Articles by Paul Sweeney
In April of this year, Threadgill’s – a legendary Austin music venue and beer joint that, in the 1960s, famously launched the career of blues singer Janis Joplin — turned off the lights and pulled the plug on its sound stage.
A converted gasoline station, Threadgill’s had been a rollicking music scene since 1933 when musician and bootlegger Kenneth Threadgill secured the first liquor license in Texas after Prohibition. His juke box was crammed with Jimmie Rodgers songs and Threadgill himself famously sang and yodeled Rodgers’ tunes.
For generations of students at the University of Texas, Threadgill’s was a rite of passage.
“The first time I went to Threadgill’s was in the fall of 1968, when I was a freshman at UT,” recalls Perry Raybuck, a songwriter-folksinger and retired government worker who, as a member of the Southwest Regional Folk Alliance, played the stage in 2018. “It was the beginning of an education for me,” he adds. “I had been a Beatles and rock n’ roll kid and it opened me up to different music styles. I became a convert.”
In 1981, Threadgill’s was taken over by another acclaimed club owner, Eddie Wilson, who previously had been the proprietor of the Armadillo, a fabled music venue. Wilson began to actually pay musicians – Threadgill had compensated them mainly with free cold beer – and installed a circular stage.
It was Threadgill’s and an assortment of funky clubs and stages with names like the Soap Creek Saloon and Liberty Lunch helped put Austin on the map as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” The city remains home to the widely acclaimed television program “Austin City Limits” on PBS and the internationally renowned South by Southwest festival, which was canceled this year amid fears of a “superspread” of the coronavirus.
“Live music,” says Laura Huffman, chief executive at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, “is why people come here. It is a central component of Austin’s cultural and economic life.”
Omar Lozano, director of music marketing for Visit Austin, the city’s main tourism organization, says: “We have close to 250 places in the greater Austin region where you can hear live-music, although it’s closer to 50-70 on any given night. During South by Southwest, no stone is left unturned — everything becomes a stage: parking garages, grocery stores, housing co-ops. There are also four or five stages at the Airport, which helps liven up the mood.”
But that identity is being put to the test. So far this year, Austin has lost a raft of live music venues. Among those joining Threadgill’s in honky-tonk heaven since the pandemic struck are Barracuda, Plush, Scratchhouse, Shady Grove, and Botticelli, all of which provided niche audiences to both established musicians and up-and-coming acts.
The roller-coaster ride of government mandated shutdowns followed by a limited re-opening in the spring and another shutdown since July fourth is making life miserable and untenable for both club owners and already hardpressed musicians and artists, says Marcia Ball, a piano player and blues singer.
Ball, who was named by the Texas Legislature as “2018 Texas State Musician” and whose musical style was once described by the Boston Globe as “mixing Louisiana swamp rock and smoldering Texas blues,” told deBanked: “There was already a limited amount of opportunity for musicians to perform and monetize their work in Austin, so it has always been necessary to travel to make a living. But we still depend on a thriving local scene, and we’re losing that when key venues like Threadgill’s disappear.”
Adds Graham Williams, a prominent Texas promoter of touring bands: “These venues and bars are vital to the music ecosystem. Local bands and cover bands need hangouts, even if people are not buying tickets. They’re places to play every night of week.”
While unheralded outside the Austin scene, the local music joints were often a port-of-call for out-of-town promoters and nightclub owners checking out Austin talent – “most notably Barracuda (which) had super-popular acts and was like a hipster garage venue,” says promoter Williams. “A lot of touring bands played there on their way up.”
A July study by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston found that the city’s live music industry is in desperate straits. Sixty-two percent of live music spots and 55% of the bar-and-restaurant businesses reported to researchers that that they can endure for no more than four months, making them the most vulnerable of 16 industries surveyed.
And the situation has become “even more ominous” since the report was published, explains Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston and a lead researcher on the Hobby study. “That survey finished polling two hours before all bars and restaurants closed back down,” he says. “Everything people were saying was when bars were at 50% capacity. That’s a best-case scenario.”
Austin’s experience amid the Covid-19 pandemic mirrors what is occurring nationwide as bars, nightclubs and music halls in myriad cities and towns experience similar trauma. In Seattle, Steven Severin is co-owner of three nightclubs – Neumos, Barboza and recently opened Life on Mars – all in trendy Capitol Hill, the hub of the city’s club and live-music scene. He reports that he is barely holding on thanks to some help from the city and a sympathetic landlord who is “a big music advocate.”
“He knocked down the rent a little bit,” Severin says of his landlord, but the situation is dire. “We just had a fifth venue, Re bar, close at the end of August,” he says. “It was a punch in the gut. This could be me.”
The Bitter End in Greenwich Village is also keeping its head above water despite not opening its doors since March. The nightclub has a storied past: owner Paul Rizzo recounts that it is where pop singer Neil Diamond got his start and where “everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Randy Newman” has performed since its opening in 1961. But the club is silent now since the pandemic overwhelmed the city’s hospitals and made New York the epicenter of sickness and suffering during the spring. So far the club is getting help from a landlord’s forbearance and loyal musicians.
Peter Yarrow (the “Peter” in the bygone trio Peter, Paul and Mary), donated a streamed concert to patrons who contributed to a fundraiser that raised more than $50,000. And grateful local musicians also put on a benefit directing people to a Go Fund Me page on the Internet that raised another $16,000. “We’re a major venue for local musicians,” Rizzo says. “We should pull through.”
It’s in their self-interest for artists to do whatever they can to keep the doors open at a club like The Bitter End. “These days because of the last two decades of declining record sales — live music is the bread and butter of a musician’s income,” says journalist Edna Gundersen, a recently retired, 28-year-veteran of USA Today. “That’s true whether it’s a local entertainer or an international superstar.” (Gundersen earned the reputation as Bob Dylan’s favorite journalist; it was she who scored his only interview after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2018, publishing his eccentric musings in the The Telegraph of London and breaking the news that he would indeed accept the prize.)
“Touring has been crushed,” Gundersen adds, “and festivals have been canceled. So people doing the circuit and clubs are gone for all intents and purposes. Streaming — while initially up — is down because people aren’t listening to music in the gym or in their cars. Physical record sales are also down because people aren’t going to stores. All of this is just killing musicians.”
The Paycheck Protection Program, the multi-billion, multi-tranche aid package for small business which Congress authorized as part of the CARES Act in March, has provided some funding for the live-music and entertainment industry. But because of the PPP’s requirements that only 40% of the funds can be spent on rent, mortgage and utilities, which are major expenses for nightclubs and music venues, the program has largely been a disappointment.
Hoping to win attention and assistance for their plight from the federal government — “We’re the first to close and the last to reopen,” Severin says — live-music entrepreneurs like himself and Rizzo and more than 2,800 club-owners and promoters across the country have banded together to form the National Independent Venue Association.
Their membership includes independent proprietors (no corporate members allowed) of saloons, cabarets and concert halls as well as theaters, opera houses and auditoriums from every state plus the District of Columbia. To help plead their case with Congress, the organization hired powerhouse law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the largest Washington, D.C. lobbying firm by revenue.
NIVA also blanketed Congressional offices with two million letters, e mails and correspondence generated from hordes of fans and performers. Among the many scriveners are a slew of boldface names: Mavis Staples, Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Earth Wind & Fire, and Leon Bridges. Comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Jeff Foxworthy have also penned notes to lawmakers championing NIVA’s cause.
Their message: without federal funding, 90% of independent stages will go under over the next few months. “The heartbreak of watching venues close is that once a building is boarded up, it’s not going to be a music venue any more,” warns Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director at NIVA. “They operate on thin business margins to begin with and they’re too hard to develop.” For touring acts, each city stage is “an integral part of the music ecosystem,” Schaefer explains. “When artists finally do get back on the tour bus, they might have to skip the next five cities and go on to the sixth.”
Thanks to the bi-partisan efforts of Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), NIVA’s campaign has gotten traction. The unlikely couple have teamed up to author a rescue bill, known as the Save Our Stages Act. If enacted, it would establish a $10 billion grant program for live venue operators, promoters, producers, and talent representatives.
The legislation would provide grants up to $12 million for live entertainment venues to defray most business expenses incurred since March, including payroll and employees’ health insurance, rent, utilities, mortgage, personal protection equipment, and payments to independent contractors.
NIVA’s chief argument for the legislation is coldly economic rather than sentimentally cultural. The organization cites a 2008 study by the University of Chicago that spending by music patrons produces a “multiplier effect” for the broader economy. For every dollar spent by a concert-goer at a live performance, the Chicago study determined, $12 in downstream economic activity occurs.
Explains Scott Plusquellec, nightlife business advocate for the City of Seattle: “You buy a ticket to a show and the direct economic impact of that purchase is that it pays the artist, bartender and the club itself as well as the band, advertisers, and promoters. The indirect economic impact,” he adds, “is that after you bought the ticket, you went to a barber shop or a hair salon to look good that night. You might also have dinner, go to a bar for a drink and tip the bartender. That’s the whole the idea of a ‘multiplier.’”
In Austin, that economic logic is an article of faith with city burghers, asserts Lozano of Visit Austin, who reports that live music in the capital city is roughly a $2 billion industry. To promote live music, the tourism bureau sponsors such endeavors as “Hire an Austin Musician.” That program, Lozano says, “sends musicians around the U.S. to represent us during marketing season.” In another promotional campaign, Visit Austin arranged for singer-songwriter Julian Acosta to play a gig at travel agents’ offices in London when Norwegian Air inaugurated direct flights between London and Austin in 2018. “The U.K. is one of our best markets,” he reports.
Even so, efforts by the business community and the City of Austin have failed to stanch much of the industry’s bleeding. According to its website, the city has disbursed $23.7 million in loans and grants to small businesses and individuals, but slightly less than $1 million of that has gone to live-music and performance venues, entertainment and nightlife, and live-music production and studios.
In late September, The city of Austin’s Economic Development Department released a slide show breaking down how the $981,842 in industry grants and loans – of which $484,776 was provided by the federal government under the CARES Act – were awarded. Most top recipients appeared to be well known nightclubs and entertainment venues downtown or close to the city’s inner core.
The Continental Club on South Congress – a key fixture in the hip “SoCo” strip just over the Colorado River from downtown – appeared to do best. It picked up $79,919 from two programs: $40,000 in the CARES-backed small business grants program, and $34,919 from the city’s Creative Space Disaster Relief Program. Other clubs receiving $40,000 in the small business grants program included Stubbs, The Belmont, Cheer Up Charlies and the White Horse. (For a full list go to: http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=347299)
Joe Ables, owner of the Saxon Pub, a major Austin venue for jazz – blues singer Ball hailed it as one of several important Austin clubs “that sustains creative endeavor, especially for songwriters” – was vexed that his grant application was denied by the city “with no explanation.” Ables also voiced dissatisfaction that the city paid the Better Business Bureau a 5% administration fee to handle $1.14 million in relief funds, including determining which applicants were approved. “What would they know about live music,” he says.
Even for clubs that received city largesse, it hasn’t been nearly enough to sustain them. The North Door, which got $15,240, closed for good on September 11 (an ominous day — the anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.)
Meanwhile, enough clubs and venues were left out in the cold that club owner Stephen Sternschein could tell deBanked just before the slide show was released: “I’ve heard talk of a $21 million grant program but most people I know haven’t seen a dollar of that.”
Sternschein is managing partner of Heard Presents, an independent promoter and operator of a triad of downtown clubs that includes the spacious Empire Garage, which features hip hop and urban jazz, and has space for 1000 music-goers. A member of NIVA, Sternschein describes efforts by both the state and local governments as “woefully inadequate.” Says he: “People are looking to the federal government for answers.”
The diminution of places for musicians to ply their trade is a double edged sword. If Austin loses its luster as a hot music town, it puts the city’s overall economy in jeopardy. Explains Jones, the Rice political scientist: “The difficulty for Austin is that it could lose its comparative advantage. Unlike restaurants, movie theaters or sports events, which people can find just as easily in other cities, the Austin music scene draws capital and revenue from across the country.
“You can go out to dinner in Waco,” he observes, referring to the mid sized Texas city between Austin and Dallas best known as home to Baylor University and its “Bears” football team, fervent Baptist religiosity, and unremarkable night life. “Music brings in revenue to Austin and to Texas that wouldn’t otherwise come here.”
In addition, Jones says, the large presence of “artists, creative types, and freelancers” helps make Austin a strong selling point for “brain industries” to attract talent from the East and West Coasts. “It supports the technology industry by making it easier to recruit employees to live there,” he says. “Austin is an alternative to Silicon Valley. People who are progressive might be hesitant to come to conservative, red-state Texas from California but they’ll come to Austin because it’s culturally cool.”
Austin, which embraces the slogan “Keep Austin Weird,” is on the verge of becoming just like every place else in Texas. Should it relinquish its flavor and charm, it could discourage many of the assorted business groups and professionals from keeping Austin on their dance card as a popular destination for meetings, conferences and get-away trips.
Howard Freidman, managing director at Bluechip Jets, a broker of private luxury aircraft, had an earlier career as a technology industry executive. Partly drawn by his previous experiences with the city, Freidman moved to Austin earlier this year. “It had the same coolness and weirdness of New Orleans — but also with the professionalism of a tech city,” he says.
“Whenever we’d come here,” Freidman adds, “the music was always integral to the Austin scene. Even when you’d go to private parties you’d end up downtown at the club scene on Sixth Street. Austin was always a place everybody liked going to.”But as Austin has steadily been morphing into more of a high-technology center than a live-music town, it’s experiencing a silent exodus of musicians and artists who are being gentrified out of their apartments and Craftsman duplexes. Displacing them are software engineers, website designers and the like, their sleek BMWs and black, tinted-glass SUVs glistening in the parking lots of steel-and-glass corporate centers.
Many of the technology firms – including such needy companies as Samsung, Intel, Rackspace, Facebook, and Apple – have each received tax breaks, grants and subsidies worth tens of millions of dollars from a variety of local jurisdictions. Not only have the city of Austin and Travis Country been beneficent, but adjacent county governments and the state of Texas have provided abundant support. A 2014 study by the Workers Defense Project, in collaboration with UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, reported that the state of Texas showers big business with $1.9 billion annually in state benefits. Most recently, officials with Travis County and a local school district granted Tesla more than $60 million in tax rebates to build a massive “gigafactory” southeast of town near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
To house the burgeoning cohort of “knowledge workers,” there are condominium conversions, tear-downs, high-rises and other forms of frenetic real estate development which, in their train, bring higher property taxes, steeper rents, and unaffordable housing.
Add in some of the country’s most snarled traffic, dirtier air, and a growing homeless population, and members of the artistic community are increasingly decamping for smaller satellite towns like Lockhart and San Marcos. Others in the diaspora are abandoning Texas altogether for more hospitable locales like Fayetteville Ark., Asheville, N.C., or Olympia, Wash. “Whatever made anybody think this would be a better town with a million people,” laments blues singer Ball. “This was a perfect town with 350,000. Now we’ve got Silicon Hills, Barton Springs are cloudy, and drinking water’s going to be scarce. Why is this supposed to be better?”
The drop-off in live music and the belt-tightening by musicians is causing third-party pain for people like veteran Austin journalist and publicist Lynne Margolis, whose national credits include stories for Rolling Stone online, and radio spots for NPR. “The public relations aspect of my work has dropped away because artists can’t afford to pay,” she says, “and music journalism is falling by the wayside. It’s hard not to feel to like a double dinosaur.”
Led by bars, restaurants and music venues, on many days the solemn departure of small establishments has the business news sections of Austin newspapers reading more like the obituary page. One hardy survivor is Giddy Ups – a throwback honky-tonk on the town’s outskirts that advertises itself as “the biggest little stage in Austin” – promising “just about everything,” says owner Nancy Morgan, including “country, blues, rock, bluegrass, and soul.” For the past 20 years Giddy Ups has developed a devoted following of musicians and patrons while fending off hyper modernity.
“It has an untouched, back-to-the-seventies, cosmic cowboy vibe,” says local musician Ethan Ford, a guitarist and bass player whose trio, The Slyfoot Family, has graced its stage. “It’s a time capsule,” Ford adds.
Morgan declined to disclose her annual receipts but in 2019, she reports paying out $188,000 in wages to employees, $72,000 to musicians, and $185,000 in combined sales taxes to the city of Austin and to the state. Despite her status as a taxpayer, employer and entrepreneur, she has received no state aid and is disqualified from receiving city pandemic assistance programs, meager as they may be, because she’s located in an extra-territorial jurisdiction.“
Nancy still bartends most nights and does all of the booking,” says Ford. “Her knowledge of the Austin music scene could fill a couple of books. I know a decent fistful of Austin venue owners and she’s about the only one that hasn’t given up, been forced out, or just retired. She’s a dynamo.”
Unless the cavalry arrives for Morgan and other holdouts, though, their musical days may be numbered.
Editors Note: Threadgill’s didn’t make it. The venue “has closed for good, the property has sold, and the building will eventually be torn down,” according to information disseminated for its Last Call Music Series. Its November 1st grand finale show featured Gary P. Nunn, Dale Watson, Whitney Rose, William Beckman, and Jamie Lin Wilson.
The building will be replaced with apartments.
Kristy Kowal, a silver medalist in the 200-meter breast stroke at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia, had recently relocated to Southern California and embarked on a new career when the pandemic shutdown hit in March.
After nearly two decades as a third-grade teacher in Pennsylvania, Kowal was able to take early retirement in 2019 and pursue her dream job. At last, she was self-employed and living in Long Beach where she could now devote herself to putting on swim clinics, training top athletes, and accepting speaking engagements. “I’ve been building up to this for twenty years,” she says.
But fate had a different idea. The coronavirus not only grounded her from travel but closed down most swimming pools. At first, she tried to collect unemployment compensation. But after two months of calling the unemployment office every day, her claim was denied. “‘Have a great day,’ the lady said, and then she hung up,” Kowal reports. “She wasn’t rude; she just hung up.”
Then, in June, the former Olympian heard from friends about Kabbage and the Paycheck Protection Program. Using an app on her smart phone, Kowal says, she was able to upload documents and complete the initial application in fewer than 20 minutes. A subsequent application with a bank followed and within a week she had her money.
“I was down to ten cents in my checking account,” says Kowal, who declined to disclose the amount of PPP money for which she qualified, “and I’d begun dipping into my savings. This gives me the confidence that I need to go back to my fulltime work.”
Kowal is one of 4.9 million small business owners and sole proprietors who, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, has received potentially forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. The PPP, a safety-net program designed to pay the wages of employees for small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic, is a key component of the $1.76 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Since the U.S. Congress enacted the law on March 27, the PPP has been renewed and amended twice. It’s now in its third round of funding and Congress is weighing what to do next.
Kowal’s experience, meanwhile, is also a wake-up call for the country on the prominent role that both fintechs like Kabbage as well as community and independent banks, credit unions, non-banks and other alternatives to the country’s biggest banks play in supporting small business. Before many in this cohort were deputized by the SBA as full-fledged PPA lenders, a significant chunk of U.S. microbusinesses – especially sole proprietorships — were largely disdained by the brand-name banks.
“After the first round,” notes Karen Mills, former administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School, “more institutions were approved that focused on smaller borrowers. These included fintechs and I have to say I’ve been very impressed.”
Among the cadre of fintechs making PPP loans – including Funding Circle, Intuit Quickbooks, OnDeck, PayPal, and Sabre — Kabbage stands out. The Atlanta-based fintech ranked third among all U.S. financial institutions in the number of PPP credits issued, its 209,000 loans trailing only Bank of America’s 335,000 credits and J.P. Morgan Chase’s 260,000, according to the SBA and company data. Kabbage also reports processing more than $5.8 billion in PPP loans to small businesses ranging from restaurants, gyms, and retail stores to zoos, shrimp boats, beekeepers, and toy factories.
To reach businesses in rural communities and small towns, Kabbage collaborated with MountainSeed, an Atlanta-based data-services provider, to process claims for 135 independent banks and credit unions around the U.S. The proof of the pudding: Eighty-nine percent of Kabbage’s PPP loans, says Paul Bernardini, director of communications at Atlanta-based Kabbage, were under $50,000, and half were for less than $13,500.
The figures illustrate not only that Kabbage’s PPP customers were mainly composed of the country’s smaller, “most vulnerable” businesses, Bernardini asserts, but the numbers serve as a reminder that “fintechs play a very important, vital role in small business lending,” he says.
The helpfulness of such financial institutions contrasts sharply with what many small businesses have reported as imperious indifference by the megabanks. Gerri Detweiler, education director at Nav, Inc., a Utah-based online company that aggregates data and acts as a financial matchmaker for small businesses, steered deBanked toward critical comments about the big banks made on Nav’s Facebook page. Bank of America, especially, comes in for withering criticism.
“Bank of America wouldn’t even take my application,” one man wrote in a comment edited for brevity. “I have three accounts there. They are always sending me stuff about what an important client I am. But when the going got tough, they wouldn’t even take my application. I’m moving all my business from Bank of America.”
Lamented another Bank of America customer: “I was denied (PPP funding) from Bank of America (where) I have an individual retirement account, personal checking and savings account, two credit cards, a line of credit for $20.000, and a home mortgage. Add in business checking and a business credit card. Yesterday I pulled out my IRA. In the next few days I’m going to change to a credit union.”
Many PPP borrowers who initially got the cold shoulder from multi-billion-dollar conglomerate banks have found refuge with local — often small-town — bankers and financial institutions. Natasha Crosby, a realtor in Richmond, Va., reports that her bank, Capital One, “didn’t have the applications available when the Paycheck Protection Program started” on April 6. And when she finally was able to apply, she notes, “the money ran out.”
Crosby, who is president of Richmond’s LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, is media savvy and was able to publicize her predicament through television appearances on CNN and CBS, as well as in interviews with such publications as Mother Jones and Huffington Post. A “friendly acquaintance,” she says, referred her to Atlantic Union Bank, a Richmond-based regional bank, where she eventually received a PPP loan “in the high five figures” for her sole proprietorship.
“It took almost two months,” Crosby says. “I was totally frozen out of the program at first.”
Talibah Bayles heads her own firm, TMB Tax and Financial Services, in Birmingham, Ala. where she serves on that city’s Small Business Council and the state’s Black Chamber of Commerce. She told deBanked that she’s seen clients who have similarly been decamping to smaller, less impersonal financial institutions. “I have one client who just left Bank of America and another who’s absolutely done with Wells Fargo,” she says. “They’re going to places like America First Credit Union (based in Ogden, Utah) and Hope Credit Union (headquartered in Jackson, Miss.). I myself,” she adds, “shifted my business from Iberia Bank.”
Main Street bankers acknowledge that they are benefiting from the phenomenon. “In speaking to our industry colleagues,” says Tony DiVita, chief operating officer at Bank of Southern California, an $830 million-asset community bank based in San Diego, “we’ve seen that many of the big banks have slowed down or stopped lending small-dollar amounts that were too low for them to expend resources to process.”
At the same time, DiVita says, his bank had made 2,634 PPP loans through July 17, roughly 80% of which went to non-clients. Of that number, some 30% have either switched accounts or are in the process of doing so. And, he notes, the bank will get a second crack at conversion when the PPP loan-forgiveness process commences in earnest. “Our guiding spirit is to help these businesses for the continuation of their livelihoods,” he says.
Noah Wilcox, chief executive and chairman of two Minnesota banks, reports that both of his financial institutions have been working with non-customers neglected by bigger banks where many had been longtime customers. At Grand Rapids State Bank, he says, 26% of the 198 PPP applicants who were successfully funded were non-customers. Minnesota Lakes Bank in Delano, handled PPP credits for 274 applicants, of whom 66% were non-customers.
“People who had been customers forever at big banks told us that they had been applying for weeks and were flabbergasted that we were turning those applications around in an hour,” says Wilcox, who is also the current chairman of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group representing community banks.
Noting that one of his Gopher State banks had successfully secured funding for an elderly PPP borrower “who said he had been at another bank for 69 years and could not get a telephone call returned,” Wilcox added: “We’ve had quite a number of those individuals moving their relationships to us.”
For Chris Hurn, executive director at Fountainhead Commercial Capital, a non-bank SBA lender in Lake Mary, Fla., the psychic rewards have helped compensate for the sometimes 16-hour days he and his staff endured processing and funding PPP applications. “It’s been relentless,” he says of the regimen required to funnel loans to more than 1,300 PPP applicants, “but we’ve gotten glowing e-mails and cards telling us that we’ve saved people’s livelihoods.”
Yet even as the Paycheck Protection Program – which only provides funding for two-and-a-half months – is proving to be immensely helpful, albeit temporarily, there is much trepidation among small businesses over what happens when the government’s spigots run dry. The hastily contrived design of the program, which has relied heavily on the country’s largest financial institutions, has contributed mightily to the program’s flaws.
“The underbanked and those who don’t have banking relationships were frozen out in the first round,” says Sarah Crozier, director of communications at Main Street Alliance, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization comprising some 100,000 small businesses. “The new updates were incredibly necessary and long overdue,” she adds, “but the changes didn’t solve the problem of equity in access to the program and whom money is flowing to in the community.”
Professor David Audretsch, an economist at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and an expert on small business, says of PPP: “It’s a short-term fix to keep businesses afloat, but it missed in a lot of ways. It was not well-thought-out and a lot of money went to the wrong people.”
The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 11.1% in June, according to the most recent figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about three times the rate of February, just before the pandemic hit. The BLS also reported that 47.2% of the U.S. population – nearly half –was jobless in June. Against this backdrop, SBA data on PPP lending released in early July showed that a stunning array of cosseted elite enterprises and organizations, many with close connections to rich and powerful Washington power brokers, have been feasting on the PPP program.
In a stunning number of cases, the program’s recipients have been tony Washington, D.C. law firms, influential lobbyists and think tanks, and even members of Congress. Many businesses with ties to President Trump and Trump donors have also figured prominently on the SBA list of those receiving largesse from the SBA.
Businesses owned by private equity firms, for which the definition of “small business” strains credulity, were also showered with PPP dollars. Bloomberg News reported that upscale health-care businesses in which leveraged-buyout firms held a controlling interest, were impressively adept at accessing PPP money. Among this group were Abry Partners, Silver Oak Service Partners, Gauge Capital, and Heron Capital. (Small businesses are generally defined as enterprises with fewer than 500 employees. The SBA reports that there are 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S. and that they account for roughly 47% of U.S. employment.)
Boston-based Abry Partners, which currently manages more than $5 billion in capital across its active funds, merits special mention. Among other properties, Abry holds the largest stake in Oliver Street Dermatology Management, recipient of between $5 million and $10 million in potentially forgivable PPP loans. Based in Dallas, Oliver Street ranks among the largest dermatology management practices in the U.S. and, according to a company statement, boasts the most extensive such network in Texas, Kansas and Missouri.
Meanwhile, the design of the program and the formula for the looming forgiveness process is proving impractical. As it currently stands, loan forgiveness depends on businesses spending 60% of PPP money on employees’ wages and health insurance with the remaining 40% earmarked for rent, mortgage or utilities.
Many businesses such as restaurants and bars, storefront retailers and boutiques – particularly those that have shut down — are preferring to let their employees collect unemployment compensation. “Business owners had a hard time wrapping their heads around the requirement of keeping employees on the payroll while they’re closed,” notes Detweiler, the education director at Nav. “They have other bills that have to be paid.”
The forgiveness formula remains vexing for businesses where real estate costs are exorbitant, particularly in high-rent cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago. Tyler Balliet, the founder and owner of Rose Mansion, a midtown Manhattan wine-bar promising an extravagant, theme-park experience for wine enthusiasts, says that it took him a month and a half to receive almost $500,000 from Chase Bank. Unfortunately, though, the money isn’t doing him much good.
“I have 100 employees on staff, most of whom are actors,” he says. “We shut down on March 13. I laid off 95 employees and kept just a few people to keep the lights on.”
At the same time, his annual rent tops $1 million and the forgivable amount in the PPP loans won’t even cover a month’s rent. “I haven’t paid rent since March and I’m in default,” Balliet says. “Now I’m just waiting to see what the landlord wants to do.”
Like many business owners, Balliet financed much of his venture with credit card debt, which creates an additional liability concern, notes Crozier of the Main Street Alliance. “It’s very common for borrowers to have signed personal guarantees in their loans using their credit cards,” she says. “As we get closer to the funding cliff and as rent moratoriums end,” she adds, “creditors are coming after borrowers and putting their personal homes at risk.”
Mark Frier is the owner of three restaurants in Vermont ski towns, including The Reservoir — his flagship — in Waterbury. In toto, his eateries chalked up $6.5 million in combined sales in 2019. But 2020 is far different: the restaurants have not been open since mid-March and he’s missed out on the lucrative, end-of-season ski rush.
Consequently, Frier has been reluctant to draw down much of the $750,000 in PPP money he’d secured through local financial institutions. “We could end up with $600,000 in debt even with the new rules,” Frier says, adding: “We live off very thin margins. We need grants not loans.”
As the country recorded 3.7 million confirmed cases of coronavirus and more than 141,000 deaths as of mid-July, PPP money earmarked by businesses for health-related spending was not deemed forgivable. Yet in order to comply with regulations promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and mandates and ordinances imposed by state and local governments, many establishments will be unable to avoid such expenditures.
“What we really needed was a grant program for companies to pivot to a business environment in a pandemic,” says Crozier. She cites the necessity businesspeople face of “retrofitting their businesses, buying masks, gloves and sanitizers and cleaning supplies, restaurants’ taking out tables and knocking down walls, installing Plexiglass shields, and improving air filtration systems.”
Meanwhile, as Covid-19 was taking its toll in sickness and death, the economic outlook for small business has been looking dire as well. The recent U.S. Census’s “Pulse Survey” of some 885,000 businesses updated on July 2 found that roughly 83% reported that Covid-19 pandemic had a “negative effect on their business. Fully 38% of all small business respondents, moreover, reported a “large negative effect.”
Amid the unabated spikes in the number of coronavirus cases and the country’s grave economic distress, PPP recipients are faced with the unsettling approach of the PPP forgiveness process. As Congress, the SBA, and the U.S. Treasury Department continue to remake and revise the rules and regulations governing the program, businesses are operating in a climate of uncertainty as well. Currently, the law states that the amount of the PPP loan that fails to be forgiven will convert to a five-year, one-percent loan — a relaxation in terms from the original two-year loan which is not necessarily cheering recipients.
“One of the biggest problems with PPP is that the rule book has been unclear,” frets Vermont restaurateur Frier, glumly adding: “This is not even a good loan program.”
Ashley Harrington, senior counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy group based in Durham, N.C., argued in House committee testimony on June 17, that there ought to be automatic forgiveness for PPP loans under $100,000. Such a policy, she declared, “would likely exempt firms with, on average, 13 or fewer employees and save 71 million hours of small business staff time.”
She also said, “The smallest PPP loans are being provided to microbusinesses and sole proprietors that have the least capacity and resources to engage in a complex (forgiveness) process with their financial institution and the SBA.”
William Phelan, president of Skokie (Ill.)-based PayNet, a credit-data services company for small businesses which recently merged with Equifax, sounded a similar note. Observing that there are some 23 million “non-employer” small businesses in the U.S. with fewer than three employees for whom the forgiveness process will likely be burdensome, he says: “Estimates are that it will cost businesses a few thousand dollars just to get a $100,000 loan forgiven. It’s going to involve mounds of paper work.”
The country’s major challenge now will be to re-boot the economy, Phelan adds, which will require massive financing for small businesses. “The fact is that access to capital for small businesses is still behind the times,” Phelan says. “At the end of the day, it took a massive government program to insure that there’s enough capital available for half of the U.S. economy” during the pandemic.
For his part, Professor Audretsch fervently hopes that the country has learned some profound lessons about the need to prepare for not just a rainy day, but a rainy season. The pandemic, he says, has exposed how decades of political attacks on government spending for disaster-preparedness and safety-net programs have left the U.S. exposed to unforeseen emergencies.
“We’re seeing the consequence of not investing in our infrastructure,” he says. “That’s a vague word but we need a policy apparatus in place so that the calvary can come riding in. This pandemic reminds me a lot of when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans,’ he adds. “The city paid a heavy price because we didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.”
Susan Lyon, managing director at an independent commercial film company in Solana Beach, California, can’t say enough good things about the quick action her bank took to help her secure emergency government funding during the current pandemic. “They sent out all the forms right away” enabling her to file an application on Friday, April 3 — “the earliest day possible” — she says of the Bank of Southern California. “Then they kept in touch after we sent all the pdf’s back, and they started uploading the loan applications when the Small Business Administration’s website went live the following Thursday.
“The very next day, which was Good Friday,” she adds of the San Diego-based bank, “they e-mailed me at 7 p.m. to say the funds are coming — and two hours later they e-mailed me to say that ‘the funds are in your account.’ It was a high-touch experience.”
Lyon says she will use the bulk of the $130,000, which she received under the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, to pay the salaries of the eight fulltime employees at Lyon & Associates, of which she and husband Mark own 90%.
Lyon’s friend Jennifer Biddle was not so fortunate. Biddle, who operates a flower-growing and distribution business with her husband Frank, has been emotionally devastated, she says, since Torrey Pines Bank dropped the ball on her application for $285,000 to pay employees during the crisis.
“They created an administrative nightmare,” Biddle says of her San Diego-based bank, which failed to forward her paperwork to the SBA. “Being disappointed doesn’t begin to describe my feelings,” she adds.
Based in Vista, California, FBI Flowers has roughly $6 million in annual sales, 40 employees, and a monthly payroll of $114,000. Like her friend Susan Lyon, Biddle also applied for PPP funding on April 3. But she didn’t hear back from her bank for several days “and we thought (the application) was processing,” she reports. When the bank did get back to her a week later, it was to say, “‘We need this other form,’” she says, quoting the bank. “And then they wanted our addendum revised.”
By the time the SBA made the announcement on April 16 that the agency had exhausted the $349 billion allocated by Congress, Torrey Pines was still sitting on her application. “To me it’s negligence,” Biddle says.
“We’re in the middle of our growing season and money is hardly coming in,” she adds. “Our employees are part of a vulnerable population, We were really counting on our bank to do their part and get the application to the SBA. This was what my kids would call ‘an epic fail.’”
Neither Torrey Pines Bank nor its Phoenix-based parent company would comment. “Unfortunately,” Robyn Young, chief marketing officer at Western Alliance Bancorporation, told deBanked, “our bankers are not able to share any information about our clients or client transactions.” (According to a tagline in the e-mail, Forbes magazine has named Western Alliance to its list of the “Ten Best Banks in America” for the past five years in a row.)
Lyon’s and Biddle’s accounts are just two stories – one a rousing success, the other an abject failure – emerging from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was created as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). Since the bipartisan bill was signed into law by President Trump on March 27, the SBA has approved 1.66 million small business applications.
Under the PPP, small businesses and self-employed individuals must apply for emergency funding through banks and designated non-bank lenders. Congress authorized the SBA to make emergency, low-interest loans of up to 2½ times a business’s monthly payroll to pay their employees’ wages for eight weeks.
If, after eight weeks, businesses can show they’d spent 75% of the government money keeping furloughed employees on the payroll and covering their health insurance, the loan will be forgiven. The remaining 25% of PPP funding will convert to a grant if it’s spent on rent and utilities.
Now, as the program is being rebooted with new Congressional action for a second round of funding totaling more than $300 billion, many applicants fear that they will again be left out in the cold. “We’ve been hearing that many banks have not been able to handle the torrent of applications,” says Gerri Detweiler, education director at Nav, Inc., a Utah-based online company that aggregates data and acts as a financial matchmaker for small businesses.
Detweiler reports that she and her team at Nav have been working 14-hour days since the CARES Act was signed into law fielding calls and responding to e-mails from the company’s 1.5 million members looking for assistance in navigating the PPP rules. One common experience for small business applicants has been that “many of the banks have been prioritizing customers with deeper and more longstanding relationships,” she says.
One small business owner in Texas, Edward L. Scherer, filed a federal lawsuit in Houston on Easter Sunday charging that Frost Bank, which is headquartered in San Antonio, violated the CARES Act and SBA rules by refusing to accept PPP applications from non-customers. Class action suits alleging illegal favoritism have also been filed against Bank of America, Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, and US Bancorp.
For customers and non-customers calling on Bank of America, this would come as no surprise. The Charlotte (N.C.) based giant makes clear that it will only process applications for regular customers. A notice on the bank’s website, declares that only “small business clients who have a lending and checking relationship with Bank of America as of February 15, 2020, and do not have a business credit or borrowing relationship with another bank, are eligible to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program through our bank.”
Although the PPP has been heralded as a way to rescue mom-and-pop businesses, national chain restaurants like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and hotels operating franchises have benefited handsomely. Ruth’s Chris alone received $20 million in crisis funding, according to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story.
For the bulk of the country’s small businesses “the money has been trickling in very slowly,” says Sarah Crozier, senior communications manager at the Main Street Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization that counts 300,000 members. Even for many businesses that have received funding, there remains widespread uncertainty that the loan will be converted to a grant. “There’s not a lot of trust that the PPP loan will be forgiven,” Crozier says. “There’s a lot of confusion.”
That’s a major concern for Randy George, owner of Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, Vermont – a speck of a place off I-89 near Montpelier, the state capital – who does not want to take on extra debt. Until a month ago, George had been running a $4 million (sales) operation which employed 48 employees. He’s closed down the café, he says, which accounts for about 60% of annual receipts, while keeping on 20 workers to run the bakery.
That operation – which turns out baguettes, croissants, sticky buns and other baked goods for wholesale distribution – has actually ramped up. With most restaurants temporarily shuttered, more New Englanders are eating at home, resulting in the bakery’s nearly doubling its sales to regional grocery stores and supermarkets.
Meanwhile, George has received $411,000 in PPP funding, which he applied for through Community National Bank, located in Barre, Vt., and he’s paying many of his 28 furloughed employees to remain idle. Because of the way the CARES Act program is structured, he says, it’s in his interest to convince laid-off employees not to collect unemployment compensation which includes an extra $600-a-week federal benefit and lasts longer than the eight-week PPP.
“I just called one of my fulltime employees and told him he’ll get to keep his health care if he stays on the payroll,” George explains. “But for part-time people it’s awkward. I’m incentivized to get people back to work and they’re incentivized to go on unemployment.”
At the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, a bar and restaurant in Maine with the reputation for having the tastiest cocktails in town, if not the entire Pine Tree State, the PPP is not working out for owner Andrew Volk. He secured funding “in the low six figures,” he says, but so far he’s keeping his powder dry. Instead of paying out-of-work employees, he’s letting them collect employment insurance and using a portion of PPP funding for rent and utilities. As for the remaining PPP funds, the question is whether to return the money or keep it as a loan.
Volk says the government program has done little to help him with his most pressing needs. For starters, he was forced to toss out “thousands upon thousands of dollars” worth of perishable foods since his establishment went dark on March 16. All meat, cheeses, sauces, citrus fruit, shrimp, fish and, of course, Maine lobster, went into the dumpster.
Because of a force majeure clause in his insurance policy that explicitly denies indemnification for an “act of God” – “Almost every business interruption insurance policy has a virus and pandemic exclusion,” Volk adds – he will have to eat those losses. “As a small business,” he adds, “we really need support beyond payroll.”
Even many qualified business people who have been approved for PPP funding are still waiting for their funds. Charles Wendel, president of Financial Institutions Consulting, based in Miami, applied for funding “in the five figures,” he says, through Citibank on April 4. That was nearly three weeks ago. “If I were a guy who really needed this money, I’d be screwed,” he says.
In the next round of PPP funding, those who missed out now hope they will be approved quickly by their banks or lenders and that the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control. Meanwhile, the massive unemployment and shutdown of small businesses nationwide are reshaping the contours of the U.S. economy. “Ultimately,” warns Crozier of the Main Street Alliance, “the result of this will be more corporate consolidation and monopolization. That’s what we saw coming out of the ‘Great Recession’ in 2008.”
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.
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.
The 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%.
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?”
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.”
A 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.
Almost 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.”
Amid 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.”
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.
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.”
One gauge of the commercial excitement over legal weed, medical marijuana and cannabis’s byproducts could be witnessed at the Las Vegas Convention Center in early December where the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo was overflowing with 31,523 attendees.
Appealing to that audience—roughly the population of Juneau, Alaska—were more than 1,300 exhibitors who hailed from 79 different countries and touted products and services as varied as advancements in crop cultivation, medicinal breakthroughs, and innovative consumer products like marijuana-laden pastry.
That’s some 30% more than the 1,000 vendors who packed into the Central Hall in 2018 and about double the 678 who were showing off their wares in the smaller North Hall two years ago, reports Chris Day, vice president for external relations at Denver-based Marijuana Business Daily, which follows the cannabis industry and sponsored the Las Vegas trade show.
“In December, 2019,” Day declares, “we did not have to turn people away because we expanded. We had enough room for exhibitors but we needed both halls.” Unable to resist a boast, he adds: “We’ve been the fastest-growing trade show in the country three years running.”
One face in the December crowd was seasoned financial broker Scott Jordan, the Denver-based managing director of the Alternative Finance Network. He was occupying a booth accompanied by two attractive female models in fetching T-shirts emblazoned with the message: “How much would you borrow at zero percent?”
The young ladies’ arresting appearance and the message worked to the extent that “it got people talking,” Jordan says. As for the zero-interest rate, it’s not exactly free money. “I’ve got a product that puts together a line of credit,” he explains, “and after they receive the line of credit, it charges them a fee.”
As a broker, Jordan does the spade work of poring through a cannabis business’s financial statements and business model before he tees up a deal—typically between $250,000 and $750,000—to “a cadre” of 35 lenders in 10 states. He’ll ascertain whether the best funding option should be structured as equipment leasing, a working-capital loan, a revolving line of credit, project financing, or a real estate loan.
One recent cannabis deal that Jordan midwifed involved a “post-revenue, pre-profitability” manufacturing and processing company headquartered in Colorado. The financing, which closed in April, 2019, involved a pair of four-year term loans: one for $400,000 to refinance existing machinery, and a second for an additional $500,000 to acquire new laboratory equipment. Both credits carried interest rates in the “mid-teens,” he says, and were secured by the equipment.
Once the debt financing was in place, the manufacturing operation was “fully functioning,” Jordan reports, paving the way for the company to raise $30 million in venture capital financing. Jordan argues that “even if they pay a 10-20 percent interest rate, it’s better to preserve equity and finance through a normal type of loan. If you need an extraction machine or packaging equipment,” he adds, “why give up equity if you can finance it through debt?”
Jordan’s reasoning appears to sit well with clients and funders alike. Since 2014, he has brokered 85 transactions worth $33 million. He reckons that two out of three deals that he takes to funders meet with success. “My best year was 2015 because there were only a few competitors and I was the only guy on the block,” he says.
As the country steadily decriminalizes and legalizes pot, however, early market entrants like Jordan no longer have the cannabis business all to themselves. Thirteen states have legalized recreational marijuana for adults. These include California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Nevada in the West; Illinois and Michigan in the Midwest; and Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine in the East. Hawaii and Alaska permit it and, if you’re over 21, you can legally grow, smoke or ingest weed in the District of Columbia, but it cannot be sold commercially.
An additional 24 states have approved medical marijuana. While research on cannabis’s medicinal properties remains thin—largely because of objections by federal law enforcement—it is being prescribed for a range of maladies, including cancer, glaucoma, epilepsy, Crohn’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, nausea, and pain. [“The marijuana plant contains more than 100 different chemicals called cannabinoids,” according to WebMD. “Each one has a different effect on the body. Delta-9- tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are the main chemicals used in medicine. THC also produces the ‘high’ people feel when they smoke marijuana or eat foods containing it.”]
Industry data assembled by MJBizDaily reflects both the broad acceptance of legal cannabis use and its increasing commercial popularity. U.S. revenues from legal weed and its byproducts are expected to clear $16.4 billion this year, a 40% growth rate over the $11.75 billion in estimated revenues for 2019. The legal cannabis industry now employs about 200,000 persons in the U.S., about the same number as flight attendants (120,000) and veterinarians (80,00) combined.
For more evidence that the cannabis market is hot look no further than the state of Illinois, where recreational marijuana went on sale Jan. 1, 2020. The Prairie State’s governor also pardoned some 11,000 citizens with criminal records for possession and the sale of low levels of marijuana.
“We’re showing that sales were close to $3.2 million on the first day of 2020,” says MJBiz’s Day. “Illinois is the big story right now,” he adds. “Anytime a new state opens up in the market, you’re seeing enormous pent-up demand and enthusiasm.”
Even as the cannabis industry takes giant strides toward public acceptance, the plant continues to face hostility from the U.S. federal government, which has criminalized its use for 80 years. Marijuana remains classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule 1 drug, keeping company with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy.
That designation has also made it hard for the cannabis industry to engage in simple financial transactions, much less obtain financing. “Despite the majority of states’ having adopted cannabis regimes of some kind, federal law prevents banks from banking cannabis businesses,” Joanne Sherwood, president and chief executive at Citywide Banks, a $2.3 billion-asset bank headquartered in Denver, testified to Congress last summer. “The Controlled Substances Act,” added Sherwood, who is chair of the Colorado Bankers Association, “classifies cannabis as an illegal drug and prohibits its use for any purpose. For banks, that means that any person or business that derives revenue from a cannabis firm is violating federal law and consequently putting their own access to banking services at risk.”
And despite the herculean efforts by the cannabis industry to soften its image, obtaining financing from traditional sources like pension funds, insurance companies and university endowments remains a daunting proposition as well, says David Traylor, senior managing director at Golden Eagle Partners. His four-person, boutique investment fund, which makes equity investments in up-and-coming cannabis companies, relies on wealthy individuals and family offices for the bulk of its funds.
“Capital is hard to come by for this industry,” Traylor says. “From day one, most venture capitalists have been staying out of it. It’s still illegal in many states and their limited partners are endowments like Harvard and Yale, which see marijuana as the antithesis of education.”
Sarah Sanger, chief financial officer at Oak Investment Funds, a real estate investment firm based in Oakland, says: “There’s a great deal of economic activity in California but it’s stymied by the lack of financing and difficulty with changing regulations. It provides an opportunity for really expensive debt from private investors willing to do due diligence.”
That absence of establishment financing has opened up a plethora of opportunities for alternative funders, and not just in agriculture and plant cultivation. While agriculture represents the bedrock of the industry there is no downstream product, of course, without the cannabis leaf— growing and harvesting cannabis is just one stage of the industry’s life cycle.
MJBiz’s Day notes, for example, that that the legal cannabis industry is regulated for safety, so growers must show that “the flower has no molds or contaminants.” That means that crops are subject to rigorous testing and decontamination, which requires both materials and expertise. To process the leaf and develop “infused products” by extracting cannabis-based oils entails the purchase and deployment of costly technology. Packaging and labeling along with tracking systems that, Day says, “are stricter than in other places” are also key components of the farm-to-market supply chain.
Meanwhile, in an ongoing effort to appeal to a fresh cohort of customers, Jordan notes, the cannabis industry continues to develop innovative uses for the plant. “There are so many applications and new products that keep appearing, like ice cream with marijuana, vaporizers, inhalers, and syrup,” he says. “Now, there are mints—something I hadn’t seen before—and different ways to ingest the product and get high and not look like a druggie.”
Jordan Fein, chief executive at Greenbox Capital in Miami, says his firm prefers to fund downstream companies selling cannabis products. “We do agricultural lending but it’s less attractive and harder to qualify the business. It’s not as tangible as a retail business which will have a website and product reviews. The same goes for edibles.”
Recent Greenbox Capital deals in 2019, Fein says, included one with merchant cash advances of $80,000 and $60,000 in growth capital to a Colorado dispensary. The operation put the money to work adding two retail outlets during the year, he says, bringing to four its total number of storefronts. In addition to cannabis flower, the dispensary sells “edibles, tinctures, lotions, and wax concentrates,” Fein reports. Both short term cash advances require regular ACH payments.
Greenbox Capital also made a $135,000 cash advance to a cannabis-testing laboratory in Southern California in August, 2019 for the purchase of sophisticated equipment. The company, he says, is doing $140,000-a-month in revenue and cashflow is strong and on the rise.
“Greenbox is always interested in higher risk deals,” Fein says, noting that banking services remain off limits to legal cannabis firms. “But we fund them for the same reason we fund lawyers and auto sales—things that most others will not do. There’s nothing wrong with risk,” he adds, “as long as you clearly assign a proper value to the deal and price to it.”
Steve Sheinbaum, a New York broker and chief executive at Circadian Funding, has unabashedly climbed aboard the cannabis bandwagon. “The market is exploding and it’s attractive to lenders because it’s a product people can put their hands on,” he says. “If I’m dealing with a grower, I can leverage real estate and usually there’s equipment. If they’re producing, there’s inventory and I can look at the income statement to see what kind of cash flow the business is generating.”
He recently brokered a $10 million loan for a licensed grower and distributor of medicinal marijuana in New England with monthly revenues of $3-$4 million. The credit bore a 17% annual percentage rate and a six-year maturity, he says. The deal was brought to Circadian by a private equity investor who was looking to grow the enterprise tenfold. The deal, which was interest-only, was secured by a second position on real estate and a lien on the borrower’s license. “The lender was comfortable with the interest-only loan,” Sheinbaum explains. “They can refinance in six years.”
In another recent deal, Circadian arranged an unsecured merchant cash advance for $300,000 to a Pacific Northwest technology company developing specialty, point-of-sale software for the cannabis industry. The firm showed monthly revenues of $300,000.
“It’s not federally permitted for cannabis firms to take payments from Visa, Mastercard or American Express,” Sheinbaum explains. “But this technology company is using debit or credit cards to pay for cryptocurrency which is stored on a prepaid card which customers can then use to purchase cannabis.”
The tech company had been struggling to find money and Sheinbaum took satisfaction in a deal announcement that went out in an e-mail to the industry. “Funding complicated deals is what gets our blood flowing,” Sheinbaum wrote. “Anyone can get a restaurant or dentist funded. No one needs help with that.”
Manny Columbie, a Miami-based senior funding manager at H&J Capital Group, an Orlando firm, reports funding agricultural and dispensary businesses in California, Colorado and Washington State. In the Evergreen State, he says, he recently provided funding to a woman who owned a marijuana-themed café connected to a cannabis dispensary. The deal went through after examining her recent bank statements and two years of federal tax returns.
“The best thing about lending to people in this industry is their ability to repay,” Columbie says. “They’re never lacking in funds.”
He provided more detail on a deal currently in the works involving a physician in Irvine, California, with an 800-plus credit score from the rating agency Experian and personal tax returns showing $2 million in annual income. The doctor, Columbie says, has been making transdermal patches infused with THC in addition to his medical practice and needs specialized equipment to lower his manufacturing costs to 55 cents per patch. The patches sell for $40-$60 apiece, Columbie says, depending on the THC content.
If the deal goes through and is approved by H&J’s credit committee, the physician would likely be extended a $350,000 loan with a 10-year maturity secured by the Chinese-manufactured equipment. Factoring in the doctor’s excellent credit and other positives, the interest rate on the credit could be as low as 5%-7%.
While the environment for legal cannabis seems to grow more favorable by the day, market participants urge funders to remain circumspect. One remaining fly in the legal cannabis ointment has been the persistence of an illegal black market. Estimates are that as much as 60% to 80% of the marijuana market in California is illicit, says Craig Behnke, an equity analyst at MJBiz.
Law-abiding businesses must also contend with overbearing regulators and high taxation. The California Department of Fee and Tax Administration recently jacked up its excise tax on cannabis to 80%, effective on Jan. 1, 2020.
And the state’s constabulary isn’t helping matters either, notes Sanger of Oak Funds. “There are going to be a lot of operators that end up being losers because of the regulatory environment,” she says. “Law enforcement is using all of its resources to make sure legitimate businesses are following the rules instead of clamping down on black market activity. That makes it harder for legitimate retailers to make money because people are still shopping in the black market.”
The recent collapse of the shares of publicly traded Canadian cannabis companies, which some blame in part on the illicit competition from the black market, also stands as a cautionary sign. Last August, the Motley Fool listed ten “Pot Stocks”—including Canopy Growth and Aurora Cannabis, both of which are listed on the New York Stock Exchange—that together lost a stunning $20 billion in market capitalization.
The drubbing that heedless investors have taken in the Canadian stocks reminds analyst Behnke of the debacle in dotcom stocks back in 2001-2002, but with a big difference. “The dotcoms were a brand-new invention and people had no idea how big the Internet companies would be,” he told deBanked. “But cannabis has been around for a thousand years. I feel like it was a shame on investors and the companies. This shouldn’t have happened.”
“The Mountains Are Calling” is the motto of Gatlinburg, an East Tennessee town of roughly 4,000 citizens known for its spectacular views of the Smoky Mountains and as a jumping-off spot for hikers, campers and winter skiers. The town also offers attractions such as Ripley’s Aquarium and arts-and-crafts festivals.
To get around, 800,000 tourists and locals alike hop aboard the 20-odd trolley buses operated by Gatlinburg Trolley, the private transit system. Few riders marveling at the picturesque scenery and enjoying the sprightly vehicles, which recall San Francisco’s cable cars, know that they’re riding a custom-made trolley-bus built by Hometown Trolley of Crandon, Wisconsin.
And even fewer would know that the chief executive and president of that company is Kristina Pence-Dunow, making it the only female-owned manufacturer of transit vehicles in the US. Bolstering the manufacturing enterprise—which Pence-Dunow acquired in 1997 from her ex-husband, who wanted to “liquidate” it, she says—have been multiple bank loans backed by the Small Business Administration.
The most crucial SBA loan came in 2005, she says, just as she was nearly driven out of business in a price war. “We had to be innovative” to survive the cutthroat competition, Pence-Dunow told deBanked in a telephone interview.
Using a $350,000, five-year SBA credit issued by River Valley Bank (now Incredible Bank of Wausau, Wis.), the transit company developed the prototype for a “lowfloor entry vehicle.” The design feature made her trolleys accessible to riders with walkers and wheelchairs and enabled the company to beat out its competitor for a key contract with Hampton Roads (Va.) Transit. That deal, in turn, generated sales to transit authorities in Miami Beach, Laguna Beach, and the University of Oklahoma.
Subsequent SBA loans, Pence-Dunow says, enabled the company to create its own dealer network and develop battery-powered, clean-energy vehicles. The financings also allowed her to buy out, in 2016, the rival trolley company that had tried to run her buses off the road.
Her grit and determination—for many years Pence-Dunow ran the company as a single mother raising two children—have also paid dividends for her Wisconsin community. With annual sales of $20 million and 65 employees receiving health and life insurance as well as pension benefits, Hometown Trolley has brought good-paying jobs to successive generations of families in the Northwoods.
In 2018, she earned the SBA’s “Small Business Person of the Year” award for the state of Wisconsin.
Hometown Trolley, meanwhile, is just one of 30 million small businesses that make up the backbone of the US economy. Small businesses—a small business is broadly defined as a commercial or professional enterprise with fewer than 500 employees—accounted for the employment of 58.9 million people in 2015, according to the US Census Bureau’s most recent figures. That’s just shy of 50% of the country’s total workforce. And it seems that the smaller the better: In 2018, firms employing fewer than 20 employees added 1.1 million net jobs to the US economy, the largest gains among the small business cohort.
By contrast, large manufacturing companies only employ about 11% of the total workforce, notes Karen G. Mills, former SBA administrator and member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet. The bottom line is that the contribution to the economy made by both small business and the SBA “is under-appreciated,” says Mills, now a senior fellow at Harvard Business School and author of Fintech, Small Business & the American Dream. “It’s a much more powerful job-creator than the manufacturing component of the US economy,” she adds.
During the Great Recession, which coincided with her tenure at the SBA, Mills reports that 60% of the country’s job losses were in the small business sector. As many as 1.8 million jobs disappeared in a single quarter in 2009. Mills credits the SBA’s lending as playing a key role in buffering the US economy against even more severe ravages.
To help reverse the economic free-fall, the SBA eliminated all SBA fees and temporarily upped the 75% government credit guarantee to 90%. The agency also persuaded a thousand commercial banks that had not issued an SBA-backed credit since 2000 to turn on the spigots. “Banks are the primary source of financing for small businesses,” she notes. “They (small businesses) can’t go to the credit markets like big business does.”
S.R. Rosati, Inc., an Italian ice manufacturer based in Clifton Heights, Pa., is one of those small businesses that nearly went belly-up. Headed by Richard Trotter, a West Point graduate, former US Army captain and company president, the Italian ice business is thriving today. It has just under 30 employees and reports annual sales of $10 million. But ten years ago it was in desperate straits. “Even though we’re a 100-year-old company,” Trotter says, “we could have been like a ton of businesses that went out of business every week. The SBA helped us get through tough economic times in 2007-2008 when a lot of businesses took a hit.”
The SBA’s flagship product is the 7(a) loan, which range up to $5 million. Almost 2,000 US banks, as well as a number of nonbanks, participate in the program. The loans are currently backed by a 75% government guarantee and are targeted to those entrepreneurs who, the SBA states, “otherwise would not have access to capital to start, grow, or expand their small businesses.”
An SBA loan, former Administrator Mills explains, “is designed to fill a market gap— to make loans to creditworthy borrowers that the market feels are too risky to make without some support.”
Currently bearing an interest rate of 7.75%-9%, according to financial technology firm Fundera, 7(a) loans are affordable and the terms are fairly generous: typically, the borrower has 10 years to repay the loan. The loans can be used for multiple purposes: as working capital, to purchase equipment and inventory, make a business acquisition, meet payroll, hire new employees, and (in some cases) refinance crushing debt.
If a borrower is eligible and able to secure a 7(a) loan, “it’s the gold standard,” remarks Levi King, chief executive and co-founder of Utah-based Nav, an online, credit-data aggregator and financial matchmaker for small businesses.
William McSweeney, chief operating officer in the business banking section at Citizens Bank in Boston, says that insufficient collateral is most often the reason that a small business fails to qualify for a conventional business loan. With an SBA loan, he says, the government guarantee serves as a bulwark “to cover the weakness of a collateral position.”
He cites the case of a dentist who’s attempting to acquire an existing dental practice for $1 million. Unless the practice owns a building, McSweeney says, there’s probably not enough collateral to support a $1 million borrowing. Yet the deal is attractive: Dentistry is a reliable industry (or “vertical” in lender jargon), the targeted practice has a solid client base, there’s strong cashflow, and the practice boasts a fully equipped armamentarium. “An SBA loan will guarantee the $1 million loan for 75 percent,” McSweeney says. “Now I can ask, ‘Is there $250,000 in collateral.’ That’s the way I look at it.”
Adds Kirk Jacobson, an SBA lender at Northwest Bank branch in Independence, Ohio: “In my experience, the preponderance of SBA loans have a collateral shortfall. Even lending to hotels or something tangible can be risky. The collateral (the hotel) can lose value quickly. The challenge for banks like ours is to use the SBA as the tool where conventional lending doesn’t work.”
By at least one yardstick SBA lending appears to be at a crossroads. The SBA reports that the number of small businesses taking advantage of the 7(a) program fell by 13% in the most recent fiscal year, which ended September 30, 2019. The 52,000 small businesses securing 7(a) credits in 2019 was more than 8,000 fewer than the previous year. The dollar amount of credits acquired also dropped; the $23.7 billion in lending was a 6.5% drop.
This is being taken as a good sign by the agency. “A strong economy is powering America’s 30 million small businesses, and the SBA’s numbers bear that out,” Chris Pilkerton SBA’s acting administrator and general counsel, said in a recent statement. “When the economy is doing well, 7(a) lenders are more willing to provide capital without the need for a federal loan guarantee.”
But even small businesses that are outwardly healthy and experiencing growth often face hardship. Consider the case of Kyle McClelland, owner of Have Lights Will Travel, a Reno-based contractor that handles illumination for office buildings, stores, parking lots, and warehouses across northern Nevada. He got in over his head this year when he subcontracted lighting work for Macy’s and Target parking lots in a string of northern California cities.
There was no money advanced by the main contractor for materials, wages or expenses, he says. As a subcontractor, McClelland doesn’t get paid until the job is done. Yet, almost overnight, he doubled his workforce to 70 employees, footed the bill for a platoon of workers to lighting equipment, all of which exhausted his $100,000 line of credit with a Reno bank. His situation looked dire and it was taking an emotional toll. “The company was on life support.” he says. ”I realized that I needed extra funds to make payroll. I honestly didn’t sleep for months. I was lucky to get three hours of sleep a night.”
McClelland was bailed out in August when he secured a $350,000 line of credit through an SBA Express loan fronted by Five Star Bank, a Sacramento financial institution. SBA Express loans, which are part of the 7(a) program but carry only a 50% government guarantee, can be made in as few as 36 hours. But McClelland says that it took him four weeks to obtain the loan.
Trotter, the owner of the Italian ice company, says that his business too is in an expansion phase and that its financial situation was cramped. He had been saddled with a pricey, short-term note for $1.4 million that was weighing down business. With the intercession of Multifunding, a Philadelphia-area broker, Trotter took out a $2.5 million, 10-year loan with Celtic Bank in Utah at prime plus 2.75%, his third SBA loan in 20 years. The refinancing, which closed in late July, is saving him $30,000 in monthly cashflow, he says, more than $100,000 to date.
“Now we can play a little bit of offense,” he says. “We have the up-front money to go into convenience stores and supermarkets with our product.”
One common experience of the business-people who spoke to deBanked is that assembling the required documents and applying for SBA loans can be a daunting and often discouraging task. “The whole thing with these loans is making sure the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed,” says Domenic Rinaldi, managing partner at Sun Acquisitions, a Chicago-based firm specializing in lower middle-market, merger-and-acquisition deals using SBA loans. “The government is demanding,” he adds, “and if everything is not in order, you won’t get your money.”
To cut through the inordinate amount of red tape, many businesses turn to brokers like Multifunding and other financial midwives, who receive a commission from the bank. “The fastest I’ve done an SBA loan is two weeks and the longest is 18 months,” says Ami Kassar, founder and chief executive of Multifunding. He says that the firm’s SBA credit business constitutes 70% of his work and that he relies on a network of 10 banks. “The average time it takes for an SBA loan is probably 90 days,” he adds.
“Grueling” is how Daniel Shemtob of Los Angeles describes his experience obtaining an SBA loan. “I had gone to 30 banks,” he says, “and I did qualify for a loan but I didn’t like the deal.”
Shemtob is the chief executive and—thanks to securing an SBA backed financing for an acquisition—the sole owner of The Lime Truck, which has bragging rights to winning the Food Network’s “Great Truck Race.”
In addition to the truck, his Southern California business also includes a couple of brick-and-mortar restaurants and a catering company. The operation, which will do $5.5 million in sales this year, employs 40 full-time workers plus part-time catering help.
Shemtob finally scored an SBA loan with assistance from Kassar’s Multifunding, which he found through Entrepreneurs’ Organization, where he’s a board member of the L.A. chapter. He was able to take out a pair of 10-year loans totaling $1.8 million with IncredibleBank at prime plus 2.75%. Even with a broker, he says, it took him three months to get the loan, which closed earlier this year. “The ten-year loans give you stability and an affordable payment,” he says. “If I hit my sales targets,” he adds, “the loans will allow me to grow the business.”
But what if he hadn’t obtained SBA-backed financing? “I don’t know if the company would be around today,” Shemtob says.
SBA loans used for acquisitions play a major role in extending the life of enterprises that likely would have disappeared upon the retirement or death of an entrepreneur, the unwillingness of succeeding generations to take control of a family business, or the break-up of a partnership, notes Rinaldi, the Chicago M&A specialist.
To arrange SBA acquisition loans for purchasers of small businesses, Rinaldi deals mainly with 18 banks, including Busey Bank (Champaign, Ill.), U.S. Bancorp (Minneapolis), Byline Bank (Chicago) and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (Toronto). “Banks may say, ‘Bring us all your manufacturing deals’ and two years later there’s a management change and they’ll only make loans to distribution and service companies,” Rinaldi says. “Part of my job is understanding which sectors are handled by which banks.”
Meanwhile, an emerging debate is brewing within banking circles about the best use of SBA 7(a) loans, which were capped at $28 billion in the last fiscal year. While the overall U.S. economy has continued to prosper since the Great Recession, and the official unemployment rate has dipped below 4%, the lowest in 50 years, the bounty is being shared unevenly. While most large US cities and suburbs are generally adding jobs and experiencing good times, many rural areas and Rust Belt communities are dealing with stagnant wages, job losses and population outflows.
The question is: Should more banking resources be directed to distressed communities through SBA loans? Or should the banking industry lend as it sees fit, largely focused on profitability and shareholder value, albeit within the SBA’s guidelines, perhaps with a nod to businesses owned by women, minorities and veterans? Many banks incorporate both philosophies. But this dichotomy in operational goals can sometimes be seen in sharp relief.
The stark difference in SBA lending practices between Live Oak Bank of Wilmington, N.C. and Northwest Bank of Warren, Pa. is a case in point.
With $4.6 billion in assets, Live Oak Banking Company, which was founded in 2007, is just a dozen years old but it’s already become the No. 1 SBA lender in the US. In the most recent fiscal year, from just one branch on North Carolina’s seacoast, it made 913 SBA loans totaling $1.347 billion, an average of nearly $1.5 million per loan. To comprehend the magnitude of that accomplishment: Live Oak nearly lapped Wells Fargo Bank, the No. 2 lender with $786.4 million in loan totals, despite the latter’s making triple the number of SBA loans. It also out-lent such worthies as J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America, both of which lagged well behind Live Oak in the SBA lending tables.
With its adroit use of technology and its meteoric rise to become an SBA powerhouse, Live Oak has emerged as a Wall Street darling. Thomas Brown, a founder and chief executive at Second Curve Capital, a hedge fund that invests exclusively in financial services companies and manages $150 million in assets, calls Live Oak “a freak of nature.”
“For their veterinarian-lending practice,” Brown observes, “they hire a vet as their lending officer. They do this with all their verticals, whether it’s chicken farming or funeral homes. And when they’re dealing with a client, they have all this incredible expertise.”
Steve Smits, chief credit officer at Live Oak, told deBanked that the bank now lends to 29 verticals across all 50 states. Its most recent additions were early childhood education centers and franchisees for aftermarket companies like Jiffy Lube and Meineke. Not only does Live Oak have experienced loan officers with deep knowledge of their sectors making the loans, but the bank is conscientious about keeping up with its clients. So much so that it maintains a stable of consultants, accountants and other professionals who are on call to add value.
For example, says Smits, a former associate administrator of the SBA’s office of capital access, one of Live Oak’s board members is Jerald Pullins, a former president of Service Corporation International, the Houston-based owner and operator of nearly 1,500 funeral homes and 481 cemeteries in the US and Canada.
For critics who say that an SBA lender should be modeled on George Bailey, the small-town banker immortalized in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Smits says: “On a moral plane, we visit 100 percent of our small business owners face-to-face at a minimum of a two-year rotation. With 10-year loans, it would be easy to take a hands-off approach, but we’re very vigilant.”
Smits adds: “We’ve had our customers say to us, ‘You know what. You’ve traveled across the country to see me. And I’ve been banking with the branch down the street and they’ve never been in my office.’”
Founded in 1896 and headquartered in Warren, Pa., Northwest Bank’s service area looks like a jagged triangle traversing three states, running from Lancaster, Pa. to greater Cleveland to Buffalo, N.Y. and back. Inside the tri-state perimeter are a plethora of gritty old factory towns and Rust Belt communities.
“Our banks are located in all kinds of small cities,” Jacobson, the bank’s chief SBA lender, says. “I’m biased,” he adds, “but I believe in reinvesting in our communities. Our business model is to lend in our footprint. It’s where our branches are and where our clients are. Our strategy is not to lend around the US.”
One example of Northwest’s targeted SBA lending, Jacobson says, can be seen in Lorain, Ohio, a city of 64,000 on Lake Erie that is working to reinvent itself. Lorain was once the proud home of iconic heavy industries like the American Ship Building Company, a Ford Motor assembly plant, and U.S. Steel’s sprawling mill on the city’s south side. The economy was so dynamic that it “outshined Cleveland” says Kevin Nelson, the Lorain-based president of Northwest Bank’s Ohio region.
But in the 1980s deindustrialization began to take its toll and the city experienced high unemployment, rising poverty, and urban decay. Now, however, Lorain is hoping to rise like the mythical Phoenix from its ashes. And Northwest Bank is doing its part by marshaling resources in concert with the city’s government, the Black River Port Authority, the Chamber of Commerce, the Lorain Historical Society and other citizens groups to transform the waterfront and downtown into an entertainment center and destination for weddings, rock concerts, and other events.
Nelson is bullish on the just-completed Broadway Streetscape, in the heart of downtown, which has given Lorain a physical makeover. There are, Nelson says, “new sidewalks, lighting, archways, and parking areas.” Condominiums are being built and the marina is under new management, which could make the city a boating center. Black River Landing has become a magnet for celebrants with more than 200,000 people attending the “Rockin’ on the River” concerts over the summer. And the city is witnessing “new restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and other gathering places for people,” the banker says. “We’re seeing outside investment and we’re just beginning to see Lorain becoming a destination for millennials.”
Many of the trendy new establishments are being financed with SBA loans. “SBA lending has helped us support some of these new ventures coming in,” Nelson says. “They don’t make up for bad credit, lack of a business plan or cashflow,” he adds. “It has to be the right type of business. But SBA loans are a component.”
Who knows? Maybe Lorain will be home to the next Ben & Jerry’s or Calloway Golf, both of which commenced life as small business start-ups. A city can hope, can’t it?
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.”
Last year, when Kevin Frederick struck out on his own to form his own catering company in Annapolis, the veteran caterer knew that he’d need a food trailer for his business to succeed.
He reckoned that he had a good case for a $50,000 small-business loan. The Annapolis-based entrepreneur boasted stellar personal credit, $30,000 in the bank, and a track record that included 35 years of experience in his chosen profession. More impressively, his newly minted company—Chesapeake Celebrations Catering—was on a trajectory to haul in $350,000 in revenues over just eight months of operations in 2018. And, after paying himself a salary, he cleared $60,000 in pre-tax profit.
But Frederick’s business-credit profile was so thin that no bank or business funder would talk to him. So woeful was his lack of business credit, Frederick reports, that his only financing option was paying a broker a $2,000 finder’s fee for a high-interest loan.
Luckily, he says, everything changed when he discovered Nav, an online, credit-data aggregator and financial matchmaker.
Based in Utah, Nav had him spiff up his business credit with Dun & Bradstreet, a top rating agency and a Nav business partner. This was accomplished with a bankcard issued to Frederick’s business by megabank J.P. Morgan Chase. Soon afterward, he says, Nav steered him to Kapitus (formerly Strategic Funding Source), a New York-based lender and merchant cash advance firm that provided some $23,000 in funding.
“They led me in the right direction,” Frederick says of Nav. “A lady there (at Nav) helped me with my credit, warning me that the credit card I’d been using had an effect on my personal credit. Then she led me to Kapitus, all probably within a week.”
Now, Frederick has his food trailer. He reports that its total cost—$14,000 for the trailer, which came “with a concession window, mill-finished walls, and flooring” plus $43,000 in renovations—amounted to $57,000. Equipped with a full kitchen—including refrigeration, sinks, ovens, and a stove—the food trailer can be towed to weddings, reunions, and the myriad parties he caters in the Delmarva Peninsula. In addition, Frederick can also park the trailer at fairgrounds and serve seafood, barbeque, and other viands to the lucrative festival market.
Meanwhile, the caterer’s funders are happy to have him as their new customer. The people at Kapitus, to whom he is making daily payments (not counting weekends and holidays), are especially grateful. “Nav provides a valuable service,” says Seth Broman, vice-president of business development at Kapitus. “They know how to turn coal into diamonds,”
Nav does not charge small businesses for its services. As it gathers data from credit reporting services with which it has partnerships—Experian, TransUnion, Dun and Bradstreet, Equifax—and employs additional metrics, such as cashflow gleaned from an entrepreneur’s bank accounts, Nav earns fees from credit card issuers, lenders and MCA firms.
The company has close ties to financial technology companies that include Kabbage and OnDeck, and also collaborates with MCA funders such as National Funding, Rapid Finance, FundBox, and Kapitus. “We give lenders and funders better-qualified merchants at a lower cost of client acquisition,” says Caton Hanson, Nav’s general counsel and co-founder, adding: “They don’t have to spend as much money on leads.”
As banks have increasingly shunned small-business lending in the decade since the financial crisis, and as the economy has snapped back with a prolonged recovery, alternative funders—particularly unlicensed companies offering lightly regulated, high-cost merchant cash advances (MCAs)—have been piling into the business.
And service companies like Nav—which is funded by nearly $100 million in venture capital and which reports aiding more than 500,000 small businesses since it was founded in 2012—are thriving alongside the booming alternative-funding industry.
Over the past five years, the MCA industry’s financings have been growing by 20% annually, according to 2016 projections by Bryant Park Capital, a Manhattan-based, boutique investment bank. BPC’s specialty finance division handles mergers and acquisitions as well as debt-and-equity capital raising across multiple industries and is one of the few Wall Street firms with an MCA-industry practice. By BPC’s estimates, the MCA industry will have more than doubled its small business funding to $19.2 billion by year- end 2019, up from $8.6 billion in 2014.
Bankrolled by a broad assortment of hedge funds, private equity firms, family offices, and assorted multimillionaire and billionaire investors on the qui vive for outsized returns on their liquid assets, the MCA industry promises a 20%-80% profit rate, reports David Roitblat, president of Better Accounting Solutions, a New York accountancy specializing in the MCA industry. Based on doing the books for some 30 MCA firms, Roitblat reports that the range in profit margins depends on the terms of contracts and a funder’s underwriting skills.
The numerical size and growth of the MCA industry is hard to ascertain, reports Sean Murray, editor of deBanked (this publication), which tracks trends in the industry and sponsors several major conferences. “So much is anecdotal,” Murray says.
Even so, the evidence that MCA companies are proliferating—and prospering—is undeniable. Over the past two years, deBanked’s events, which experience substantial attendance from the MCA industry, have consistently sold out, requiring the events to be moved to larger venues. In Miami, attendance in January this year topped 400-plus attendees, Murray reports, roughly double the crowd that packed the Gale Hotel in 2018.
Similarly, the May, 2019, Broker Fair in New York at the Roosevelt Hotel drew more than 700 participants compared with the sellout crowd of roughly 400 last year in Brooklyn. (Despite ample notice that this year’s Broker Fair at the Roosevelt was sold out and advance tickets were required, as many as 40-50 latecomers sought entry and, unfortunately, had to be turned away.)
The upsurge of capital and the swelling number of entrants into the MCA business has all the earmarks of a gold rush. “Everybody and his brother is trying to get a piece of the action,” asserts Roitblat, the New York accountant.
And there are two ways to hit paydirt in a gold rush. One way is to prospect for gold. But another way is to sell picks and shovels, tents, food, and supplies to the prospectors. “If you can find a way to service the gold rush, you can make a lot of money,” says Kathryn Rudie Harrigan, a management professor and business-strategy expert at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business. “It’s like profiteering in wartime.”
As Professor Harrigan suggests, cashing in on the gold rush by servicing it has parallels across multiple industries. Consider the case of Charles River Laboratories, which has capitalized on the rapid development of the biotechnology industry over the past few decades.
As scientists searched for biologics to battle diseases like cancer and AIDS, the Boston-area company began producing experimental animals known as “transgenic mice.” Informally known as “smart mice,” Charles River’s test animals are specially designed to carry human genes, aiding investigators in their understanding of gene function and genetic responses to diseases and therapeutic interventions. (The smart mouse’s antibodies can also be harvested. “Seven out of the eleven monoclonal antibody drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration between 2006 and 2011,” according to biotechnology.com, “were derived from transgenic mice.”)
In the MCA version of the gold rush, a bevy of law and accounting firms, debt-collection agencies and credit-approval firms, among other service providers, have either sprung to life to undergird the new breed of alternative funder or added expertise to suit the industry’s wants and needs. (This cohort has been joined, moreover, by a superstructure of Washington, D.C.-based trade associations and lobbyists that have been growing like expansion teams in a professional sports league. But their story will have to wait for another day.)
Rather than being exploitative, supporting companies serve as a vital mainstay in an industry’s ecosystem, notes Alfred Watkins, a former World Bank economist and Washington, D.C.-based consultant: “A gold miner can’t mine,” he says, “unless he has a tent and a pickaxe.”
And in the high-risk, high-reward MCA industry, which can have significant default rates depending on the risk model, many funders can’t fund if they don’t have reliable debt collection. Many of the bigger companies, says Paul Boxer, who works on the funding side of the industry, have the capability of collecting on their own. But for many others—particularly the smaller players in the industry—it’s necessary to hire an outside firm.
One of the more widely known collectors for the MCA industry is Kearns, Brinen & Monaghan where Mark LeFevre is president and chief executive. The Dover (Del.)- based firm, LeFevre says, first added MCA funders to its client roster in 2012; but it has only been since 2014 that “business really took off.”
LeFevre won’t say just how many MCA firms have contracted with him, but he estimates that his firm has scaled up its staff 35%-40% over the past five years to meet the additional MCA workload. The industry, LeFevre adds, “is one of the top-growth industries I’ve seen in the 36 years that I’ve been in business.”
He also says, “People in the MCA industry know a lot about where to put money, but collections are not one of their strong points. They need to get a professional. It gives them the free time to make more money while we go in behind them and collect.”
If repeated dunning fails to elicit a satisfactory response, KBM has several collection strategies that strengthen its hand. The big three, LeFevre says, are “negotiation, identifying assets, and litigation.” He adds: “We have a huge database of attorneys who do nothing but file suit on commercial debt internationally. Then we can enforce a judgment. You don’t want someone who just makes a few phone calls.”
Because business has become so competitive, LeFevre says, he won’t discuss his fee schedule. As to KBM’s success rate, he says no tidy figure is available either, but asserts: “Our checks sent to our clients are more than most agencies because of our proprietary collection process.”
Jordan Fein, chief executive at Greenbox Capital in Miami and a KBM client told deBanked: “We work with them. They’re organized and communicate well and they know to collect. They’re on the expensive side, though. I’ve got other agencies that I use that are cheaper.”
Debt-collection firm Merel Corp, a spinoff from the Tamir Law Group in New York, might be a lower-cost alternative. Formed in just the past 18 months to service the growing MCA industry, Merel typically takes 15%-25% of whatever “obligation” it can collect, says Levi Ainsworth, co-chief operating officer.
A successful collection, Ainsworth asserts, really begins with the underwriting process and attention to detail by the funders. “Instead of coming in at the end,” he says, “we try to prevent problems at the start of the process.”
For an MCA firm dealing with an excessive number of defaults, Merel sometimes places one of its employees with the funder to handle “pre-defaults,” for which it charges a lower fee. The collections firm has also built a reputation for not relying on a “confession of judgment.” Now that COJs have been outlawed for out-of-state collections in New York State, Merel’s skills could be more in demand.
Better Accounting Solutions, which has its offices on Wall Street, is another service-provider promising to lighten the workload of MCA firms by providing back-office support. The company is headed by Roitblat, a 36-year- old former rabbinical student turned tax-and-accounting entrepreneur. Since he founded the company with two part-time employees in 2011, it’s ballooned to some 70 employees.
Roitblat does not have all of his firm’s eggs in one MCA basket. His firm handles tax, accounting and bookkeeping work for law firms, the fashion industry, restaurants and architectural firms. Even so, he says, thirty MCA clients— or more than half his clientele—rely on the firm’s expertise, three of whom were just added in June. His best month was January, 2018, when six funders contracted for his services. “Growth in the MCA industry has been explosive,” he says.
MCA accounting work has its own vagaries and oddities. For example, because of the industry’s high default rate, Roitblat notes, a 10%-slice of every merchant’s payment is funneled into a “default reserve account.” And when an actual default occurs, credits are moved from the receivables account to the default reserve account.
Roitblat takes pride that his firm’s MCA work has passed audits from respected accounting firms like Friedman, Cohen, Taubman and Marcum LLP. Moreover, he has helped clients uncover internal fraud and, in one instance, spotted costly flaws in a business model. An early MCA client, Roitblat says, had no idea that “he was losing close to $100,000 a month by spending on Google ads.”
Better Accounting also keeps its rates low. The firm typically assigns a junior accountant to handle clients’ accounts while a senior manager oversees his or her work. “He (Roitblat) does a fantastic job,” says David Lax, managing partner of Orange Advance, a Lakewood (N.J.)-based MCA firm. “They understand the MCA business. And even if your business is small, they can set up the infrastructure and do the work more economically and efficiently than you can. You’d have to create the position of comptroller or senior-level accountant,” Lax adds, “to equal their work.”
Top-notch competence and low rates, Lax says, are not the only reasons he often refers Roitblat’s firm to fellow MCA companies. “The only thing better than their work,” he says, “is the people themselves.”
Whether it’s oil and gas, banking and real estate, construction, health care or high-technology—you name it—lawyers have an important role across nearly every industry. So too with the MCA industry where, as has been shown, there is an especially high demand for attorneys skilled at winning debt-collection cases.
To hear Greenbox’s Fein tell it, a skilled lawyer handling debt collection can write his or her own ticket. A talented attorney, he says, not only retrieves lost money and prevents losses, but enables the funder to “offer the product cheaper than the competition.
“We use a ton of attorneys in 35 states in the U.S. and in Canada,” Fein adds, “and you have no idea how many attorneys we go through until we find a good one.”
Until recently, much of the MCA industry’s success has resulted from a hands-off, laissez faire legal and regulatory environment—particularly the legal interpretation that a merchant cash advance is not a loan. The industry has also benefited from the fact that most credit regulation focused on consumer credit and not on business and commercial financings.
But now, as the MCA industry is maturing and showing up on the radar screens of state legislatures, Congress, regulatory agencies, and the courts, there is heightening demand for legal counsel. In just the past 12 months, California passed a truth-in-lending statute requiring MCA firms not only to clearly state their terms, but to translate the short-term funding costs of MCAs into an annual percentage rate. The state of New York, as has been noted, passed legislation restricting the use of COJs.
Moreover, notes Mark Dabertin, special counsel at Pepper Hamilton, a top national law firm based in Philadelphia, the state of New Jersey is contemplating licensing MCA practitioners. The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently determined in Anderson v. Koch that, because of a “call provision” in a funding contract, a merchant cash advance was actually a loan.
And, Dabertin warns, the Federal Trade Commission, which has the authority to treat a merchant cash advance as a consumer transaction—replete with the full panoply of consumer disclosures and protections—is training its gunsights on the industry. “On May 23,” Dabertin reports in a memo to clients, “the FTC launched an investigation into potentially unfair or deceptive practices in the small business financing industry, including by merchant cash advance providers.”
These pressures from government and the courts will only make doing business more costly and drive up the industry’s barriers to entry. Failing to stay legal, moreover, could not only result in punitive court judgments, but render an MCA firm vulnerable to legal action by their investors.
“It’s inevitable that the industry will evolve,” Dabertin says, and firms in the industry will have to self-police. “They will need to hire counsel and a compliance staff,” he adds. “You can’t just do it by the seat of your pants.”