Articles by Kevin Travers
While positive vaccine predictions began slowly peeking their head out of the media mess that was the fall of ’20, John McCormick and members of the Southeast Acquirers Association (SEAA) had a difficult choice to make: When could they begin planning for an in-person conference?
“It was probably October, November: we thought, okay, are we nuts, or should we do it,” McCormick said. “We just kept saying, well, it seems like we keep hearing good news about vaccines.”
With optimism, McCormick and the team slated a late May reopening. Their bet paid off. With vaccine success and viral loads down so far, things look clear for a return to normal this spring, especially for a payments conference in Bonita Springs, Florida. McCormick said the Hyatt Regency, also eager to reopen business, helped with the planning.
“They said ‘we really want you guys to have the show, we need the business,'” He said. “The location itself is beautiful. Tons of outdoor space, and it’s incorporated into the conference facility so people will really be able to break away and give a little more distance, have a one-on-one and not feel like they’re in a crowd.”
Watching a hackneyed, fazed reopening across the US, SEAA had to plan how to make people feel comfortable meeting, doing business no matter where they were from. Along with picking a venue with 26 acres of property to spread out, they decided to use a color-coated sticker system. Red for “keep your distance,” Yellow for “proceed with caution”, Green for “let’s chat,” and purple for “vaccinated.” Hotel staff will also, of course, be tested and carefully managing the food and distancing.
Their sister events company, the NEAA, had to postpone the planned April show in Philadelphia, but as we know, Florida is open for business.
McCormick is a Founder and board member of (SEAA) and has been active in the payments industry since 1995. Like many events companies, he said, SEAA held a virtual conference last year. While the presentations and education sessions were great, the in-person networking and POS demonstrations a vendor could expect from the conference hall experience were just not up to par.
This year, he said his team is focusing everything toward putting on a safe, “back-to-business with caution” show that is seeing unprecedented interest from firms and industry members excited to, well, shake hands again. If guests are still not ready to meet in person, the big presentations will be streamed to the SEAA site and built into a catalog.
So how many people are attending? McCormick said he’s not sure how many will show up to the Hyatt on May 24th but that the registration numbers ten weeks out are already better than in previous years.
“When we first started, we thought we normally get between 800 and 1,000 people, and we thought you if we can get 600, that would be a success,” McCormick said. “I’d feel great about that, and I think we’re going to hit that number. The interest is there.”
He said the interesting part is that larger firms generally involved in conferences were more cautious this year. A smaller firm with one to 20 people is more likely to say, “Okay, whoever feels comfortable, if you’ve been vaccinated, go ahead and go.” But it’s the larger companies that have called and said, look, we’d love to be there, but we have to wade through legal and manage to approve it.
Still, larger partners this year are excited to sponsor the event, happy to send support for a conference-leading the way back open. McCormick said he’d seen some innovative ways firms are trying to bring their products to the conference platform, like scannable QR codes for video demonstrations. The pandemic has brought virtual innovation, but many people, McCormick said, are excited to return to normal.
“You know, we’re getting awfully close. I really feel like we’re getting there,” McCormick said. “This is the hardest time because you feel it, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but if we can just hang on and be responsible for a couple more months, we’ll get there. That’s gonna be sort of the challenge: to remind people, ‘man, we’re all excited, let’s still grab a drink and keep six feet apart.'”
A bi-partisan group of congress members plans to reintroduced the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to the House floor, legislation that would protect financial institutions from sanctions for working with marijuana companies.
Representatives Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), Steve Stivers (R-OH), Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), and Warren Davidson (R-OH) joined together supporting the bill, aiming to better align federal and state laws.
“Thousands of employees and businesses across this country have been forced to deal in piles of cash for far too long,” said Rep. Perlmutter. “The SAFE Banking Act is an important first step to treating cannabis businesses like legal, legitimate businesses and beginning to reform our federal cannabis laws.”
Though legal in a growing number of states and available for recreational use for over a third of Americans, weed is still a class one drug under federal law. Based on that label, federal regulations have kept firms from providing capital, banking, and other financial products to weed companies: it’s hard to scale a business when it’s cash-only.
Representatives hope to give safe harbor to firms to transact with the weed industry if they follow state regulations. The bill first went through the house in September 2019 and passing with flying colors in a 321-103 vote. Then the pandemic hit and muddled up the Senate vote, but after pro cannabis language landed in two stimulus bills, supporters are even more confident this time around.
“At a time when small businesses need all the support they can get, and after cannabis businesses specifically have been providing essential services and generating significant tax revenues for states and the federal government with little to no financial relief, it is more imperative than ever to get the SAFE Banking Act passed into law,” Aaron Smith, the CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association said. “These businesses are contributing billions of dollars to the national economy every year and need to be treated like any other legal, regulated industry.”
As the pandemic raged, word on the street was that fintechs were mulling a Manhattan exodus. Expensive midtown offices didn’t look great compared to Miami beaches.
But according to research by Bloomberg, there were no crowds of fleeing New Yorkers like it may have seemed. Only 2,246 people filed a permanent address change from Manhattan to Miami-Dade County, and 1,741 went to Palm Beach County.
3,987 NYC-area residents packed up shop and flew south for the Covid winter, never to return- But that’s only ~5.6% of the total 70,000 people that moved from NY state last year, according to Unicast, a real estate location analytics firm.
“The main problem with moving to Florida is that you have to live in Florida,” Jason Mudrick, a hedge fund manager, told Bloomberg.
In 2019, the US Census Bureau estimated a net 38,512 Greater New York State residents moved to the Sunshine State, suggesting that what was experienced in 2020 may have been nothing more than the routine annual migration. 2020’s Census data is not yet available so it’s difficult to say.
“We’re going to keep going with New York City if that’s all right with you,” Jerry Seinfeld wrote in an August 2020 NY Times Op-ed, “and it will sure as hell be back.”
March Madness began with Mortgage madness, in line with 2021. College Basketball fans came to a boil last week when the Michigan Spartans briefly rebranded to a longer name, MSU Spartans Presented by Rocket Mortgage.
Fans immediately took to Twitter to complain, as competitors imagined if their beloved teams were also suddenly named after fintech companies. Shortly after, Michigan released a statement claiming they would not be changing their name:
STATEMENT FROM MSU ATHLETICS (MARCH 12):
Michigan State is not renaming its men’s basketball team. While this is a new extension of the partnership for Rocket Mortgage with Men’s Basketball, this is not a first-of-its-kind sponsorship for the Spartans or a new concept in professional or collegiate team partnerships.
Though as some users and news media pointed out, the suffix will still be attached to the team name everywhere at its home games: the rollback is semantics, Rocket Mortgage will still be included in the name, and the logo will appear across the stadium.
“Michigan State University is very important to our company. It is the alma mater of our Founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert, me, and many team members throughout our organization,” Rocket CEO Jay Farner said. “We are honored to contribute to the university that has prepared so many of us for success.”
Strapped for cash, the Detroit Free Press reported the Michigan athletic department is projected to lose $75 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yahoo Sports writer Jack Baer said that when sports teams take on a corporate name, like the New York Red Bulls, “the business in question actually owns the team rather than giving them millions of dollars to slap their name onto a scoreboard and promotions. In that respect, the MSU Spartans Presented by Rocket Mortgage would be something akin to a little league team getting some help from a local business.”
Rocket Co-founder, Dan Gilbert, has previously donated at least $15 Million to Michigan’s athletics program, overhauling the Breslin Center stadium. Now his Rocket Companies logo will appear everywhere throughout the building.
Some fans still poked fun after the school walked back its original announcement.
Bummer. I was looking forward to taking my family to United Wholesale Mortgage Breslin Center to see the MSU Spartans presented by Rocket Mortgage play on the Auto Owners Insurance Tom Izzo court for a game day experience presented by Farm Bureau Insurance.
— Ryan Peterson (@RyanPD_Peterson) March 12, 2021
Major fintech companies can’t wait to become chartered banks, and some don’t have the patience to wait for the paperwork to go through.
Last week, SoFi bought California-based Golden Pacific Bank (GPB) for $22.3 million to speed up its mission to become a nationally chartered bank. SoFi paid for the cash purchase and will apply to take ownership of the bank’s OCC charter- swapping out their pending application to become a bank outright.
“By pursuing a national bank charter, we will be able to help even more people get their money right,” CEO Anthony Noto said. “We are thrilled to have found a partner in Golden Pacific Bank to both accelerate our pursuit to establish a national bank subsidiary, as well as begin to expand our offerings in SoFi’s financial products.”
SoFi, once an anti-bank fintech was preliminarily approved by the OCC for a charter earlier this year.
A year ago Varo started the buy/apply banking trend after receiving approval for an FDIC Bank Charter. LendingClub, a former Peer-to-Peer lender, soon after joined the club by picking up Radius Bank. Square just two weeks ago became a bank, announcing it received an industrial banking license.
Other lesser-known fintechs have been moving toward chartered banking as well. In February, Brex, an online banking fintech, began the process of opening a Utah Based industrial bank as well. Jiko, a small online banking and payments firm, bought Mid-Central National Bank in Minnesota.
There are other up-and-coming fintech banks, like Chime and even blockchain banking contenders, like Figure Technologies. Figure is a home equity lender that is currently applying for a banking charter without the normal FDIC-insured deposits but instead deposits over $250,000 that would act as uninsured high yield loans.
If Sofi’s plan works, the firm aims to contribute $750 million toward digital lending while maintaining GPB’s community banks’ business and branches. The deal should be completed before the end of 2021, and GPB will operate as a division of SoFi Bank.
It will be a big year for fintech in Mexico, with at least 93 fintech firms in the process of obtaining a Financial Technology Institution (FTI) license.
Lawyer Rene Arce Lozano, an advisor with the international Hogan Lovells law firm, wrote about the new “fintech law”; the first of its kind in Latin America. Many firms will see an authorization in the coming year from the National Banking and Securities Commission.
“Over the last few years,” Lozano wrote, “the fintech ecosystem in Mexico has evolved to become one of the most developed in Latin America.”
Mexico, home to 441 startups- the largest fintech hub in central America- passed the law in 2018 that went into effect this past year 2020, nurturing the creation of dozens of Mexican neo banks and electronic payments firms.
The new law sets regulations for payments and open banking and has stirred up excitement for fintech enterprise in the country as a whole. But according to Financial specialist Stefan Staschen, the law isn’t the cure-all.
“The law covers only two types of fintech companies,” Stashen wrote. “It does not provide regulatory guidance for other services, such as fintechs offering balance sheet lending, big tech companies launching financial services, investment services other than crowdfunding, or central bank digital currencies.”
The new law may be a great start, but it is the first step to broader regulatory approval to the diverse financial tech world. Staschen works at the CGAP– an international advocacy group based in Washington that aims to extend financial inclusion throughout the world.
United Wholesale Mortgage (UWM) and Rocket Mortgage are still going at it, this week heating up to a new boiling point.
UWM announced on Facebook Live Thursday that it would not partner with brokers who work with Rocket Mortgage or Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp. CEO Mat Ishbia gave brokers until March 15th to sign a loyalty document to pledge their allegiance to the UWM team.
“If you work with them, can’t work with UWM anymore, effective immediately,” Ishbia said. “I can’t stop you, but I’m not going to help you, help the people that are hurting the broker channel, and that’s what’s going on right now.”
After competing Superbowl ads, it looked like the competitors were peacefully building broker networks, but now brokers have to pick a side. Rocket Pro TPO VP Austin Niemiec told the Housing Wire that UWM is attempting to manipulate the broker market.
“What UWM is attempting to do is really manipulate the market and have brokers swear allegiance to one company and literally give them financial penalties if they don’t listen to them,” Niemic said. “That harms their ability to compete, and it harms the consumer. Make no mistake about it, this was a move to benefit one company and one company alone, UWM.”
The feud comes after the stock price of Rocket Companies, Rocket Mortgage’s parent company, spiked in price. Founder Dan Gilbert briefly placed number 16 in Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index.
Square bought a majority stake in Tidal, a music streaming service owned by Jay-Z, for $247 million.
Jay-Z will be joining the Square board and Tidal artists will keep their ownership in the firm. Jack Dorsey announced the move on Twitter, seeming to assuage worries from the first post.
“Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces,” Dorsey wrote. “We believe there’s a compelling one between music and the economy. Making the economy work for artists is similar to what Square has done for sellers.”
Square is acquiring a majority ownership stake in TIDAL through a new joint venture, with the original artists becoming the second largest group of shareholders, and JAY-Z joining the Square board. Why would a music streaming company and a financial services company join forces?!
— jack (@jack) March 4, 2021
Dorsey and Jay have been friends for years and were spotted hanging out with Beyonce on a yacht in the Hamptons this summer. Dorsey and Jay-Z last month went in on a multimillion Bitcoin trust fund to support Bitcoin development in India and Africa.
Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Rumi, Blue Ivy w/ Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in the Hamptons — Aug. 24th. pic.twitter.com/bNEz0Nch2y
— BEYONCÉ LEGION (@Bey_Legion) August 25, 2020
Jay-Z bought Tidal in 2015 for $56 million, but despite working with top music artists like Coldplay and Kanye West, the service has struggled to compete with Apple and Spotify. After a year of closed venues, Billboard reported that last year Tidal had a cash problem and was missing payments to rights holders. Tidal got a cash injection from the sale, while Square spent less than 1% of the firm’s value to bring Jay-Z’s leadership and network of music industry heavy-hitters into the fold.
“I said from the beginning that Tidal was about more than just streaming music, and six years later, it has remained a platform that supports artists at every point in their careers,” said Jay-Z in a press statement. “Artists deserve better tools to assist them in their creative journey. Jack and I have had many discussions about Tidal’s endless possibilities that have made me even more inspired about its future. This shared vision makes me even more excited to join the Square board. This partnership will be a game-changer for many. I look forward to all this new chapter has to offer!”