of the future, of course, but the election’s contours are coming into focus.

AFTER WAR AND INFLUENZA, AMERICANS VOTED ENTHUSIASTICALLY FOR HARDING’S PROMISE OF “NORMALYCY.”

Having seen him through numerous scandals, impeachment, and a trial in the U.S. Senate, Trump’s political and electoral following has been put to the test. Yet his backers remain unshakably loyal in a way not seen in 80 years, observed the University of Houston’s Murray. “More people are dug in now than at any time since the 1930s,” he says, as roughly 43% of the electorate is firmly lodged in Trump’s camp. “Trump’s support has been remarkably stable.”

The business community is a key demographic in the pro-Trump cohort, notes Ray Keating, chief economist at the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group claiming 100,000 members. “We have not polled our membership,” Keating says, “but when you look at the data they overwhelmingly vote Republican. We find that support for Donald Trump is clear and substantial.”

Richard Yukes, a Las Vegas-based oilman and longtime entrepreneur who votes his pocketbook, will be pulling the lever for Trump in the November election. The reason? Trump not only presided over a robust economy for the past several years, Yukes says, but the president slashed Obama-era regulations imposed on his industry. “Government regulation and bureaucratic regulation often get mishandled and misdirected by federal bureaucrats and Trump is for less regulation,” Yukes says. “I think America works best with less regulation.”

The owner and operator of oil wells in Wyoming, Yukes benefited handsomely last year when Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency relaxed rules governing methane leaks. The oilman reckons that complying with the regulations had been costing him an extra $1,500 per well each year.

No matter how well the economy has performed in the past three years, however, the pandemic economy promises to be a “game-changer,” says political scientist Murray, and history shows that voters are likely to take stern measure of the incumbent president’s performance during any a crisis.

Trump’s initial response to the coronavirus reminds Murray of Woodrow Wilson’s reaction to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 while World War I was still raging. “As the U.S. was approaching climactic battles in Europe, President Wilson suppressed the news of the flu and the story didn’t get out though eventually people knew about it,” Murray says.

Wilson’s deceit hurt Democratic candidates who were battered in the 1918 midterm elections, just a few days before the November 11 armistice. Two years later, after Wilson had a stroke, the Democratic presidential candidate got crushed in the 1920 election by Warren G. Harding, a Republican senator from Ohio.

After war and influenza, Americans voted enthusiastically for Harding’s promise of “normalcy.”

Fears of Possible Recession Don’t Phase CRE Lenders

December 16, 2019
Article by:

This story appeared in deBanked’s Nov/Dec 2019 magazine issue. To receive copies in print, SUBSCRIBE FREE

retail shopsDepending on your vantage point, a slowdown is either already in progress, just around the bend or several years away. But some alternative commercial real estate professionals are trying to filter out the noise.

Instead, they are more aggressively forging ahead with growth plans, including trying to grab market share from banks.

The commercial real estate lending market remains highly competitive and alternative lenders say they remain focused on looking for opportunities to expand their business, even as the possibility of recession looms. At present, a number of professionals don’t see an imminent threat of recession, and even if there is one, they say they stand to benefit from picking up business banks don’t want to take on—or can’t—because of increased regulatory controls imposed on them since the last recession.

There are plenty of opportunities for alternative commercial real estate lenders to get ahead, even in this environment, says Chris Hurn, founder and chief executive of Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a Lake Mary FL-based, non-bank direct small business lender in the commercial real estate lending space.

New Commercial BuildingTo be sure, alternative commercial real estate lenders say that for the most part, there hasn’t been a major pullback in their space. But due in part to mounting economic concerns and changing business priorities, banks—which had already scaled back from their pre- Great Recession exuberance—have been taking an even more cautious approach to lending. This is especially true in certain regions of the country, or in sectors deemed higher-risk such as hospitality and retail, alternative lenders say. While the pullback hasn’t been broad-based, it’s been enough in some cases to create strategic pockets of opportunity for opportunistic non-bank lenders such as private equity funds, debt funds, crowdfunding portals and others.

For many of these commercial real estate professionals, whether or not a recession is on the horizon is not a guessing game that’s worth playing. And with good reason, given how much disagreement there is among market watchers, investment management professionals and others about where the economy is headed.

Certain economic data continues to be strong, for instance, but political and geopolitical factors such as trade wars continue to raise red flags. Then there’s the fatalistic notion that the economy has been on a tear for so long that it’s due for a pullback at some point. This all translates into a hodgepodge of speculation and indecision about the economy’s direction. The dichotomy is evident from the difference in sentiment expressed in two fund manager surveys from Bank of America Merrill Lynch taken a month apart. October’s survey was decidedly bearish; by November, the bulls were back, muddying the waters even more.

Instead of wavering in indecision, however, some alternative commercial real estate players are hunkering down and highly focused on building their business in a cautiously optimistic and strategic manner.

Hurn of Fountainhead Commercial Capital predicts a number of increased opportunities for alternative commercial real estate lenders due to pullback from banks and a growing need for capital. He cautions alternative lenders against being too pessimistic and losing out on potentially lucrative market opportunities as a result.

“IF WE’RE NOT CAREFUL, WE’RE GOING TO TALK OUR WAY INTO RECESSION. IT’S A SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY”

“I think we might be going into a period of slightly slower growth, but none of the indicators suggest we’re remotely close to where things were 10 years ago,” Hurn says. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to talk our way into recession. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Indeed, even as perplexing questions about the economy’s long-term health persist, some alternative commercial lenders anticipate growth in the coming year. Evan Gentry, chief executive and founder of Money360, a tech-enabled direct lender specializing in commercial real estate, says the company’s loan origination business is on track to close between $650 million and $700 million in 2019. That’s expected to increase to about $1 billion in 2020, fueled by growth in some strategic markets, including Washington DC, Atlanta, Miami and Charlotte, N.C., where the company is seeking to add loan origination personnel. Gentry says the company also continues to experience strength in many of the western markets, including the intermountain west markets of Colorado, Utah and Idaho, where growth is expected to continue.

CommLoan, a commercial real-estate lending marketplace in Scottsdale, Ariz., also sees strategic opportunities to grow in this environment. Mitch Ginsberg, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, predicts 2020 will be a strong growth year for his company, after a several-year beta period. CommLoan has plans, for example, to start hiring account executives to build relationships in additional states. Initially, the focus will be on institutions in the Southwestern U.S., with plans to add lenders in Texas, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico in the early part of 2020, Ginsberg says.

“THERE IS STILL AN ENORMOUS AMOUNT OF ACTIVITY”

Though certain regions or business lines within commercial real estate may be experiencing some pullback, he says his overall outlook for the economy and commercial real estate remains strong. “There is still an enormous amount of activity,” he says. “If and when a correction does happen, it’s going to be a lot softer and not that deep and not that long because of the fundamentals in the economy.”

FINDING WAYS TO COMPETE MORE EFFECTIVELY WITH BANKS AND OTHERS

Some commercial real estate professionals say they are focusing more attention on sectors, regions and concentrations that the banks aren’t going after so readily.

If an alternative lender can offer more money than a bank on a particular deal or offer more flexible terms, or do deals that traditional lenders simply won’t do, for example, then it’s a boon for them. For a slightly higher price, alternative lenders—especially those whose business model relies heavily on technology—are able to take on slightly riskier deals than a bank might be able to stomach, says Jacob Goldsmith, managing partner of Goldwolf Ventures LLC, a privately held alternative investment and asset management company with offices in Miami and Austin.

“Alternative lenders are a lot more nimble,” says Goldsmith, who keeps close tabs on the commercial real estate lending industry.

restaurant 3dEspecially given the ambiguous economic climate, there are several areas that could be prime opportunities for savvy alternative commercial real estate lenders to gain a leg up. For instance, some banks of late have shied away from certain special purchase property types like hotels, day care facilities and free-standing restaurants, says Hurn of Fountainhead Commercial Capital. These types of properties are traditionally seen as riskier in the latter part of an economic cycle.

Nonetheless, “there’s opportunity here for non-traditional lenders to step in and fill that gap,” he says. Retail loans are another category where banks have been pulling back. One reason banks are being more cautious is the sentiment that as online shopping becomes more pervasive, there’s less of a need for brick-and-mortar shops. This trend is underscored by the recent announcement of Transform Holdco—the company formed to buy the remaining assets of bankrupt retailer Sears Holdings Corp.—that it would close 96 Sears and Kmart stores by the end of February. Still, some industry watchers aren’t ready to concede retail’s demise.

While these types of announcements fan fears, concern over the death of retail is largely overblown, according to Troy Merkel, a partner and real estate senior analyst at RSM, which provides audit, tax and consulting services. “The banks are being too overly cautious,” he opines.

The opportunity for alternative lenders, he says, is not in funding loans that add to the supply, but rather in funding loans that change the existing supply. While the need for new development may not be as great, there is a growing demand for repurposed properties, he says. This includes upscaling an older mall or turning an existing retail building into a mixed use property, namely a mix of retail stores and multi-family apartment complexes. There is still a real need for these types of developments, Merkel says, and with banks shying away, the door is open for alternative lenders to “make a play,” he says.

Real estate professionals say they also see opportunities for alternative commercial real estate lenders to make loans in areas outside major metro cities, where the competition isn’t as strong.

“There will always be opportunities in the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of the cycle. You just have to be a lot smarter in this part of the cycle,” says Goldsmith of Goldwolf Ventures.

BECOMING RECESSION-PROOF

Pockets of opportunity notwithstanding, alternative commercial real estate lenders have to play it smart, professionals say. For instance, they should not be overly bullish on a particular sector or throw caution to the wind when it comes to their underwriting practices.

“THIS IS PROBABLY NOT THE TIME TO BE COMPLACENT ANYMORE”

That’s because when the market turns—as it inevitably will at some point—there will likely be more defaults and lenders that haven’t dotted their I’s and crossed their T’s will understandably face stronger headwinds. They need to keep their close eye on expenses as well, which may have ticked upward over the past several years. “People get complacent when times are good. This is probably not the time to be complacent anymore,” says Hurn of Fountainhead Commercial Capital.

Another protective measure against an eventual downturn is to diversify sales channels and property types. “If you put too many eggs in one basket, it’s a problem,” Hurn says.

retail storeIt’s also important for lenders to have their guards up since higher risk deals can lead to losses if a recession hits. Lenders have to be smart when it comes to taking on risk, says Tim Milazzo, co-founder and chief executive of StackSource, an online marketplace for commercial real estate loans. “They have to have a certain expertise in underwriting these transactions correctly and assessing risk,” Milazzo says.

In light of significant ambiguity about where the economy is heading, Gentry of Money360 says his company is protecting itself by taking an ultra- conservative approach. This means, for instance, only making first-lien position loans secured against income producing properties at a loan-to-value ratio on average of 65 percent, he says. Some alternative lenders are making these loans at a loan-to-value ratio of 80 percent or 85 percent, but Gentry says this is too high a rate for his taste. Also, Money360’s loans are also generally short- term—in the two-to-three-year range, which reduces some of the risk and seems especially prudent at this point in the cycle, he says.

When the market turns—as it inevitably will at some point—there will be more loan defaults, and those that are on the more aggressive end of lending will bear most of the challenges, he says.

He cautions other alternative lenders to avoid taking on excessive risk. “You’ve got to be thinking ahead and planning and lending as if the downturn is right around the corner—because it could be,” he says. Even taking a conservative approach, there are still significant business opportunities, he says.

BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR RECESSIONARY OPPORTUNITIES

Meanwhile, if a recession does hit, alternative commercial real estate lenders say they will have even more opportunities to gain market share, participate in workout financing and hire key personnel. Alternative lenders that are more steeped in technology may potentially have even more of an upper hand since this can enable them to close deals much more efficiently and quickly and at a lower cost, while at the same time giving borrowers broader access.

“In a tighter market, every reduction in rate and cost will make more of a significant difference to borrowers than it does at the moment,” says Ginsberg of CommLoan, the commercial real-estate lending marketplace.

Although there are a growing number of alternative commercial real estate lenders who are relying more heavily on technology than they did in the past, commercial real estate lending still hasn’t flourished online to the extent personal and small business lending has. One reason is that the loans are larger and human intervention is often seen as beneficial, says Gentry of Money360.

However, online lending within the commercial real estate lending space is still on the horizon, according to Ginsberg of CommLoan. “It’s slow-go, but it’s inevitable,” he says.



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