Update: The interest rate has increased to 1%.
The nation’s voice for community banks, the Independent Community Bankers of America, penned a letter to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and SBA Administrator Carranza yesterday to urge them to make immediate changes to the planned PPP program slated to be rolled out tomorrow.
“We strongly recommend that you make changes to the guidelines before the Program goes live so that it will work as intended by Congress,” the letter states.
It goes on to explain that the proposed .5% interest rate is below the break-even cost for a bank and should be raised to 4% to allow them to break even. Further, that the loan terms of 2 years should be extended to 10 years to alleviate the hardship the short duration will create for small businesses, and that the restrictions on the use of the loan proceeds be amended.
The ICBA also expressed frustration with the lack of detail afforded to documentation required as well as to the uncertainty of how and when the SBA will reimburse them for losses.
Yesterday Revolut, the London-based digital-only bank, announced the public launch of its app in the United States. The news came as a surprise to the thousands of potential American customers who signed up to the company’s waiting list with no details of when exactly to expect the bank’s arrival.
Founded in 2015 and valued at $5.5 billion, Revolut offers customers a debit card and a bank account controlled solely through its app; no brick-and-mortar branches being all the more timely during the coronavirus pandemic. The challenger bank joins its competitors, Monzo, N26, and Chime, in offering more sleeker and streamlined experiences compared to legacy banks.
While the European version of the app allows users to invest in stocks, trade cryptocurrencies, and buy insurance, the US edition will launch with limited capabilities, instead planning to roll out such features when they are available. The reason for this likely being that Revolut has yet to agree to deals with third parties to provide these features through partnerships. However, American Revolut users will be able to receive their salary two days in advance if they share their Revolut bank details with their employer, an ability that has yet to be launched in Europe. As well as this, the US version still offers the expense management, payment alerts, and currency exchange features that are in the European app.
Much like other fintechs who dabble in American banking, Revolut has circumvented the issue of acquiring a banking charter by instead partnering with a domestic bank, such as the New York-based Metropolitan Commercial Bank in this case. As such, accounts are FDIC-insured for up to $250,000.
“As the cost of living increases disproportionately to people’s take-home salaries, now more than ever, people need to know exactly what is coming in and out of their account. They should have the tools to help them manage their money more conveniently and accurately,” Revolut Founder and CEO Nik Storonsky said in a statement. “When spending or transferring money overseas, most people are unaware of the hidden fees that banks are charging them. The world is becoming more connected, and financial services should be supporting this notion, not hindering it.”
Square is on its way to becoming a bank. The payments and online lending company was approved by both the FDIC and the Utah banking regulator this week to create a de novo “industrial” bank. The company has been trying to accomplish this for more than two years. The news means that Square will likely no longer rely on a relationship with Celtic bank to make loans, while also being able to take on deposits.
The FDIC said in an announcement that, “The bank, Square Financial Services, Inc., will originate commercial loans to merchants that process card transactions through Square, Inc.’s payments system.”
Another fintech company, Nelnet, was also granted approval for an industrial loan charter at the same time.
Square and Nelnet’s move to become a bank is similar to the path taken by LendingClub. Rather than become chartered themselves, LendingClub recently agreed to acquire a chartered bank. However, LendingClub still must wait approximately 12 months for the deal to go through the process of regulatory approval.
With the doors to 2019 firmly closed, alternative financing industry executives are excited about the new decade and the prospects that lie ahead. There are new products to showcase, new competitors to contend with and new customers to pursue as alternative financing continues to gain traction.
Executives reading the tea leaves are overwhelming bullish on the alternative financing industry—and for good reasons. In 2019, merchant cash advances and daily payment small business loan products alone exceeded more than $20 billion a year in originations, deBanked’s reporting shows.
Confidence in the industry is only slightly curtailed by certain regulatory, political competitive and economic unknowns lurking in the background—adding an element of intrigue to what could be an exciting new year.
Here, then, are a few things to look out for in 2020 and beyond.
There are a number of different items that could be on the regulatory agenda this year, both on the state and federal level. Major areas to watch include:
- Broker licensing. There’s a movement afoot to crack down on rogue brokers by instituting licensing requirements. New York, for example, has proposed legislation that would cover small business lenders, merchant cash advance companies, factors, and leasing companies for transactions under $500,000. California has a licensing law in place, but it only pertains to loans, says Steve Denis, executive director of the Small Business Finance Association. Many funders are generally in favor of broader licensing requirements, citing perceived benefits to brokers, funders, customers and the industry overall. The devil, of course, will be in the details.
- Interest rate caps. Congress is weighing legislation that would set a national interest rate cap of 36%, including fees, for most personal loans, in an effort to stamp out predatory lending practices. A fair number of states already have enacted interest rate caps for consumer loans, with California recently joining the pack, but thus far there has been no national standard. While it is too early to tell the bill’s fate, proponents say it will provide needed protections against gouging, while critics, such as Lend Academy’s Peter Renton, contend it will have the “opposite impact on the consumers it seeks to protect.”
- Loan information and rate disclosures. There continues to be ample debate around exactly what firms should be required to disclose to customers and what metrics are most appropriate for consumers and businesses to use when comparing offerings. This year could be the one in which multiple states move ahead with efforts to clamp down on disclosures so borrowers can more easily compare offerings, industry watchers say. Notably, a recent Federal Reserve study on non-bank small business finance providers indicates that the likelihood of approval and speed are more important than cost in motivating borrowers, though this may not defer policymakers from moving ahead with disclosure requirements.
“THIS WILL DRIVE COMMISSION DOWN FOR THE INDUSTRY”
If these types of requirements go forward, Jared Weitz, chief executive of United Capital generally expects to see commissions take a hit. “This will drive commission down for the industry, but some companies may not be as impacted, depending on their product mix, cost per lead and cost per acquisition and overall company structure,” he says.
- Madden aftermath. The FDIC and OCC recently proposed rules to counteract the negative effects of the 2015 Madden v. Midland Funding LLC case, which wreaked havoc in the consumer and business loan markets in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. “These proposals would clarify that the loan continues to be ‘valid’ even after it is sold to a nonbank, meaning that the nonbank can collect the rates and fees as initially contracted by the bank,” says Catherine Brennan, partner in the Hanover, Maryland office of law firm Hudson Cook. With the comments due at the end of January, “2020 is going to be a very important year for bank and nonbank partnerships,” she says.
- Possible changes to the accredited investor definition. In December 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to propose amendments to the accredited investor definition. Some industry players see expanding the definition as a positive step, but are hesitant to crack open the champagne just yet since nothing’s been finalized. “I would like to see it broadened even further than they are proposed right now,” says Brett Crosby, co-founder and chief operating officer at PeerStreet, a platform for investing in real estate-backed loans. The proposals “are a step in the right direction, but I’m not sure they go far enough,” he says.
Precisely how various regulatory initiatives will play out in 2020 remains to be seen. Some states, for example, may decide to be more aggressive with respect to policy-making, while others might take more of a wait-and-see approach.
“I think states are still piecing together exactly what they want to accomplish. There are too many missing pieces to the puzzle,” says Chad Otar, founder and chief executive at Lending Valley Inc.
As different initiatives work their way through the legislative process, funders are hoping for consistency rather than a patchwork of metrics applied unevenly by different states. The latter could have significant repercussions for firms that do business in multiple states and could eventually cause some of them to pare back operations, industry watchers say.
“While we commend the state-level activity, we hope that there will be uniformity across the country when it comes to legislation to avoid confusion and create consistency” for borrowers, says Darren Schulman, president of 6th Avenue Capital.
The outcome of this year’s presidential election could have a profound effect on the regulatory climate for alternative lenders. Alternative financing and fintech charters could move higher on the docket if there’s a shift in the top brass (which, of course, could bring a new Treasury Secretary and/or CFPB head) or if the Senate flips to Democratic control.
If a White House changing of the guard does occur, the impact could be even more profound depending on which Democratic candidate secures the top spot. It’s all speculation now, but alternative financers will likely be sticking to the election polls like glue in an attempt to gain more clarity.
Election-year uncertainty also needs to be factored into underwriting risk. Some industries and companies may be more susceptible to this risk, and funders have to plan accordingly in their projections. It’s not a reason to make wholesale underwriting changes, but it’s something to be mindful of, says Heather Francis, chief executive of Elevate Funding in Gainesville, Florida.
“Any election year is going to be a little bit volatile in terms of how you operate your business,” she says.
The competitive landscape continues to shift for alternative lenders and funders, with technology giants such as PayPal, Amazon and Square now counted among the largest small business funders in the marketplace. This is a notable shift from several years ago when their footprint had not yet made a dent.
This growth is expected to continue driving competition in 2020. Larger companies with strong technology have a competitive advantage in making loans and cash advances because they already have the customer and information about the customer, says industry attorney Paul Rianda, who heads a law firm in Irvine, Calif.
It’s also harder for merchants to default because these companies are providing them payment processing services and paying them on a daily or monthly basis. This is in contrast to an MCA provider that’s using ACH to take payments out of the merchant’s bank account, which can be blocked by the merchant at any time. “Because of that lower risk factor, they’re able to give a better deal to merchants,” Rianda says.
Increased competition has been driving rates down, especially for merchants with strong credit, which means high-quality merchants are getting especially good deals—at much less expensive rates than a business credit card could offer, says Nathan Abadi, president of Excel Capital Management. “The prime market is expanding tremendously,” he says.
Certain funders are willing to go out two years now on first positions, he says, which was never done before.
Even for non-prime clients, funders are getting more creative in how they structure deals. For instance, funders are offering longer terms—12 to 15 months—on a second position or nine to 12 months on a third position, he says. “People would think you were out of your mind to do that a year ago,” he says.
Because there’s so much money funneling into the industry, competition is more fierce, but firms still have to be smart about how they do business, Abadi says.
Meanwhile, heightened competition means it’s a brokers market, says Weitz of United Capital. A lot of lenders and funders have similar rates and terms, so it comes down to which firms have the best relationship with brokers. “Brokers are going to send the deals to whoever is treating their files the best and giving them the best pricing,” he says.
Profitability, access to capital and business-related shifts
Executives are confident that despite increased competition from deep-pocket players, there’s enough business to go around. But for firms that want to excel in 2020, there’s work to be done.
Funders in 2020 should focus on profitability and access to capital—the most important factors for firms that want to grow, says David Goldin, principal at Lender Capital Partners and president and chief executive of Capify. This year could also be one in which funders more seriously consider consolidation. There hasn’t been a lot in the industry as of yet, but Goldin predicts it’s only a matter of time.
“A lot of MCA providers could benefit from economies of scale. I think the day is coming,” he says.
He also says 2020 should be a year when firms try new things to distinguish themselves. He contends there are too many copycats in the industry. Most firms acquire leads the same way and aren’t doing enough to differentiate. To stand out, funders should start specializing and become known for certain industries, “instead of trying to be all things to all businesses,” he says.
Some alternative financing companies might consider expanding their business models to become more of a one-stop shop—following in the footsteps of Intuit, Square and others that have shown the concept to be sound.
Sam Taussig, global head of policy at Kabbage, predicts that alternative funding platforms will increasingly shift toward providing more unified services so the customer doesn’t have to leave the environment to do banking and other types of financial transactions. It’s a direction Kabbage is going by expanding into payment processing as part of its new suite of cash-flow management solutions for small businesses.
“Customers have seen and experienced how seamless and simple and easy it is to work with some of the nontraditional funders,” he says. “Small businesses want holistic solutions—they prefer to work with one provider as opposed to multiple ones,” he says.
This year could be a “pivotal” year for open banking in the U.S., says Taussig of Kabbage. “This issue will come to the forefront, and I think we will have more clarity about how customers can permission their data, to whom and when,” he says.
Open banking refers to the use of open APIs (application program interfaces) that enable third-party developers to build applications and services around a financial institution. The U.K. was a forerunner in implementing open banking, and the movement has been making inroads in other countries as well, which is helping U.S. regulators warm up to the idea. “Open banking is going to be a lively debate in Washington in 2020. It’ll be about finding the balance between policymakers and customers and banks,” Taussig says.
The funding environment
While there has been some chatter about a looming recession and there are various regulatory and competitive headwinds facing the industry, funding and lending executives are mostly optimistic for the year ahead.
“If December 2019 is an early indicator of 2020, we’re off to a good start. I think it’s going to be a great year for our industry,” says Abadi of Excel Capital.
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.”
Today LendingClub announced that it has agreed to acquire Boston-based Radius Bank for a purchase price of $185 million, made up by cash and stock. Holding more than $1.4 billion in assets, the merger will enable LendingClub to offer checking accounts and save millions in bank fees and funding costs each year.
Coming one month after LendingClub settled to pay out $1.25 million to resolve allegations that it charged rates in violation of Massachusetts state law, now, more than ever, appears to be a good time for the company to be on its way to attaining a bank and all of the FDIC-approved measures that come with it.
Described as a “no-brainer decision” by LendingClub’s CEO Scott Sanborn, the news comes after the fintech had tried unsuccessfully to get a bank charter. Becoming a popular trend among online lenders and fintechs, with Square having applied for one recently and Varo Money getting approved last week, the merger is the first time that a fintech has actually bought a bank. “Adding the capabilities of a bank charter to the LendingClub mix really changes the game both in terms of what we can do for our customers and what we can do for shareholders,” Sanborn stated.
Having been in discussions with Radius for over a year, it is believed that the purchase was made with the opinion that buying a bank would be less time-demanding than getting approved for a bank charter. The federal banking regulatory approval process is expected to take between 12 and 15 months.
In October 2019, LendingClub VP & Head of Communications Anuj Nayar spoke to deBanked about the company’s future, noting its intentions to broaden its offerings and transition from a product-centric company to a platform-centric company.
“We talk about a customer journey, moving our customers to being visitors, where they basically came to us for a personal loan and then come back to the company a couple of years later for another personal loan, to being much more about lifetime value of the customer and our relationship with the customer.” Nayar said. “The customer experience over the next year is going to change pretty dramatically as we start with bringing some of these new learning products on board but we’ve also been making clear that we’re investigating broader banking services that we’re going to be offering our customers.
Originally valued at $8.5 billion, LendingClub had one of the biggest US tech IPOs in 2014. However the share price has fallen more than 88% over the previous 5 years.
We recently sat down with Todd Hamblet, Fundbox’s new Chief Legal Officer, and asked his thoughts about what legislative or legal issues would be shaping the fintech industry this year. Between presidents and precedents, decisions are coming down within the next 12 months that will have a significant effect on the way Fundbox and other fintechs do business. Here’s what Todd had to say:
Q: What key issues or predictions do you see when it comes to legal compliance in the fintech industry in 2020?
A: My basic view is that I expect to see continued efforts to regulate the financial services industry and fintech. These regulations are likely to focus on protection of consumer and commercial borrowers, privacy, or data protection. That said, I don’t think that innovation and regulation are incompatible. I think that there is sensible regulation that can achieve the goals of protecting consumers of financial services without completely stifling fintech innovation.
I think the outcome of the election will have a significant bearing on how active regulators are in the fintech space. In the absence of leadership from Washington, I’m concerned that we’re going to continue to see state-by-state legislation instead of a federal overlay. California and New York are two states actively working to fill this void. State versus federal regulation creates the challenge of needing to comply with 50 state requirements, which sometimes might be at odds with each other, as opposed to a more unified regulatory regime. You just have to spend a lot of resources in researching, staying up to date, and modifying what in many cases is a fairly streamlined product offering to comply with different state laws.
I worry that too disparate of a regulatory regime can, in fact, stifle innovation. It won’t stop innovation, but it can make it more challenging. I am certainly not opposed to sensible regulation, but sometimes the best intentions can lead to anomalous outcomes. You always have good actors and bad actors, and in our space, for example, we’re trying to disrupt a very traditional way of underwriting and lending in a commercial space that just hasn’t been compatible with or user friendly for small businesses.
The small business community is under-served, in part because you’re talking about smaller dollars than your traditional banks are even willing to underwrite. You’ve started to see community banks and credit unions step in a bit, but even in those cases, the lending model is still paper-heavy. It’s not optimized for all the data that’s out there, the ability to use technology, or alternative data sources. I think that fintech companies like Fundbox are serving and filling a niche that is really valuable for small businesses. Think about a mom-and-pop shop. They need to be able to run their business. They don’t need to spend all their time going back and forth with their bank, trying to get a loan. They need quick access to capital that may be just to solve a short-term problem. It may be to meet payroll during a slow month. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve, and also doing it in a way that is bringing it into the 21st century. This means using alternative data sources and machine learning, not relying exclusively on credit reports or FICO scores, and using other metrics to look at the credit worthiness of an enterprise.
I find it really exciting. It’s really satisfying to know that we’ve helped a lot of small businesses at the heart of our economy. So I think additional regulation is inevitable, but I hope it’s reasonable and sensible, and that it serves the purpose of protecting the borrower but doesn’t impose so many requirements or obligations that it makes it impractical for a fintech company to try to serve that population.
Q: Is there anything else you see happening in the realm of compliance?
A: I think we’re going to continue to face additional regulation in the areas of privacy and data protection. In California, we have the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) that came online on January 1st. This is a good example of how, in the absence of federal action, states are going to take up their own legislation. California is the first to have enacted a comprehensive privacy act that companies are now trying to deal with. It impacts not just California companies but any companies dealing with California residents.
We’re tracking legislative developments in other states who are looking to implement their own privacy acts. Absent some sort of harmonized federal overlay (such as the GDPR in Europe), if you have 50 states with disparate privacy regulations, it just becomes very challenging. Of course, we will do everything we can to be compliant, but we have limited resources—we’d love to dedicate our resources to developing and improving products for our customers, instead of worrying about whether we’re tripping up a novel requirement of a particular state’s privacy law. So a federal framework would be really helpful. I already mentioned regulation in the context of the next election, and I think whether there is interest in Washington with a federal privacy law will depend on that outcome.
Q: Aside from the 2020 election, what other issues is the fintech industry keeping an eye on?
A: There have been some interesting cases out there in the fintech space. There’s one case in particular that has created some uncertainty and confusion: the Madden case. Although the case was decided a few years ago, it looks like federal regulators are trying to take steps to clarify the ruling. I hope that 2020 brings better visibility into what’s going to happen there, since the uncertainty is impacting the financial services industry and fintechs.
Generally, Madden is a case that dealt with the “valid when made” concept. When a bank makes a loan, there are various usury laws that can be applicable, depending on the state in which the loan was originated. Under federal law, an FDIC-insured state chartered bank can originate a loan using the maximum rate of interest permitted in the home state of the bank and then “export” that rate into another state, regardless of the state where the borrower is located. Some states have higher usury rates than others, so the maximum rate can vary. It is well settled that when that loan was initially made by the bank, it was “valid when made.” But what happens if that bank decides to sell off that loan to a third party in another state? The Madden case (read broadly) calls into question the “valid when made” doctrine. It said that if the loan had an X percent interest rate when it was originated, but it was sold to a third party in a state that had a usury rate lower than X, that original interest rate may not be valid anymore because of the transfer. Studies have shown that this ruling has led to a decrease in the availability of credit in the states affected by the decision.
Banks have to rely on being able to originate and sell loans—this is a well-settled concept. The question is whether the Madden case is distinguishable enough from the traditional practice that it applies only to a particular scenario (a sale of debt) or whether it is calling into question the broader concept. The reason this impacts fintechs is because a lot of us rely on bank partnerships in order to serve customers in all 50 states. Through these partnerships, fintechs may acquire the receivables on loans originated by partner banks. The question for fintechs in the context of Madden is: when the fintech acquires a receivable, does the interest rate originally offered by the bank partner continue to be valid…or because the fintech is a third party, does some other interest rate cap apply depending on where the borrower is located?
Congress and some other federal regulators are working to clarify that the Madden case should be limited to a narrow set of facts, and that it should not serve as a precedent for disrupting the traditional understanding of “valid when made”. This would be welcome relief to the entire financial services industry, including fintechs. We hope to have this clarification in 2020.
The challenger bank N26 pulled out of the UK market this week, citing Brexit as the reason for its departure. Saying that it will no longer be able to service Britain now that it has left the European Union, N26 has stopped onboarding new customers and will be closing all British accounts on April 15th.
The news came as a shock to many N26 users as the company has, as recently as October 2019, published multiple blog posts assuring customers that Brexit will not disrupt their service. These posts have since been deleted.
In a statement, the neobank advised its UK customers to empty their N26 accounts before April 15 and apologized for the inconvenience. “With the UK having left the European Union, N26 has today announced that it will be leaving the UK market. The timings and framework outlined in the Withdrawal Agreement mean that the company will in due course be unable to operate in the UK with its European banking license.”
Having its headquarters in Berlin, the neobank holds a German banking license. Under EU law, passporting rights enable any banks that hold a charter granted by an EU member state to operate in any other EU country. And while this of course means that N26’s license will no longer be enough for the UK market, temporary permissions exist that allow EU fintechs and financial services companies to continue operating under the same rules until December 31st, 2020, allotting time to draw up new deals and ink new charters.
This detail, as well as the fact that none of N26’s competitors, Revolut, Starling Bank, and Monzo, have announced their exit, has led commentators to reason that the high investment cost associated with applying for a UK banking charter is influencing the decision to pull out, rather than the feasibility and process required.
Speaking to deBanked, a spokesperson for Starling said that “We’re not affected by N26’s decision. Some digital banks appear to have been focusing on growth at all costs. At Starling, we’ve always gone for sustainable growth and have long mapped out our path to profitability. We expect to hit breakeven by the end of 2020 and to turn a profit by the end of 2021.”
Having entered the UK market in October 2018, more than two years after the leave vote, N26 will be cutting service to its +200,000 UK customers. Most of the dozen or so staff members the neobank had in Britain will be repositioned elsewhere in the company, which has offices in Berlin, Barcelona, São Paolo, Vienna, and New York.
The challenger bank has been available in the States since August 2019, garnering over 250,000 customers in the market since then. Valued at $3.5 billion in its July funding round, N26 has received investments from Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures, Li Ka-shing’s Horizon Ventures, and China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd.
Varo Money, the company that has been providing customers with app-based banking since 2017, has just received approval from the FDIC to take deposits. Having been working towards this for the previous three years through various rounds of applications to the FDIC, Varo CEO Colin Walsh told CNBC that “it was a long process – for this to finally see daylight is a big deal for the industry.”
Fintechs such as Varo, like Revolut, N26, and Chime, rely on partnerships with banks to provide financial infrastructure in the absence of such FDIC approval. This decision is a first for the fintech space and it means that all accounts with Varo’s partner, Bancorp, will transfer to Varo in Q2 of 2020, so long as the company passes final regulatory tests.
Robinhood, a startup that offers options to invest in stock through its app, previously applied for the same charter but pulled out in November, while the payments titan Square has applied for a different charter for a specialized industrial loan company license.
“Receiving an official bank charter has been part of Varo’s vision from the very beginning, and we are excited to progress through the necessary steps to accomplishing that goal,” Walsh, who is a former American Express executive, said in a statement. “Despite historic economic growth, only 29% of Americans are considered financially healthy. Varo is committed to creating inclusive financial opportunities that deliver measurable benefits to all consumers. Becoming a fully chartered bank will give us greater opportunity to deliver products and services that impact the lives of everyday people around the country.”
Varo has stated that it has ambitions to provide additional services that are typical of banks, eg. credit cards, loans, saving products, but these are of course pending charter approval.
Tech giant Amazon is reportedly in talks with Goldman Sachs to offer business loans to those small and medium sized merchants operating on its marketplace, according to sources that the FT describes as “two people briefed on the discussions with the online retailer.” One of these sources said that it could launch as soon as March.
The news comes after CEO David Soloman spoke at the bank’s Investor Day recently, explaining that Goldman would be pursuing a “banking-as-a-service” model this year that would see the bank white labeling their products for third parties to use. As well as this, Solomon commented on a shareholders call last week that the bank is seeking to increase revenues from new channels such as consumer banking and wealth management.
One such channel is Goldman’s partnership with Apple last summer that saw the launch of Apple Card, a credit card solely available to Apple’s +100 million users in the US. The card’s launch was lauded by Solomon; and according to Business Insider, cardholders had $736 million in loan balances by the end of September, one month after the card was released to the public.
The Apple and Amazon deals highlight how Wall Street banks are employing and partnering with Big Tech to leverage advantage over fintechs, and ultimately gain access into markets that are historically not domains of the uber rich. Traditionally a bank that catered to elites, Goldman Sachs has been edging its way into consumer and small business banking ever since the launch of Marcus, its personal banking platform.
Amazon has been offering loans to merchants on its platform since 2011, using algorithms to determine which sellers would be best positioned to receive and repay a loan. Having previously partnered with Bank of America to finance such loans, the terms of these were for 12 months or less, with amounts funded ranging from $1,000 to $750,000. According to the FT, Amazon had $863 million in outstanding SMB loans on its balance sheet as of the end of 2019.
The digital nature of Amazon’s marketplace would accommodate Goldman Sachs’ neglect of brick-and-mortars stores, which have historically been a waypoint for small- and medium-sized businesses seeking finance.
LendIt Chairman and Co-founder Peter Renton described Goldman’s progression in the fintech space as “impressive,” noting that the speed at which it has been operating isn’t to be overlooked: “I thought something like this would happen but not in such a short space of time. Apple Card was only six months ago.”
As well as this, Renton was wary of how expansive the deal would be, admitting skepticism of it being a large project for either company. Given how both Amazon and Goldman have shown themselves to be selective in who they provide financing for, this assessment may prove correct.
Last week the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released a 100-page report on the Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal that came to light three years ago. Accompanying the document with a fine against the CEO who oversaw the controversy, John Stumpf, for $17.5 million.
Stumpf, whose personal wealth was estimated to be roughly $200 million prior to the scandal, also had all of his stock options rescinded by Wells Fargo, totaling $69 million that was returned to the bank.
Being the largest ever fine to be levied against an individual by the OCC, the news contrasts regulators’ reactions to previous outrages, such as JPMorgan Chase’s London Whale fiasco as well as the ’08 financial crisis, both of which saw executives escape personal scrutiny in lieu of the institutions themselves being subject to penalties. And while Stumpf’s fine breaks records, it may not hold the top spot for long, with the OCC eyeing a follow-up charge against Carrie Tolstedt, who ran the division of Wells Fargo most involved in the scandal, for $25 million.
Stumpf was charged alongside seven others who were implicated in 2016 for opening millions of allegedly fake accounts to meet sales targets. Such goals being set by higher-ups in the 168-years-old bank were passed down to mid- and low-level employees, fostering a culture that promoted the idea of cheating or being fired, according to the OCC’s report.
Employee testimonies allege that one branch manager threatened to transfer those workers who did not meet targets to “a store where someone had been shot and killed,” whereas another employee and Gulf War veteran wrote to Stumpf noting that working for Wells Fargo proved to be more stressful than a war zone.
The filings also described an atmosphere of surveillance, mentioning that “The bank had better tools and systems to detect employees who did not meet unreasonable sales goals than it did to catch employees who engaged in sales practices misconduct.”
Reactions to the scandal have been scathing, with Congress having drilled Stumpf’s replacement, Tim Sloan, during hearings last year. Democratic presidential nominee candidate Elizabeth Warren came out during the week with guns blazing for the bank. “Giant banks like Wells Fargo only clean up their act when their executives know they’ll face handcuffs when they preside over massive fraud,” the Massachusetts Senator said in a statement on Thursday. “Tomorrow morning, former Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf will wake up to his cushy retirement while the thousands of low-level branch employees who took the fall for him – and the hundreds of thousands of consumers who were cheated on his watch – continue to deal with the repercussions of his scams.”
Sloan ended up taking a forced retirement in March 2019, with Charles Scharf stepping in as CEO. Speaking on his first earnings call since assuming leadership of the bank, Scharf addressed the scandal, keeping the book open on investigations into wrongdoing. “I just want to be clear, I’m not suggesting here that any of these public issues will be closed this year.”
Over the last two years, open banking has become a matter of public conversation in Canada. Most would agree there is overwhelming support for the implementation of an open banking regime. So why has nothing concrete happened yet?
2019 turned out to be an exciting, yet painfully underwhelming year for open banking in Canada. The news media finally caught on to the movement and started publishing stories on the rise of robo-advisor apps, or how small and medium-sized businesses would be impacted, and so forth. Experts and industry leaders pitched in with a massive volume of op-eds, most of which were in support of open banking, and with many deploring Canada’s slowness. Some came to our podcast to discuss their perspective (spoiler: customer-centricity is a very big theme.)
Another telling sign of the importance of open banking is the fact that at the federal level, both the legislative and executive arms of the government have become actively engaged in the public conversation. The Senate of Canada’s committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce produced a well-researched report — perhaps the most valuable contribution to the conversation. This report calls for swift action on the part of the federal government to advance a regulatory framework for open banking. In parallel, the Department of Finance’s appointed advisory committee on open banking held a consultation with key stakeholders and should publish its own report in the near future.
Even to a casual observer, there was an obvious sense that Canada is ready to embrace open banking.
But here’s the thing: despite all this work and evidence of widespread support, Canada didn’t move the needle on open banking in any concrete way.
The UK has already implemented a comprehensive open banking regime, and continental Europe is close behind. Dozens more countries are working toward their own versions. Among the various geographies moving in this direction, some are opting for a government-led approach, the UK probably being the best example. Others, like the US, tend to be more market-driven. In Canada, the main stakeholders are still largely hesitant about where to strike the balance between the two approaches — and the result is that so far, both have failed to provide the leadership that would allow open banking to move forward.
The Department of Finance’s advisory committee was tasked to study the “merits of open banking”. This line of inquiry feels very old, and for good reason: to question whether we should have open banking or not is a false debate, and a time-wasting rabbit hole. The real question Canada should be asking itself when it comes to open banking is, “what is the objective we want to achieve here?”
Let’s take a few steps back to realize just how important this question is.
The UK had a very clear vision for their open banking regime. The Competition and Markets Authority had assessed that the oligopolistic dynamics of the banking sector were putting consumers at a disadvantage. Thus, the UK set on their open banking journey with a very precise objective in mind: make it easier for consumers to switch providers. While some take great pride in criticizing the UK’s implementation — stating that its objective was either wrong, too narrow, or poorly executed — the fact remains that they are ahead of the pack. And the UK’s leadership in this area still persists, with the Financial Conduct Authority now studying the question of extending the current open banking regime into a holistic open finance regime.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the government is trying to wrap its head around the big questions, such as the liability framework that should be put in place for an open banking regime to be viable. (In other words, in a system where financial services are decentralized, how do we go about making the consumer whole when something goes wrong?) However, without a decision on what end state we are looking to achieve with open banking, these conversations are doomed to keep looking exactly like they’re looking now: a bunch of market actors with conflicting interests pretending they know what’s best for consumers. Conversations happening in industry groups aren’t much more productive, with the “trench war” dynamics being the trend there as well.
The irony is that the technical aspects of open banking can be dealt with easily. From a technical standpoint, financial data-sharing APIs have proven their effectiveness, and coming up with a shared technical standard should not be too difficult. The real challenge is coming up with a framework everyone — incumbents and new entrants alike — can rally behind, something industry groups have largely been ineffective at.
Canada’s highly concentrated financial services sector is a stable one, but incumbents are not likely to open themselves up to disruption. This is the part where bold political leadership is required.
The clock is ticking
Data sharing is nevertheless picking up, as 4 million Canadians (and counting) have made fintech apps a part of their financial lives. Consumers and businesses who want the benefits of on-demand data sharing must rely on the current generation of financial aggregators, like Flinks. This system may work as a de facto connectivity layer, but the lack of standards results in a clumsy patchwork of bilateral deals between aggregators and banks. It just isn’t a viable way to achieve an open banking regime that levels the playing field when it comes to data portability.
In its report, the Senate’s Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce states that Canada “risks falling behind” if it fails to implement open banking, and that “without swift action, Canada may become an importer of financial technology rather than an exporter.” It is true that if we keep delaying open banking, our slowness will prove to be a very stingy and lasting price to pay for the Canadian society; this is why we need bold action now. We can’t afford the comfort of waiting until we’ve figured out the 100% perfect solution.
There’s nothing like a real-world example: 2020 opened with a seismic shift when financial giant Visa acquired Plaid, one of the largest US financial aggregators, for over five billion USD. This is hinting at a new phase where markets will consolidate around a few large players; Canada can either ride the tide or get towed under.
It’s time to be bold
In the end, what needs to happen for Canada to move forward with open banking?
Our financial services sector can be compared to those of the UK and Australia, where a few powerful banks control a very large portion of the market. In those two countries, open banking was designed to stimulate competition, and government action was necessary to get things moving.
Right now, the question politicians ought to ask shouldn’t be if — or even how — but why. A why will pave the way and provide a natural direction to sort out the how. In 2019, discussions around open banking lacked this fundamental feature: political leadership centered on a bold, ambitious, consumer-centric mission statement. A why.
So here’s one for 2020: open banking will increase consumers’ choice when it comes to financial services. That would be a good start — and while good is not perfect, it still beats nothing by a landslide.
Yesterday it was announced that Visa and Plaid, the financial services company that helps business connect with customers’ bank accounts, have penned a deal that would see Visa purchase the San Francisco-based startup for $5.3 billion. The purchase price is roughly double Plaid’s previous valuation of $2.7 billion after its 2018 Series C investment of $250 million. Pending regulatory confirmation, the acquisition is expected to be completed in 3-6 months.
Founded in 2013 by Zach Perret and William Hockey, Plaid’s API enables companies to easily link with customers bank accounts and connects to a host of apps, such as Venmo, Robinhood, Coinbase, TransferWise, and Acorns. The company claims to have connected to one quarter of Americans with bank accounts and has expanded to both the UK and Canada.
Not being Visa’s first interaction with Plaid, the startup had previously received investment from its new owner, along with other recognizable names like Mastercard, Goldman Sachs, Citi, and American Express.
“This fits well, strategically,” commented Al Kelly, Visa’s CEO, in a call with investors on Monday. “We’re excited about new business and the ability for this to accelerate our revenue growth over time.”
Speaking to CNBC, Perret told CNBC that “We feel fortunate to have been there for the early days of fintech, and to have helped develop that ecosystem … This represents an important milestone, and the ability to work with Visa to make our products much bigger and better – both domestically and internationally.”
Whether such developments mean added features, further expansion to new territories, or something else entirely remains unclear. However, much like Google’s acquisition of Fitbit late last year, this merger witnesses the passing on of a treasure trove of data, with the curtain being pulled on the financial details of millions of transactions between startups and consumers; leaving Visa better positioned to understand and pre-empt what exactly is happening in industries where unpredictable disruption is valued above all else.
The Canadian Lenders Association’s largest annual event brought together hundreds of executives from the fintech and lending industries. It was hosted at MaRS, a dedicated launchpad for startups in Downtown Toronto that occupies more than 1.5 million square feet and is home to more than 120 tenants, many of which are global tech companies.
After OnDeck Canada CEO Neil Wechsler was introduced as the new chairman of the association, the day kicked off with a presentation by Craig Alexander, the Chief Economist of Deloitte Canada. Alexander explained that after some major warning signs sounded off late last year and early this year, Canadian growth and positive economic indicators have returned. He opined that politics in Canada and the United States will play a strong role in the economic outcomes of both countries going forward.
Panels on a variety of topics dominated the rest of the day with an interlude keynote from author Alex Tapscott who spoke about the financial services revolution.
The sessions concluded with an award ceremony focused around the Top 25 Company Leaders in Lending and the Top 25 Executive Leaders in Lending. The Canadian Lenders Association will make videos of the sessions available online. deBanked was in attendance.
This week Google announced that it plans to offer checking accounts to customers in 2020. The news comes after the release of the Apple Card, Apple and Goldman Sach’s controversial joint project, in August; this week’s release of Facebook Pay; and the mass exodus by payments companies from Facebook’s Libra Association last month.
Titled as Google’s ‘Cache’ project, the accounts will be the result of a partnership between the tech giant and a selection of banks and credit unions. Thus far, Citigroup and a credit union based in Stanford University have been confirmed as partners, with more to be announced. Speaking on the venture, Citigroup spokesperson Liz Fogarty said the “agreement has the potential to expand the reach and breadth of our customer base.” Whereas Joan Opp, President and CEO of Stanford Federal Credit Union, remarked that the deal would be “critical to remaining relevant and meeting customer expectations.”
As of yet, not much is known beyond these partners and that the checking accounts will be in some way “smart” according to Google spokesperson Craig Ewer. Whether or not there will be fees attached to the accounts, or who will be the target audience remain unsure. The latter especially given Google Pay’s poor take up in America.
As well as all this, it is equally unclear what exactly Google will be bringing to banking that is new. In his statement, Ewer said that “we’re exploring how we can partner with banks and credit unions in the US to offer smart checking accounts through Google Pay, helping their customers benefit from useful insights and budgeting tools while keeping their money in an FDIC or NCUA-insured accounts.” Such “insights” and “tools” are yet to be expanded upon and may give cause to alarm, as the company has recently come under fire for its questionable use of data after it was revealed that Google has secretly gathered the personal medical data of 50 million Americans from healthcare providers; and has recently been accused of using both human contractors and algorithms to tweak search engine results, potentially exhibiting favoritism as well as a willingness to change results related to at least one major advertiser.
When asked by CNBC about Google’s plans to enter finance, Senator Mark Warner (D) was apprehensive, remarking that “large platform companies have not had a very good record of protecting the data or being transparent with consumers.” Warner, who was a tech entrepreneur before entering politics, believes more regulation should be in place as the number of tech companies looking to enter finances continues to increase, saying, “once they get in, the ability to extract them out is going to be virtually impossible.”
Such comments come in the wake of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg’s testimony to Congress last month, in which he told the representatives: “I view the financial infrastructure in the United States as outdated.” Just how outdated Zuckerburg and his contemporaries believe it to be will become clearer as more of these Big Tech-Wall Street hybrids are released.
BlueVine Capital, the Redwood City-based alternative funder, has announced today that it will launch its BlueVine Business Banking product in 2020, which will offer checking accounts that come with debit Mastercards, checks, and ATM access exclusively to small businesses. And just like many of the new competitors in the banking space, BlueVine Business Banking will be app-based, with access also being available through an online dashboard.
With the financial infrastructure and regulatory framework being provided by The Bancorp Bank, BlueVine is the next alternative finance company to look toward becoming a bank, a move which has proven difficult for companies who already tried, such as SoFi and Square.
“Historically, banks have under-invested in small businesses and as a result, small businesses have been left with products and services that don’t meet their needs,” said BlueVine CEO and Co-founder Eyal Lifshitz in a press release that claims only 9% of small businesses believe their banks meet all of their needs. “Credit is a core part of banking and with the addition of checking accounts to our existing suite of financing products, customers can have a truly seamless banking experience.”
Such seamlessness spawns from BlueVine’s goal to promote an integrated and instant banking model, Lifshitz told me. “No more waiting for ACH for two days, or for wires to come in. You press a button, you draw from your line of credit, and magically it’s in your checking account … It’s the way that we believe it should be. The fact that it’s not currently like this is incredible in our eyes. This is what we believe the future looks like.”
BlueVine Business Banking will offer customers 1.00% interest rates on their savings and aims to cut out many of the fees associated with checking accounts, as Lifshitz explained that there will be no monthly, excess, or ACH charges; and that wire fees will be a fraction of what they cost with traditional banks.
“We feel we have the ability to build a true small business bank. Finally, one that is built and designed for small businesses rather than one that is having them as the third or fourth priority on the list, which many of the larger banks do … We believe the reason we’re here providing alternative finance is because banking is broken, and our goal is to build better banking, not just financing, but overall better banking.”
National Business Capital & Services Expands into Cannabis Funding with CannaBusiness Financing SolutionOctober 15, 2019
Today National Business Capital & Services (NBC&S) announced it has begun serving cannabis companies. Through its new program, CannaBusiness Financing Solution, NBC&S is now accepting applications for loans starting at a minimum of $10,000 from firms in the industry that are over one year old.
“The CannaBusiness Financial Solution will allow business owners to seamlessly obtain the capital they need, and allocate funding toward either hiring new employees, purchasing inventory, marketing strategies, or any other business need right away, without government regulations hindering growth opportunities or having to give up equity,” explained NBC&S President Joseph Camberato. “We’re not a bank and the lenders we work with aren’t banks either, so it falls into a different area of commercial lending.”
CannaBusiness is available in the 33 states where cannabis is legal, be it for medicinal or recreational uses, as well as in Canada.
“It’s a rapidly growing space, no pun intended,” joked Camberato when asked about the differences in funding cannabis companies compared to the industries NBC&S has served in its 12 years of business. “It would still be underwritten, just like one of our normal businesses. But we’re definitely going to want to know a little bit more about the business and understand what exactly they’re doing, how they’re operating, and exactly what are they’re focused on.” They’ll also examine if the business is in compliance with state laws. Qualifying cannabis companies must be in business for at least 1 year, with a minimum of $10K in monthly revenue. There is no minimum FICO score requirement.
While it’s not the first funder for cannabis companies, NBC&S views the move as a step in the right direction to “get ahead of the curve” according to Camberato. “We’re living through a modern-day prohibition, I think in 20 years we’ll look back on it and talk about it with our grandchildren and be like, ‘wow’ … I don’t think people realize how big of a deal this really is, but it is a business and it is another industry that has bloomed in front of us, again no pun intended. I think it’s fascinating that we get to witness this and that we’re really at the forefront of it and helping folks get the funds they need to grow.”
Jumping off from the politically charged word of ‘prohibition,’ NBC&S’ Vice President of Marketing, T.J. Muro, noted that he believed cannabis legislation to be one of the few issues that can be bipartisan, saying, “Out of everything today in our political climate, I think it’s the one thing that has unified people in the political parties. The liberal side appreciates the cultural influence and significance there, and then on the more conservative side it’s the tax revenue.”
The upcoming Senate vote on the SAFE Banking Act will put this theory to the test. The bill, which would allow the cannabis industry wider access to banking, has already passed the House.
Peer-to-Peer lending in the United States died the day Goldman Sachs launched a rival online lending company in 2016. Armed with a low cost of capital and the trust of a household name, Marcus, as Goldman Sachs referred to themselves, sought to further disrupt consumer lending by eliminating every type of fee including late fees. Its pitch was simple, “No fees. Ever.” Three years later, the company still hasn’t caught up to competitors like Lending Club in origination volume (Marcus’ loan book is $5B vs. Lending Club’s $15B). Its fee-less model may also be backfiring.
Goldman’s consumer lending business has racked up major losses, according to the WSJ. “It spent heavily to buy startups and cloud-storage space, hire hundreds of techies, and build call centers in Utah and Texas. Loans have gone bad at a higher rate than that of rivals.”
For all of the bank’s early bluster, they were so afraid of negative PR, that they launched without a collections department, leading to significantly high bad debt, the WSJ reports. That has since changed. But where Goldman Sachs appears to have lost, they may still be on track to win. As a consumer “bank” Marcus can also accept deposits. It had collected $36 billion as of year-end 2018 and added another $14 billion this year so far. Goldman also scored a valuable partnership with Apple on a branded credit card. The pitch is a familiar one, “No fees. Not even hidden ones.”
Apple promotes its card as “Created by Apple, not a bank,” yet The WSJ ironically reports that Goldman spent $300 million creating the card for Apple.
In a Q2 earnings call, Goldman CFO Stephen Scherr said that the bank was shifting its consumer lending focus from Marcus to the Apple Card. “I’d also say that if you look at the level and rate of growth in the Marcus loan business, while it continues to grow and perform well, we have slowed the increasing growth in that in contemplation of taking on increasing consumer credit through the card business,” he said. “What’s important for us is that we look at this on a risk-adjusted return basis not simply on a return on asset construct.”
Competitively, however, Scherr couldn’t answer if the consumer lending business’s costs will ultimately look more like a fintech lender or a bank as they scale. “What I can tell you is that what we have built jointly with Apple both on the front end and on the back end is intended to be operationally resilient, but equally is intended to be efficient both in terms of the application all through the delivery and on the back-end and so my expectation is that the efficiency will be reflected in that, but again premature to sort of put numbers around it.”
When MyPayrollHR left thousands of companies and their employees high and dry without their paychecks earlier this month, suspicion grew that the company’s rather mysterious owner, Michael Mann, may have been involved in some unsavory business. New information has emerged that around that time, Mann voluntarily checked in to the US Attorney’s office in Albany and admitted to a fraud he’d been running for 9 long years.
Since then, according to the Department of Justice, “Mann fraudulently obtained at least $70 million in loans from banks and other financial institutions. He created companies that had no purpose other than to be used in the fraud; fraudulently represented to banks and financing companies that his fake businesses had certain receivables that they did not have; and obtained loans and lines of credit by borrowing against these non-existent receivables.”
He has not paid them back. By the end, Mann resorted to kiting checks, the DOJ claims, in that he wrote checks back and forth to himself at different backs to inflate the balance of one or more accounts.
His largest creditor, Pioneer Bank, is owed tens of millions. Earlier this month, Mann attempted to route funds meant for his customers’ payrolls to an account at Pioneer Bank. Pioneer Bank responded by freezing all of the funds, causing all of MyPayrollHR’s clients to get caught in the crossfire.
Mann is charged with Bank fraud. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison and a maximum $1 million fine.
Last week, PNC Bank announced its latest venture, numo, which aims to function as an internal startup, developing apps and other services to expand PNC’s operations.
The first such app is indi, a bank account for gig workers that is exclusive to mobile phones. Offering customers tax calculators, tax savings goals, and dynamics adjustments that react to how much they’ve saved, PNC is joining the list of financial institutions which are doubling down on banking apps. The numo accounts are FDIC-insured, are held at PNC, and include a Visa prepaid debit card.
Speaking on the benefits of indi, numo CEO David Passavant said, “How do you estimate your tax liability when you don’t have an employer doing it for you? We built a system with intelligence to estimate what you should set aside for taxes.”
Beyond indi, numo has two other projects in the pipeline. One of these is unknown as of yet, but the next to be launched will be a service for companies that run portfolios of retail properties.
Not the only announcement to come from PNC last week, the bank also revealed its partnership with the RippleNet blockchain network. Joining together to offer swift cross-border payments for PNC’s commercial clients, the news comes almost a year after the bank stated that it planned to partner with RippleNet in September 2018.
“The speed of doing business continues to accelerate,” explained PNC Treasury Management Executive Vice President and Head of Product Chris Ward in 2018. “And the efficiencies of RTP [real-time payments] allow our clients to not only keep pace, but stay ahead.”