On Thursday, NYC taxi drivers shut down the Brooklyn Bridge to formally protest the financing costs tied to their taxi medallions, the certificate that allows them to operate in the five boroughs. Tensions over “Medallion loans” have been bubbling over since last year when it was revealed that many borrowers had signed a Confession of Judgment to obtain their loan, which basically waived their right to settle any disputes with their lender in court should they be unable to make the payments. Since then, COVID has completely devastated an already suffering industry…
“Before it was good, we could make $100-$150 a day,” said Mohammad Ashref, a local Brooklyn taxi driver in a video interview with deBanked reporter Johny Fernandez. “Now it’s very hard to survive, we work very hard to make 60, 70, or $80 a day, but what can I do? I have to make a living. We have no other choice.”
Ashref technically drives a green cab, different from the yellow cabs that were protesting on the bridge in that they’re not permitted to accept street-hails throughout most of Manhattan. Green taxis also operate through a permit rather than a medallion, a still relatively new concept that was first rolled out in 2013 to facilitate ride-hailing in the outer boroughs where yellow cabs did not spend much time.
In the interview with Fernandez, Ashref pointed out that the success of the taxi business is intertwined with the restaurant industry. Many riders in the boroughs depend on cabs to take them to restaurants or night clubs, but with the complete ban on indoor dining still in effect within city limits, that need has mostly dried up.
According to the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, yellow and green cabs were making as little as $314 and $210 a week respectively during the peak period of the shutdowns. In a 40 hour week, these amount to a fraction of the $15/hour local minimum wage and that’s even before factoring in driver costs like a vehicle lease, loan payments, insurance, and more.
deBanked has been exploring several areas of the New York City economy over the last few months. For instance in July, reporter Johny Fernandez looked into how the pandemic was affecting a street performer in Times Square that was dressed as Batman.
“The business now is slow,” Batman said. “There’s so few people at this moment […] At this moment I see people scared, they don’t want pictures…”
Batman, like others in New York City, was hopeful that a return to normalcy was just around the corner.
Since March, over 150 million Americans have woken up to find their banks accounts newly graced with checks from the government. Allowed by the CARES Act, this stimulus package, titled the Economic Impact Payment, was dispatched to help ease the short-term financial troubles that arose from covid-19’s disruption of the economy. And while many Americans have received their money from the Treasury, a selection of recipients are dropping their stimuli into the garbage.
The reason for this being that the mode of delivery was switched up mid-May. Instead of having the money directly wired to their bank accounts, roughly four million Americans will instead receive their packages via prepaid VISA debit cards. This group is made up of those taxpayers who do not have bank information on file with the Treasury and who had their tax returns processed by the Andover or Austin Service Centers.
Treasury-sponsored and issued by MetaBank, these cards are shipped in a plain envelope that bares the words “Money Network Cardholder Services, and which contains instructions alongside the card: making the stimulus package look more like marketing spam than anything else. As such, numerous complaints have been made about the delivery method, with many of those who received the cards saying they threw out the entire envelope without thought, believing it to be junk mail.
“It really read to me like a scam,” said one woman interviewed by Yahoo! Finance. “So into the shredder it went.”
As well as this, Yahoo! also found that other recipients received cards that had mixed up their names with those of their spouse. A situation that proved confusing given that the cards must be activated via your phone using your social security number and other personal details.
Funds on the cards can be used to directly pay expenses as well as be transferred to personal accounts; they can also be used at ATMs, although the withdrawal amount per day is limited to $1,000, meaning multiple trips to a bank during a pandemic will be required.
Done in an effort to reduce instances of fraud as well as speed up the process of getting money to Americans, communication about the EIPCard setup seems to have gotten lost in the fray.
Going forward, the Treasury will be waiving the fees associated with reissuing an EIPCard to anyone who claims they shredded or threw it out, and initial reissuance fees from earlier dates will be reversed.
On Tuesday, I interviewed nationally recognized public opinion pollster Scott Rasmussen, who is the publisher of ScottRasmussen.com and is the editor-at-large for Ballotpedia, about the trajectory of the presidential race and how the current environment is affecting how people think.
Mr. Rasmussen will be a guest speaker at Broker Fair 2020 Virtual on June 11, 2020. You can watch the video interview below.
Last week Loans Canada, a loans comparison platform, released a survey of over 900 financially vulnerable Canadians. These being defined as those Canadians who rely on low income, who have limited access to credit, and who have little to no savings available, the study found that many of the respondents were at risk of financial troubles from covid-19 due to their restricted means and ineligibility for government welfare programs.
30% of those surveyed reported that they are unable to access the Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit, a program that offers CAD$500 a week to those whose finances have been negatively affected by covid-19, due to the terms of the package. In order to qualify, one must earn less than CAD$1,000 over the four week period that the claim is for, leaving many who work part-time or who have had their hours cut unable to access the money.
As well as this, the survey recorded that many of these individuals are having difficulty accessing credit, as nearly 50% said that their bank has denied them funding. This coupled with the fact that 80% have experienced a loss of income due to the novel coronavirus, as well as only 12% of respondents having the government-recommended three months of living expenses saved up, paints a grim picture for the future finances of those vulnerable Canadians.
Beyond immediate finances, 73% of those surveyed believed that the pandemic would negatively affect their credit scores, 63% expect to miss paying at least one bill over the next six months, and 78% claim that they will struggle to finance their necessary expenses if the covid-19 situation continues through the summer.
Altogether, the study indicates a need for more financing amongst those likely to be hit hardest by the economic knock-on from covid-19. What remains to be determined however, is whether it will come in the form of governmental relief, credit from their banks, or funding from the non-bank lenders.
The Trump administration last week released a set of guidelines on how states and local governments may reopen.
Titled ‘Opening Up America Again,’ the document outlines criteria to help classify which stage a region or state is in. Being a guideline rather than an order, it is not an exact prediction of how local and state economies will restart; with this process left to be decided by state governors rather than the president. As such, the plan omits details and specific requirements that would otherwise be left to the states.
The document notes a set of standards that must be met in order to prove eligible for entering each stage. Among these are practices being employed currently, like the establishment of contact tracing systems, increased ICU capacities, and the provision of testing sites for those who are symptomatic of covid-19. However, one standard, the adequate supplying of personal protection equipment and critical medical equipment, has proved difficult across the United States as ventilators, masks, and gowns worn by medical professionals are scarce.
If a state or region meets each of the listed criteria then it enters phase one. In this stage, services, individuals, and employers are suggested to act in their most limited capacity. Vulnerable individuals are asked to continue to shelter in place, and those who live with vulnerable individuals are asked to be mindful of going to work; gatherings of more than 10 people where strict physical distancing is not possible are to be avoided; non-essential travel is to be limited; telework is encouraged; staff common areas are to close; schools and organized youth activities are to be cancelled; large venues can open under strict physical distancing protocols, just as gyms can; and bars are to remain closed.
If the gating criteria are met a second time, the beginning of phase two is signaled. Here many of the guidelines stay the same, except the physical distancing standards are relaxed for large venues, schools may reopen, gatherings of up to 50 people are deemed safe so long as physical distancing is observed, non-essential travel can resume, and bars “may operate with diminished standing-room occupancy.”
And finally, if a state or region shows signs of no rebound of covid-19 and satisfy the gating criteria a third time, they enter the final phase. Vulnerable individuals may resume public interactions while practicing physical distancing; employers can reopen common areas; visits to senior living facilities and hospitals can resume; and large venues, bars, and gyms may operate under less restrictive protocols.
Again, the implementation of these guidelines remains an uncertainty. With states and governors being split over their reaction to the novel coronavirus as well as the level to which they are affected by the pandemic, it is unclear how
many, if any, will adhere to ‘Opening Up America Again.’
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt the economy and affect small businesses as well as funders, deBanked will keep up with how various figures from the alternative finance sector are managing under the stresses of covid-19. Ranging from funders, to brokers, to those figures on the periphery of the industry, this series aims to highlight a variety of voices and we encourage you to reach out to deBanked to discuss how your business is doing.
One such voice this week was Shawn Smith, CEO of Dedicated Commercial Recovery. Specializing in debt recovery and legal enforcement, Smith told deBanked that his business has already seen a jump in demand, but that he reckons, for now, most demand will be for modifications on existing deals. According to Smith, many of his clients have explained to him that merchants have been requesting changes to the terms of the financing, either by tweaking the rates or length of repayment.
“Just in two weeks we can see an uptick, but by and large, it hasn’t majorly spiked. I think it’s spiking with the funders or the creditors right now. And we’ll be next on that … a major thing I’m hearing is a dramatic increase in inbound calls to our clients for modifications.”
In Smith’s view, this back and forth between merchants and funders is a better scenario than the alternative, making clear that honest communication is necessary in a crisis like this.
“Hopefully everybody’s working together through this, which does seem to be the case right now. I honestly think we’re past the point of some people calling this a hoax, or it’s not to be taken seriously. And I’m seeing a lot of rallying around the idea of ‘we’re in this together even though we can’t stand next to each other.’ A kind of American spirit of we’re going to beat this, we’re going to get through it.”
For Idea Financial, the idea of working together has manifested, just as it has for many companies across the world, digitally. CEO Justin Leto and President Larry Bassuk explained to deBanked that since their entire company is working remotely, the communication app Slack has stepped in for continual conversation between employees and Zoom is being used to check in with the team multiple times throughout the day.
“In many ways, our teams interact more now than they did when they were in the office together. We hold competitions, share personal stories, and really support one another. At Idea, the sentiment that we feel is that everyone appreciated each other more now than before, and we all look forward to seeing each other again in person soon.”
On Thursday, industry leaders took part in a webinar hosted by LendIt Co-Founder and Chairman Peter Renton. Various subjects relating to Covid-19 were up for discussion by Lendio’s Brock Blake, Kabbage’s Kathryn Petralia, and Luz Urrutia of Opportunity Fund, with the $2 trillion government bill being foremost among them.
Blake, who had been in touch with Senators Romney and Rubio, explained that most small businesses will be eligible for a loan out of the $350 billion fund that would be allotted to the SBA under the $2 trillion bill, saying that “a tsunami of loan applications is coming because almost all small business owners in America will qualify for this product.” The Lendio CEO also noted that business can expect to pay an interest rate of 3.75% on these loans, only a portion of each individual loan may be forgivable, and the max amount loaned out will be two and a half times the business’s monthly payroll, rent, and utilities combined.
Beyond the specifics of the 7(a) loan program, Blake expressed concern over the SBA’s bandwidth, saying that he was unsure whether or not the organization and the banks that it will partner with to deliver these loans will have the capacity to process them, a point echoed by Urrutia. “We’re talking about businesses that are going to need a ton of support,” the Opportunity Fund CEO said. “With these programs, the money doesn’t really get down to the bottom of the pyramid.”
Collectively, the group hoped that the SBA would open up their channels and allow non-bank lenders to use some of the $350 billion to fund small businesses, citing that neither government agencies nor banks have the technology nor processes to hastily deal with the amount of applications that will come. In other words, the SBA is working with “dinosaur technology,” as Blake called it.
One point of concern that continually arose during the conversation was the situation lenders will find themselves in as the pandemic continues. With Blake saying that an estimated 50% of non-bank lenders on his platform have hit the pause button on new loans, each of the other participants expressed worry about lenders being wiped off the map during and in the aftermath of this crisis.
As well as this, Petralia explained that funders can expect to encounter increased rates of fraud during this time: “In times like this, the bad guys come out in force … criminals are very creative and smart, so I promise you they’ll come up with new ways to fraud the system.” Discussing how they are dealing with this, the group mentioned that they were incorporating additional revenue and cash balance checks, as well as social media checks to see whether the business announced that it had closed due to the coronavirus.
Altogether, the conversation was one of uncertainty, but also one of hope to keep the wheels of the industry turning as more and more small business owners look for financing to keep their payroll flowing. As Renton said closing the session, “This is our time to shine, this is fintech’s time to show what it’s been working on for the last decade.”
As the market cheers the upcoming passage of a $2 Trillion stimulus bill that is intended to provide much needed support to small businesses, industry insiders are beginning to raise concerns about the SBA’s infrastructural ability to process applications in a timely manner.
In a webinar hosted by LendIt Fintech yesterday, Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia estimated that conservatively, it could take the SBA up to two months to even begin disbursing loans offered by the bill. Kabbage President Kathryn Petralia offered the most optimistic estimate of 10 days, while Lendio CEO Brock Blake thinks that perhaps it could take around 3 weeks.
Blake followed up the webinar by sharing a post on LinkedIn that said that small businesses were reporting that the SBA’s website was so slow, so riddled with crashes, that the SBA had to temporarily take their site offline.
Most skeptics raising alarms are not referring to the SBA’s staff as being unprepared, but rather the systems the SBA has in place.
A March 25th tweet by the SBA reported that the site was undergoing “scheduled” improvements and maintenance.
— SBA (@SBAgov) March 25, 2020
This all while the demand for capital is surging. Blake reported in the webinar that loan applications had just recently increased by 5x at the same time that around 50% of non-bank lenders they work with have suspended lending.
Some informal surveying by deBanked of non-bank small business finance companies is finding that among many that still claim to be operating, origination volumes have dropped by more than 80% in recent weeks, mainly driven by stay-at-home and essential-business-only orders issued by state governments.
It’s a circular loop that puts further pressure on the SBA to come through, none of which is made easier by the manual application process they’re advising eager borrowers to take on. The SBA’s website asks that borrowers seeking Economic Injury Disaster Loan Assistance download an application to fill out by hand, upload that into their system and then await further instructions from an SBA officer about additional documentation they should physically mail in.
Perhaps there’s another way, according to letters sent to members of Congress by online lenders. 22 Fintech companies recently made the case that they are equipped to advance the capital provided for in the stimulus bill.
“We seek no gain from this crisis. Our only aim is to protect the millions of small businesses that we are proud to call our customers,” the letter states.
Members of the Small Business Finance Association made a similar appeal in a letter dated March 18th to SBA Administrator Jovita Carranza. “In this time of need, we want to leverage the experience and expertise we have with our companies to help provide efficient funding to those impacted in this tough economic climate. We want to serve as a resource to governments as they build up underwriting models to ensure emergency funding will be the most impactful.”
How fast things come together next will be key. The House is scheduled to vote on the Senate Bill today. If a plan to distribute the capital cannot be expedited and the crisis drags on, the consequences could be dire.
“Hundreds of thousands of businesses are going to be out of business,” Urrutia warned in the webinar.
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.”
President Trump pledged to support SBA lending through ramped-up low interest loans to small businesses that are suffering or may suffer from a decline in business due to recent public health fears. Additionally the President says that he will make or ask Congress to impose a degree of tax relief to those affected.
More information about the plans will be published as they become available. The President’s speech was made at 9pm EST in which he announced broad preventative and relief measures including a 30-day ban from all European travelers (excluding the UK).
Earlier this week, Alan Hayon had a challenge – to get a merchant above a 500 FICO score in order to make them eligible for small business funding. Within 30 minutes, Hayon increased the merchant’s personal FICO score by 59 points, getting them above 500. And the deal funded the following day. Hayon is the founder and CEO of The Credit Desk, a credit repair company in Long Island, and he used Experian Boost to get the merchant’s score up. It’s a brand new product from Experian that allows you to add and get credit for bills you have been paying on time, like gas, electricity, water, TV, internet and phone.
What used to take two to three weeks is now instantaneous with Experian Boost, according to Hayon. And the potential ramifications for small business funding are quite astounding. John Celifarco of Horizon Financial Group, a brokerage in New York, said that he had never heard of credit repair happening so quickly and that if it actually works, it could revolutionize the industry.
“Every deal could move up a grade,” Celifarco said. “This could have huge effects not just on the low end. You could jump someone from mid to high credit.”
Hayon conceded that it’s much harder to get a credit score up to, say 650, very quickly. That is harder and takes a little more time. Still, the new Experian Boost product means the ability to cross a FICO score minimum threshold and move a merchant from unfundable to fundable, almost immediately.
“It’s a positive domino effect,” Hayon said of Experian Boost, and what follows. “Then they can pay their credit card bills, get caught up with vendors and improve their credit further.”
This practice, often called “rapid rescoring,” has been used in the mortgage industry for years, according to Daniel Dias, owner of Small Business Lending Source, a brokerage in San Diego. Dias said that the rapid rescoring of a FICO score for someone applying for a mortgage can take as little as a day. Pretty fast. But for his clients, which are small businesses, he always tells them to wait at least 30 days to see an increase – from 20 to 60 points – in their score. By complete chance, when asked who he directs his clients to for credit repair, he said it was Hayon. Merchants pay Hayon directly, not via the broker.
In Celifarco’s experience, credit repair generally takes three to six months, which is usually too long for the merchant to wait to improve their FICO score. So he approaches credit repair a little differently. He advises his merchants to seek credit repair services after their first funding. This way, they can improve their credit and get a better rate the second time they go for funding.
Cory Petitte, who has worked both as a broker and a funder in South Florida, cautioned against inflating FICO scores in a way that misrepresents the merchant.
“I want to make sure the merchant can handle the payment,” he said.
He thinks that rapid rescoring is not a good practice and drew parallels to the 2008 mortgage crisis.
“You had mortgages that really weren’t A paper. [Instead,] they were B, C and D paper that were being represented as A paper.”
Furthermore, he said that he has spoken to underwriter who have told him they can sometimes tell when a FICO has been rapidly rescored.
A recent survey conducted by LendingTree found that more than half of Americans cannot cover a $1,000 emergency with cash or savings. Forty-eight percent of Americans say they could handle a $1,000 emergency expense by using cash or savings in their bank accounts.
Of the those Americans who could not handle a $1,000 emergency, whether it be a health issue or an urgent home repair, 16 percent said they would borrow from friends or family. Nine percent said they would sell something, another nine percent said they would use a credit card, seven percent said they would work more, and six percent said they would get a loan or paycheck advance.
Additionally, according to the report, six out of 10 Americans have had an emergency in the past year that cost them $1,000 or more and one-third of Americans are currently in debt from an emergency expense they could not afford cover. Of Americans who had to go into debt to cover a past emergency, one-third still owe $5,000 or more for this expense and about 18 percent have emergency debt balances of $10,000 or more.
LendingTree also announced at the end of last week that it has reached an agreement to acquire ValuePenguin for a total consideration of $105 million. ValuePenguin presents consumers and business owners with loan alternatives. In October, LendingTree acquired QuoteWizard.com, an insurance comparison marketplace, rounding out LendingTree as a more full financial advisory company.
“We are thrilled to add ValuePenguin’s talented team and expertise to our portfolio,” said Doug Lebda, Founder and CEO of LendingTree. “Our recent QuoteWizard acquisition was our first step toward leadership in insurance customer acquisition. Adding ValuePenguin’s high-quality content and SEO capability to QuoteWizard’s proprietary technology and carrier network will set us apart and enable us to provide immense value to carriers and agents. Both businesses will benefit from LendingTree’s strong brand and extensive marketing capabilities. We are in a great position to achieve further scale in the insurance space as well as the broader financial services industry.”
Funding Circle, together with Oxford Economics, released a report this week using data from its customers last year. Funding Circle is a business loan platform that matches small business borrowers with investors that want to lend. Some of these findings may be reflective of the broader alternative finance market.
Data from the report conveys that there is an increased appetite among small business merchants for online lending products. Of the small business customers surveyed, 70 percent did not attempt to get a bank loan before applying for an alternative loan from the Funding Circle platform. The main reason for this, cited by more than three-quarters of these customers, was a perception that the bank loan process would be too burdensome. Another nine percent skipped banks because they said they thought they would be rejected.
Of the businesses that had first approached a bank before seeking funding from Funding Circle, 50 percent said they didn’t obtain a bank loan because their application was rejected. Another 36 percent responded that the bank loan process took too long, and seven percent felt that the bank’s rates and fees were too high.
When asked about the impact of not receiving funding through Funding Circle (or we can imagine a different online funder), the most common response, given by 27 percent of respondents, was that they would have missed an opportunity. After this, 22 percent believed they would not be able to consolidate their debt and 16 percent thought that they would not have been able to achieve profit growth.
Loan volume in the U.S. rose significantly for Funding Circle last year. A total of $509 million in new loans were issued in the U.S. in 2017, an increase of 80 percent from $281 million issued the previous year.
“It has become evident that small businesses are underserved in every country we operate,” said Funding Circle co-founder and CEO Samir Desai. “From butchers and bakers, to IT consultants and accountants, these are the businesses that are creating jobs, boosting productivity and driving our economies forward. The economic impact that these businesses have had as a result of accessing finance through Funding Circle is hugely rewarding to see.”
Founded in 2010, Funding Circle has helped 40,000 small businesses find financing. The company operates in the U.S., U.K., Germany and the Netherlands.
Is there reason for concern?
A Morningstar report on debt shows rising delinquencies in student loans and auto loans. While the rate for student loans more than 90 days past due declined to 11.0 percent in the first quarter, from 11.5 percent in the fourth quarter 2015, it has been rising since the end of 2011 when delinquencies were 8.5 percent
This corresponds with the increase in student enrollment at for-profit colleges that target lower income groups with the lure of higher paying jobs. Enrollment in these institutions have quadrupled since 2000 and a study revealed that 70 percent of the students who defaulted on their loans in 2013 went to for-profit educational institutions.
In 2014, 47 percent of students at these institutions defaulted on their loan, compared to 38 percent who went to two-year institutions and 27 percent who did the traditional four-year courses.
The report also warns of rising delinquencies in auto loans propelled by an increase in subprime lending.
The rising competition among lenders lending to millennial borrowers with thin files has led to the uptick in subprime auto loans. Experian reported a 10.9 percent year-over-year increase in the balance of subprime auto loans and leases held by consumers in the first quarter of 2016
Auto delinquencies have crept higher, with the rate of loans more than 90 days late reaching 3.5 percent in the first quarter, up from 3.4 percent in the prior quarter.
“For student and auto loans, it’s important to keep the eyes on the road and watched as these are vulnerable to subprime lending with rising delinquencies,” said Stephanie Mah, director of research at Morningstar and author of this report. “Even though the pace of student-loan delinquencies slowed in the previous quarter, they remain at near record levels..”
America’s bond market is drying up.
The value of bonds packaged with personal, corporate and real-estate loans fell by $98 billion, a 37 percent decline from the first half of 2015 making it tough for businesses to refinance their debt.
Lenders have for long relied on securitization for capital but as the credit market tightens, companies will be forced to diversify and soon.
There are currently more than $10 trillion in outstanding securities backed by personal, business and other loans, according to the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Wall Street Journal said.
And it’s not just investors who are retreating. A recent study found that small businesses are hesitant to borrow and rely on personal resources to meet their business’ capital needs. Demand from businesses with revenues of less than $5 million shrunk 15 percent from Q1 2016 to Q2 2016, from 38 percent to 32 percent.
The survey also noted that a third of business owners that responded transferred personal assets like savings and personal credit cards to their business accounts in the last quarter.
“Business borrowing habits suggest owners may not see a need for an immediate infusion of capital,” said Dr. Craig R. Everett, assistant professor of finance and director of the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project. “However, these findings suggest business owners are still feeling the lasting impact of the recent recession and remain skittish about the future, as reflected in an abundance of caution when it comes to the economic environment.”
Business owners are being tightfisted with borrowing, instead using earnings and profits for capital expenditure.
“There are far fewer small businesses taking a loan, as they don’t see opportunity for expansion,” said Holly Wade, director of research and policy analysis at NFIB, a small business trade association. “Some are uncertain about the future so they don’t want to take out a loan and in some instances, owners have a more difficult time finding desired loans.”
The US Department of Treasury is concerned about marketplace lending. Again.
The Financial Stability Oversight Council which was established per Dodd Frank to monitor excess risks to the financial system by bank and nonbank financial entities categorized marketplace lending as one in its annual report.
Concerned by the quick proliferation of nonbank lenders, the FSOC said that new financial products, its delivery mechanism and the business practices involved although contribute to “efficient” financial intermediation, the technology-backed underwriting models pose credit risk.
“Marketplace lending is an emerging way to extend credit using algorithmic underwriting which has not been tested during a business cycle, so there is a risk that marketplace loan investors may prove to be less willing than other types of creditors to fund new lending during times of stress,” the report said, worrying about the possible erosion of lending standards.
The Treasury however recognizes that the threat is still moderate but is still cautious.
“Financial regulators will need to continue to be vigilant in monitoring new and rapidly growing financial products and business practices, even if those products and practices are relatively nascent and may not constitute a current risk to financial stability.”
This is not the first time marketplace lending industry has garnered attention from authorities. Last month, (May 10th) the Treasury released a white paper titled “Opportunities and Challenges in Online Marketplace Lending” listing the risks associated with data and modeling techniques and the new data model being untested through a complete credit cycle.
The CFPB is also turning its attention towards small business lenders. Bloomberg reported that the agency wants to collect credit data in small business lending.
However, there are some who believe that regulating the lending industry cannot have a one-size-fits-all solution, nor does it need one. Thomas Weinberger, partner at Schulte Roth and Zapel is less inclined to believe that this will affect different market segments. “Marketplace lending has a self correcting system where if default rates go up, investors won’t buy,” he said. “The discipline is enforced by the capital.”
It’s been called the Wild West of the financial world, and it appears the sheriff is finally headed to town.
Chinese fintech, the P2P practice of connecting borrowers to lenders via the Internet, was supposed to bring much-needed competition and efficiency to the country’s outsized, government-run banking system, turning a sizable profit for a visionary group of investors in the bargain. Investors weren’t the only ones that stood to benefit from the boom. With large Chinese banks choosing to lend primarily to mammoth, state-owned corporations, the country’s small business community was similarly poised to profit.
That’s exactly how it played out for a while. Buoyed by bullish expectations, fintech startups with good marketing skills attracted large numbers of investors. This resulted in nearly a decade’s worth of easily amassed capital, dizzying returns in high interest rate bearing vehicles, and little in the way of meaningful regulation. Before you could say “Alibaba”, roughly one fifth of the world’s largest fintech firms hailed from China, with ZhongAn, an online insurance group backed by the e-commerce titan’s founder, Jack Ma, topping the list.
It was indeed the Wild West, but there was trouble on the horizon.
The twin villains irrational exuberance and negligent oversight eventually flipped the script, and China’s fintech sector has been reeling ever since. Returns derived from investing “captive capital” into funds that returned high spreads started drying up. Payment companies came under fire for questionable practices that at least one investment research firm, J Capital Research, likened to a Ponzi scheme. Doubt set in, followed by panic. Capital began flowing out of the country instead of into it, with investors that could head for the exit door doing just that.
By the end of 2015, nearly a third of all Chinese fintech lenders were in serious trouble, according to a recent article in the Economist, “trouble” being defined as everything from falling returns to halted operations to frozen withdrawals.
A few brave souls stuck to their guns, wrangling over how to make their finance models more sustainable for the long haul. Other so-called industry leaders simply skipped town. Literally. Enter “runaway bosses” into your preferred web search engine and the hits keep coming. According to the same Economist article, the delinquent bosses of some 266 fintech firms have fled over the past six months alone. It’s a worrying trend that pessimists say represents yet another nail in the coffin of China’s so called “Era of Capital.”
I wouldn’t be so sure.
Emerging trends will always be susceptible to periods of protracted volatility. It’s how industry leaders – and government officials – respond to such crises that lays the groundwork for what happens next. Now, the “maturation” process has begun in China. Unfortunately, to date it’s happened exclusively in the form of mass consolidation, with the state sector swooping in and taking over what was up until now a strictly private sector trend.
The Chinese government’s fondness for consolidating its interests is no state secret of course, but it would be a mistake for it to use the failings of the fintech sector to reassert the dominance of the country’s state-owned banking sector. The reason for this is straightforward enough. Big banks aren’t usually the biggest allies of small business, and every economy needs a robust small business sector in order to thrive.
Where could the Chinese government look for guidance? Not the US, unfortunately. If anything, the fintech market in America suffers from too much regulation. Everyone knows there’s no friendlier country on the planet for budding entrepreneurs than the US, and you certainly don’t have to look far to find examples of fast-growing American fintech success stories. You could go so far as to argue “disruptive innovation” in the financial sector is in our DNA, from the rise of Western Union to the emergence of giant credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard to the recent arrival of game changers like Lending Club, OnDeck and Venmo.
And yet, ask any fintech startup CEO about the thicket of regulation he or she has to routinely navigate in order to figure out which agencies have jurisdiction over, or which laws apply to, the various aspects of their businesses. Better yet, don’t. The alphabet soup of regulatory bodies they will be obliged to list – the SEC, the Fed, FINRA, OCC, FDIC, NCUA, CFPB, etc. – will put you both to sleep. The point is that these days the US lags behind other regions of the world in creating the environment the fintech industry needs to flourish. (One discouraging example: In the United States, the licenses needed to become a money services business (MSB) have to be acquired on a state-by-state basis; in the European Union, a single license is all it takes to do business in Berlin, Paris, Madrid, and Rome.)
Making finance safer is one thing, but blinding business with an unusually harsh regulatory spotlight isn’t the answer.
Why does it matter if the fintech sector goes belly up in China, the US, or anyplace else? To reiterate: Fintech isn’t some passing trend or get-rich-quick scheme. It’s one of the essential engines that drives small business development. According to the site VentureBeat.com, the World Economic Forum recently reported that a healthy fintech industry could close a $2 trillion funding gap for small businesses globally. You could drive a healthy uptick in the global GWP through a gap that size.
This brings us back to China. Chinese regulators may be tempted to capitalize on the country’s fintech troubles to reassert their influence, but they should strongly resist the urge. Instead, they might focus their efforts on taking steps to create a healthy ecosystem for the country’s fintech sector, one with regulatory controls that are clear, efficient, and properly implemented. Transparency will be key. One of the things American fintech companies do right is publishing essential information about those seeking loans, including their credit history, employment status, and income. This is to ensure that the investors putting up the money know what they’re getting into. It’s a critical confidence-builder, and China’s fin-tech model will need to be similarly transparent if it wants to succeed.
I happen to believe that it will succeed, and that it will continue to attract big money. The case could be made that it’s already happening. In December 2015, Yirendai, the consumer arm of P2P lender CreditEase, became the first Chinese fintech firm to go public on an overseas exchange, listing on the NYSE with a valuation of around $585 million. In January of this year, Lufax, a platform for a range of products, including P2P loans, completed a fundraising round that valued the company at $18.5 billion, setting the stage for a highly anticipated IPO.
Both companies pride themselves on their transparency protocols and risk controls.
The bottom line is this: No financial sector benefits from descending too far into a Wild West of laissez-faire everything, and China’s regulators were right to ride to the rescue. They would do equally well not to strong arm the sector’s brightest leaders. The country should strive to create a safe, healthy environment for third-party service providers to prosper and grow. If they do, it won’t just be investors in mobile transactions and digital currencies who benefit.
China’s entire economy will.
Waiting for some good news? Here’s half an attempt.
The S&P Dow Jones and Experian Consumer Credit Default Indices, which measures consumer default rates fell to 0.81 percent in May, down five basis points from April. The index measures comprehensive changes in consumer default rates — broken down into mortgage, auto loans and bank cards.
Among the cities that contributed the most, New York led with a 12 basis points drop to a default rate of 0.89 percent, followed by Dallas where rates fell by seven basis points to 0.69 percent. Chicago’s default rate fell by five basis points to 0.98 percent and Los Angeles came in fourth recording a default rate of 0.67 percent, down four basis points. Conversely, Miami’s default rates edged up higher ( six basis points) for the third consecutive month at 1.27 percent.
“Overall the consumers’ credit picture is very good,” says David M. Blitzer, managing director and chairman of the Index Committee at S&P Dow Jones Indices. “Consumer credit default rates continue at the lowest levels in more than 10 years and well below those seen before the financial crisis.”
Is this silence before a storm?
It turns out those who rent might be smarter, after all. Applications for refinancing mortgages and new home purchases fell 4 percent from the previous week, according to Mortgage Bankers Association.
As home prices rise and the anticipation around Fed raising rates builds, it will only lead to loans getting more expensive. As such, refinance applications decreased 4 percent, seasonally adjusted, and purchase applications decreased 5 percent and applications for government loans fell 6 percent. The average loan size on refinances also dropped for three straight weeks.
“House prices have breached the peak levels of 2006, raising concerns about the long-term sustainability of current price levels,” Sean Becketti, chief economist at Freddie Mac, wrote in a report on the housing market.
This doesn’t bode well for lenders like SoFi which is trying to make a big headway into mortgage refinancing. “While we launched our mortgage business focused on larger ‘jumbo’ loans, the certainty and efficiency offered by Fannie Mae will enable us to serve more members by expanding geographically and into smaller loan amounts,” Michael Tannenbaum, VP of Mortgage at SoFi said when the lender became a Fannie Mae seller.
The R-word has been rearing its ugly head with more frequency in recent months, propelled by falling stock prices, higher borrowing rates and the dollar’s ascent.
While a recession—typically defined as a fall in GDP in two consecutive quarters—is far from certain, it would most definitely be a double whammy for an industry that many believe is already ripe for a pullback due to multiple years of unfettered growth. Indeed, many funders have experienced great success riding on the coattails of the long-running favorable market. Some industry participants fear these funders are masking loss rates behind strong volume—a particularly problematic strategy if the volume were to taper off due to an economic downturn.
“It’s no different than what happened in the housing market in 2008,” says Andrew Reiser, chairman and chief executive of Strategic Funding Source Inc. in New York. If and when a recession occurs, several industry participants expect there will be a culling of the weakest firms. They say inexperienced and less-diverse funding companies are particularly at risk, as are MCA funders that don’t keep close tabs on their business dealings. They also believe that venture capital funding will be even harder to come by and regulation will rain down more heavily on the industry.
RISK FACTORS THAT SPELL TROUBLE IN RECESSIONARY ENVIRONMENT
For a variety of reasons, Glenn Goldman, chief executive of Credibly, a New York-based small business lending platform, believes that fewer than 50 percent of the funders today are prepared to weather a recession. Many don’t have strong data science and risk management, for example. Some newer platforms also don’t have the seasoned management to help guide them appropriately, he says.
Another red flag is when funders rely too heavily on a single source of funding. Goldman points back to 2008 when the commercial paper market disappeared. Companies that had on balance-sheet funding capacity were able to weather that storm because they weren’t exclusively relying on commercial paper or securitization, he says.
Goldman believes the prudent way to manage an alternative funding business is to utilize a combination of on-balance sheet financing, whole loan sales and securitization. “If the market moves sideways and you rely only on a single source of funding, you are at risk. It’s an incredibly obvious statement, but it becomes more acute when the economic environment comes under pressure,” he says.
Notably, there are very few sizable alternative funders who successfully survived the last big recession, meaning there are hundreds of companies now doing business in this space that don’t have years-worth of data to help them make more prudent underwriting decisions. Strategic Funding, for example, had the highest loss rate in its history in the third quarter of 2008 and has used its wealth of data to learn from past mistakes. “There’s no doubt that it is critical to be able to correlate events with history,” Reiser says.
Funders are also going to have to batten down the hatches when it comes to their underwriting standards. “Just because someone paid you back yesterday doesn’t mean he’s going to pay you back tomorrow,” Reiser says. “You have to be right more often in a recessionary environment.” Indeed, liquidity for originators and investors will become even more critical in a recession.
“Liquidity is king,” says David Snitkof, chief analytics officer and co-founder of Orchard Platform, a New York-based technology and data provider for marketplace lending. He points out the large number of companies that went belly-up in the last big recession for lack of liquidity. “The more that participants in this market are able to diversify their capital structure, diversify their funding sources and work with multiple providers, the better off they will be,” he says.
Another challenge will be for funders that haven’t had their servicing and collection capabilities adequately stress tested, Snitkof says. These firms should consider working with an outside provider to help them scale their collections as necessary. In this way, a company that needs additional resources can scale up pretty quickly without disrupting operations.
THE P2P OUTLOOK
To be sure, all types of companies fall under the alternative funding umbrella and each will have its own special challenges in a recession. In the P2P space, for example, having a diverse investor base and a sound credit model will become increasingly important. Peter Renton, an investor and founder of Lend Academy, an educational resource for the peer-to-peer lending industry, predicts that some of the newer P2P platforms will struggle more in a recession. That’s because they haven’t had as much time to accumulate and interpret borrower data and adapt their models accordingly.
Lending Club, for example, has gone through many iterations of its credit model over its multiple years in business, and it’s much better than it was even five years ago, says Renton, who had around $37,000 invested with Lending Club as of the third quarter of 2015. “The best data that anyone can get is payment history with your existing borrowing base,” he says.
Particularly in a recession, P2P players need to be extra careful about maintaining strict underwriting standards. Marketplaces may have to tighten their borrowing standards to lend to more solid companies, so the likelihood of defaults isn’t as great. So, for instance, if their standard was once borrowers with a FICO score of at least 640, they could up it to 660, Renton says.
Platforms also have to make sure they have enough investors to satisfy their borrowers, which is why having a diverse investor base is so important. In a recession if you have three hedge funds and that’s your entire investor base, they could all go away. By contrast, if a platform has five thousand individual investors, they aren’t all going away. You may lose 10 percent or 20 percent of them, but if you still have four thousand investors, you can still have your loans funded, Renton explains.
One way to do well even in a recessionary environment is for P2P players to tweak their credit model to be more restrictive so their default rates are lower. “If your default rates are only 3 percent and your competitors are at 6 percent, you’re going to get more business,” Renton says.
Certainly, alternative funding companies can get into trouble if they don’t act early enough when they see a change in activity and economic performance, says Ron Suber, president of Prosper Marketplace, a P2P lender based in San Francisco. Funders need to be able to nimbly adjust their pricing, risk models and expected default rates as needed. “Every marketplace will see a change in borrower behavior as unemployment increases and there are economic declines. Therein lies the question: what does the marketplace do?” Prosper, for instance, recently raised rates on loans, telling investors it had increased its estimated loan loss rates and therefore was updating the price of loans to reflect increased risk. Understanding risk and pricing loans accordingly is always important, but even more so in a shaky economic environment. “You always have to stay on top of it,” Suber says.
MANY MCA FUNDERS AT HIGH-RISK IN RECESSION
If a recession strikes, some observers believe the risk to certain MCA funders will be particularly acute. That’s because new players have entered the MCA space over the past several years, and a sizable number of them don’t have a good handle on their business. Higher default rates could force many of them to shutter operations. Certainly merchants especially those with bad credit—will need more access to capital during a recession and MCA is a natural place for these businesses to turn. But MCA funders have to do a better job of adjusting for risk and keeping adequate records if they hope to weather an economic downturn, says Yoel Wagschal, a certified public accountant in Monroe, New York, who has worked with a number of struggling MCA funders. “A small recession could lead to big failures if you don’t take the right steps,” he says.
To avoid business-threatening issues, Wagschal recommends that MCA funders take steps now to develop stronger underwriting systems to vet merchants better. He believes it’s more prudent to do fewer deals with higher rated merchants than to continue taking on risky businesses as customers. If they see more defaults are coming in, funders should also consider raising their factor rates, he says. Another option is to halt new funding for three to four months to re-energize the business. “It’s much harder to make money than to lose money,” he notes.
If they don’t already have them—and many don’t—MCA funders also need to invest in a good accounting system that can flag their profits, losses and defaults on a real-time basis. This information allows funders to make swift decisions about the business so they can take necessary steps at the right time, he says. “You don’t wait for months, or year end, to analyze all the facts. You might have already lost your business and lost your money because money is just turning around so quickly.”
UNCERTAINTY ABOUNDS FOR VENTURE CAPITAL INVESTMENT
Existing funders won’t be the only ones to struggle in a recession; the well of venture capital funding for new entrants could easily dry up as well,like it did in the last big recession. That’s not to say VC firms will lose interest entirely, but new funders will have to work even harder to get noticed. “There are so many originators, for any new entrants, the bar gets higher and higher to prove that you have something truly unique,” says Snitkof of Orchard Platform. Reiser of Strategic Funding already sees this scenario playing out. “I don’t think the market [lately] has been very favorable to our space,” he says, noting the dearth of exit strategies that have made it riskier for VC firms to invest. “It’s always easy to get in; it’s hard to get out,” he says.
GET READY FOR MORE REGULATORY ACTION
Industry watchers also believe the alternative funding industry will become more heavily regulated in a recession and its aftermath.
Reiser points to all the additional restrictions placed on the mortgage industry in the wake of the housing market bust in 2008. At a time when the housing market was restricting, you had more compliance placed on it as well. “I think you’ll have more compliance in our industry too. That’s just another cost that will have to be absorbed,” Reiser says.
In a recession, there’s more likelihood that harm can come to customers and that will drive regulatory action as well, he adds.
THE ART OF MAKING TOUGH DECISIONS
If the economy turns south, many alternative funders will be forced to make tough underwriting decisions. It can be hard if your analysis of data tells you that things are going to turn downward and your competitors don’t take the same stance, says Stephen Sheinbaum, founder of Bizfi, a New York-based online marketplace.
In that case, funders have to decide whether they are willing “to tighten and pivot while the rest of the players in the space are going full steam ahead,” he says. “That’s where you have to have some conviction and trust your data and do the right thing.”
Of course, even as the rest of the economy is faltering, recessionary times can also be a boon for enterprising companies. For example, the 2008 recession turned out to be positive for Bizfi, which at the time was called Merchant Cash and Capital. Using housing starts, consumer spending and other data, the company correctly predicted the economy was going to take a severe turn downward. It therefore made tweaks to its underwriting guidelines, moving into certain industries and away from others it deemed riskier. “Change can be hard, but it can be for the better,” Sheinbaum says.
Indeed, alternative funders that embrace new opportunities can be successful even in a broad economic downturn. “It’s about having the foresight to be able to discern good from bad and just being really disciplined about it,” says Snitkof of Orchard Platform.
It’s finally happening. Americans saved more than they spent over the last quarter.
Consumer spending on goods and services inched up 0.1 percent in February for the third straight month. Incomes rose by 0.2 percent in February pushing the saving rate from 5.3 in January to 5.4 percent in February.
The Federal Reserve kept the benchmark federal funds rate at 0.25-0.5 percent on March 16 after raising it for the first time in a decade in December last year. But, as demand for labor increases, the central bank can go easy on scaled back forecasts of higher interest rates noting that the economy is exposed to the uncertain global economy.
Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) on goods and services which is the Fed’s preferred inflation metric also increased by a percent, while still staying below the targeted 2 percent.
The lackluster consumer spending however does pose a risk to the first quarter GDP figures estimated at 1.5 percent annually.
Separately, pending home sales also rose 3.5 percent in February to their highest level in seven months according to the National Association of Realtors. Low mortgage rates combined with increased incomes and savings has prodded buyers to sign contracts on new homes.
Numbers at a glance:
- February consumer spending saw 0.7 percent drop in purchases of goods while expenditure on services rose 0.4 percent.
- Forecast for existing-homes sales this year are around 5.38 million, an increase of 2.4 percent from 2015, while the national median existing-home price for all of this year is expected to increase between 4 and 5 percent.
- The average commitment rate for a 30-year, conventional, fixed-rate mortgage was 3.66 percent in February – the lowest since April 2015 at 3.67 percent.