“It’s actually shocking to me how tone deaf those who claim to represent our industry are when it comes to policy,” is how Steve Denis, Executive Director of the Small Business Finance Association, described the Innovative Lending Platform Association’s response to and influence over the drafting of bill A10118A/S5470B. Known as New York’s APR disclosure bill, S5470B has been passed by the state legislature, and if signed by Governor Cuomo, will require small business financing contracts to disclose the annual percentage rate as well as other uniform disclosures.
Speaking to deBanked over the phone, Denis expressed disappointment with both the bill as well as comments made by ILPA’s CEO, Scott Stewart, in a recent article.
“Small businesses in New York are struggling right now,” the Director noted. “They’re waking up every single day wondering if they should even stay open or close permanently, and companies and organizations in our space are using their resources to push a disclosure bill that nobody has asked for. There’s no widespread issue with disclosure. There’s been no outpouring of complaints to regulators. No bad reviews on Trustpilot. This is a really bad solution in search of a problem. We have real problems right now, we should be coming together as an industry to help solve them. We want to make sure that capital is available to small businesses on the other side of this pandemic, and this group of tone deaf companies are spending resources trying to push a meaningless disclosure bill that’s just going to hurt the access to capital for real small businesses who are grinding and trying to figure out how to stay open. It’s unbelievable.”
The SBFA showed deBanked a list of issues and complaints made to the New York legislature regarding S5470B. According to the trade group, these were largely ignored and the bill was pushed through with the issues left in. Among these were problems relating to definitions and terms. No definition for the application process is included, nor is there one for a finance charge. As well as this, one senator was quoted using the term “double dipping” to refer to consumers refinancing debts that have prepayment penalties; which Denis said was “creating a whole new term that’s never been used or defined before, and applying it to commercial finance, something that’s never been done.”
Accompanying these complaints was one regarding how APR is calculated, as S5470B includes two different calculations for this, producing different results while not clearly defining when to use each.
When asked why he believes these issues were allowed to remain in the language of the bill, Denis was baffled.
“I think that the companies and organizations that support this legislation don’t fully understand what’s actually in the bill. […] They have no problem pounding the table and taking credit for its passage, but I guess they don’t realize it will subject them and the rest of the alternative finance industry to massive liability, massive fines—upwards of billions of dollars worth of fines.”
Denis’s fear going forward is that funders in New York will tighten up their channels going forward or cease funding entirely, given the increased riskiness of funding under the terms of S5470B if Cuomo signs it into law. Before that happens though, the Director mentioned that he believes there will be legal challenges to the bill in the future, saying that its wording is just too unclear and poorly drafted. Adding to this, Denis said that he believes many members of New York’s state government are aware that this bill is imperfect and were comfortable with the thought of it being edited once passed. Looking forward, Denis wants the SBFA to be deeply involved in those edits, saying that they’re willing to work with the Governor, the state assembly, and the New York Department of Financial Services.
“We’re for disclosure, we think there should be standard disclosure. … Our message to the Governor’s office is ‘Let’s take a step back.’ The Department of Financial Services needs to look at our industry, they need to get to know our industry. They are the experts that understand the space, they understand disclosure, and they understand what they need to do to bring responsible lending to New Yorkers. And we would like to work with the NYDFS and a broader industry to put forward a bill that’s led by the Governor and the Governor’s office that brings meaningful disclosure and meaningful safeguards to this industry.”
Following recent lawsuits filed by the FTC, Commissioner Rohit Chopra made the following statements earlier today in an announcement about merchant cash advances:
As the Commission proceeds into litigation in these matters and further studies this market, I hope that we will uncover additional information about business practices in this opaque industry. In particular, we should closely scrutinize the marketing claim that these payday-style products are “flexible,” with payments contingent on the credit card receivables of a small business. In reality, this structure may be a sham, since many of these products require fixed daily payments, and lenders can file “confessions of judgment” upon any slowdown in payments, with no notice or due process for borrowers.
This raises serious questions as to whether these “merchant cash advance” products are actually closed-end installment loans, subject to federal and state protections including anti-discrimination laws, such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and usury caps. The stakes are high for millions of small businesses.
Shopify had a monster 2nd quarter. The e-commerce giant generated $36M in profit on $714.3M in revenue. As part of that the company originated $153 million worth of loans and merchant cash advances, only slightly down from the $162.4M in Q1. Still that figure was up by 65% year-over-year (and was more than 2x the volume originated by OnDeck).
The company has offered capital to its US merchants since 2016 and recently begun doing the same with its UK and Canadian merchants starting this past March and April respectively, the company revealed.
Shopify CFO Amy Shapero said that company had maintained loss ratios “in line with historical periods,” despite COVID. “Access to capital is even tougher in times like these, which makes it even more important to continue lowering this barrier by making it quick and easy so merchants can focus on growing their business,” Shapero stated.
Late last week the New York State legislature voted to pass A10118A/S5470B, a bill that might lead to greater clarity and consumer knowledge according to Scott Stewart, CEO of the Innovative Lending Platform Association, a trade association of small business lenders.
Referring to it as “our model disclosure legislation,” Stewart explained in a phone call the work that the ILPA put in to help the bill through as well as what sort of impacts can be expected from S5470B.
“The implications are that small businesses, certainly in New York to begin with, but we think throughout the country, will have the opportunity to really see, understand, and compare various different sources and products for financing their small businesses in terms of their expansion and success. That’s something we’re very proud of and I think that’s something the small business borrower really deserves to see. They deserve to see and understand exactly what they’re doing and when they’re taking out financing products for their businesses.”
What exactly these business owners will understand better relates to the details of the bill, which requires small business financing contracts to disclose the annual percentage rate as well as other uniform disclosures. If signed by New York Governor Cuomo, the bill could have ramifications on small business lenders, MCA, and factoring providers.
ILPA, founded in 2016 and comprised by the likes of Kabbage, OnDeck, and BlueVine; worked alongside legislators to help with the drafting of the bill, assisting with the wording so that it reflects their own SMART Box initiative. This being a form offered by ILPA which lists a number of metrics worth considering when seeking small business financing.
“In January 2019, our team came together and decided that it made sense in the wake of 1235 in California to take a proactive approach to codify SMART Box as legislation in a state, and we selected New York because we felt we had a favorable legislature there,” Stewart said. “I think it’s an incredible achievement. You see the big margins that it passed by in both the Assembly and the Senate and we’re very, very proud of that. I think it really speaks to our cooperative approach to building legislation. And now, as we move toward the implementation phase, we’re going to be in a place where, hopefully in the next six months or so, small businesses will begin receiving really clear disclosures on the capital and credit that they’re trying to take out.”
As noted though, the bill must be signed by Governor Cuomo before becoming law, and then it will affect New York only. Beyond the Empire State though, Stewart is hopeful that ILPA will be able to implement the terms of S5470B in other states.
“Now that we have hopefully harmonized the legislative landscape between California, with 1235, and New York; hopefully we’ll be able to export that to other states. We don’t have any accurate plans at this time to do that, but we feel like if two of the larger states in the nation have very similar disclosure regimes then we’re on the track toward seeing this nationwide.”
I recently spoke with Lending Valley CEO Chad Otar, who told us that not only is his funding company still working remotely, but that he’ll probably never return to an office ever again. Watch below:
DeBanked Magazine recently posted the “Underwriter’s Song” to highlight an entire industry’s yearning for simpler times, claiming it was the MCA soundtrack for 2020. But I disagree and nominate a different song. You see, growing up in the south with a close-knit family gave way to a childhood filled with generations worth of entertainment. Many of my summers and holiday vacations were spent with the Turner Classic Movie channel playing in the background, and songs from the Oldies Country station on the radio. I tell you this to explain how I am reminded of a song I’ve heard countless times before, and is more applicable today than ever before. That song is “If We Make It Through to December” by the venerable Merle Haggard, a tune whose message resonates with not only the merchant cash advance industry, but our entire country.
The Expectations and Reality
Way back in March and April, the consensus appeared to be an expected return to “normal” by June, while areas hit hardest by COVID-19 would return by July. Yet here we are, teeter-tottering on the fence of moving forward. Now, our country is faced with the possibility of a second wave of shutdowns, rising crime, riots, a fourth stimulus, and funders whose workforce remains remote or have yet to resume funding. The proverbial “goal post” has moved yet again, and with it the expectations of many of us in the industry. Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of our referral partners to gauge their thoughts on the current state of our industry. A common theme in our discussions was the desire for validation. Not just as a business owner, but as an employer. They wanted to be reassured that they were taking the best steps forward and not alone in their decision making. To help those seeking the same validation, here is what the majority had to say:
- Yes, all had to terminate or furlough staff on various levels.
- Yes, all adjusted marketing budgets.
- Yes, all are struggling with managing remote employees.
- Yes, all are finding it harder to place files.
- Yes, all are seeing interruptions in relationships with funders and merchants alike.
- Yes, all are competing against the Government’s low-cost products.
- Yes, all are having files killed in late stages of funding or having offers adjusted.
- Yes, all are struggling to predict what comes next.
- Yes, all are managing unrealistic expectations from clients.
- Yes, all are having merchants walk away from fair and just offers.
- Yes, all are struggling to remain motivated.
- And yes, all of you are doing the best you can!
The New Normal
The Word Cloud below describes the state of the MCA industry using our partners’ own words. I find that the overall thoughts are best visualized by taking a step back to see which stand out the most. Our conversation was focused on the industry as a whole, then a discussion specific to Elevate Funding and how we’ve pivoted during these unprecedented times. As you can see, some of the keywords that stand out the most are; merchants, PPP, offers, funders, and marketing.
Much of the conversations focused around merchants and their new funding expectations. Each partner I spoke with agreed the demand for money is there, but the willingness to move forward on offers was very low. This reluctance is driven in part by low cost expectations based on PPP and SBA product rates, as well as uncertainty over increased debt in an unstable market. We’re also seeing a change in merchant demographics, where the mid-sized small businesses who previously did not qualify for SBA loans, now have access to these products. As a result, the remaining merchants whose best option is an MCA are now located on the opposite extreme ends of the spectrum; either those who did not qualify for PPP or SBA EIDL, and the large-scale businesses whose lines were revoked by their bank. Our response as a company has been to adjust our offers to better suit merchant’s expectations, and to shift from underwriting a business owner’s activity to underwriting the consumers’ activity. Monitoring government restrictions down to a county level countrywide and understanding consumer trends has enabled us to further mitigate risk during a time of uncertainty, and not only fund deals, but fund deals that will perform.
Meanwhile, our industry is seeing credit profiles and business profiles that have never applied in our space before, as a decreasing number of providers are available to service current merchants. During our conversations, some expressed a concern over lack of A-paper funders. Many of whom have either paused funding or entirely moved over to servicing PPP products. Another concern was the mental toll of having deals fall apart at the eleventh hour due to fast changing qualifications, variations in merchant revenue, or funders deciding to pause funding at inopportune times. These factors combined with the increasingly common “bait-and-switch” technique of funders providing a large offer, only to change to a much lower offer in the final stages of funding, has left many broker shops and ISOs feeling very discouraged.
The Path Upward and Onward
The conversations were not entirely negative, as new marketing opportunities have opened up with the goliaths of the industry such as Kabbage, OnDeck, Lendio, and Square shifting their marketing dollars towards PPP and SBA products. Many folks are finding their advertising dollars across marketing platforms are stretching further, particularly with search engine optimization. While this opens up an increased likelihood of fraud and in applicants who fall below qualifications, it has enabled many shops to operate on an even playing field with inbound marketing. Many small funders, including Elevate Funding, have already created new products to cater to lower revenue merchants and those directly affected by COVID-19. We’ve already received tremendous response on this change from partners and merchants alike. As merchants slowly shift back towards alternative financing solutions once the government runs out of money for its loan products, we remain optimistic there will be increased opportunities in terms of both volume and quality.
While the Word Cloud highlighted a number of topics, it also highlighted important topics that were not discussed; Expectations, Renewals, Commission, Aggression, and Repositioning.
Expectations in particular, is of note as it is different from opinions. Everyone has an opinion, but there is a tremendous sense of uncertainty going forward and it’s very difficult to create expectations or goals when forecasting is not possible. Many companies are doing away with forecasting models altogether, and switching to a dashboard for production goals and expectations based on real time data.
The drastic change we’re seeing now should demonstrate the importance of renewals and customer retention. Neither of which were brought up during all of my partner discussions. Over time, the industry has moved away from a “residual mindset” to seeking instant gratification of new fundings in the quest for market share supremacy. As funders, we have to ask ourselves; Are we inadvertently throwing out the baby with the bathwater with new deal bonus structures and monthly promotional campaigns to drive new deal growth? Or perhaps, renewals were scarce in discussions because when funders said when funding stopped, they meant all funding? While I can’t speak to each funder’s operations, Elevate has continued to fund throughout the pandemic with established merchants and renewals being a saving grace to drive our momentum forward. In my opinion, client retention has never been more important during an ever-changing landscape.
I was shocked to see commission taking a backseat to approvals and banks during our discussion. But the focus has seemingly move towards approvals and conversions, which will in turn lead to commissions returning. Which brings me to Aggression and Repositioning. The state of our industry is a timid one, and it’s neither the fault of the funders or the merchants. Many experts will tell you that our space was overdue for a market correction of sorts, because many were far too aggressive for far too long. This aggression gave way to bad habits such as lowered underwriting standards and lack of consideration for merchant ability to repay. More and more funders are shifting back to “normal” guidelines, providing fair and just offers. This is an encouraging sign that we are finding our way back to sustainable positive growth. But it will take time for the industry to fully reposition itself. Something that is being delayed by products from the PPP, SBA, and the hope for a third round of stimulus.
But hope is on the horizon. While the pessimists will look at that word as a form of denial, I challenge all of you to take a glass half-full approach. Hope is the confident expectation of good. The change and adjustments we’re experiencing now are what life is all about, and will ultimately lend way to better things. If you’re in need of a little dose of hope, or want a sounding board to know you’re not alone through this, feel free to drop me a line at email@example.com.
Stay safe, be well, and do not lose hope.
New York State Legislature Passes Law That Requires APR Disclosure On Small Business Finance Contracts (Even If They’re Not Loans)July 24, 2020
Factoring companies and merchant cash advance providers may be in for a rude awakening in New York. The legislature there, in a matter of days, has rammed through a new law that requires APRs and other uniform disclosures be presented on commercial finance contracts… even if the agreements are not loans and even if one cannot be mathematically ascertained.
The law also makes New York’s Department of Financial Services (DFS) the overseer and regulatory authority of all such finance agreements. DFS can impose penalties for violations of the law, the language says.
The bill was passed through so quickly that unusual jargon remained in the final version, increasing the likelihood that there will be confusion during the roll-out. One such issue raised is the requirement that a capital provider disclose whether or not there is any “double dipping” going on in the transaction. The term led to a rather interesting debate on the Senate Floor where Senator George Borrello expounded that double dipping might be well understood at a party where potato chips are available but that it did not formally exist in finance and made little sense to have it written into law.
Senator Kevin Thomas, the senate sponsor of the bill, admitted that there was opposition to the “technicalities” of it by some industry groups like the Small Business Finance Association and that PayPal was one such particular company that had opposed it on that basis. Senator Borello raised the concern that a similar law had already been passed in California and that even with all of their best minds, the state regulatory authorities had been unable to come up with a mutually agreed upon way to calculate APR for products in which there is no absolute time-frame. Thomas, acknowledging that, hoped that DFS would be able to come up with their own math.
APR as defined under Federal “Regulation Z”, which the New York law points to for its definition, does not permit any room for imprecision. The issue calls to mind a consent order that an online consumer lender (LendUp) entered into with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2016 after the agency accused the lender of understating its APR by only 1/10th of 1%. The penalty to LendUp was $1.8 million.
Providers of small business loans, MCAs, factoring and other types of commercial financing in New York would probably be well advised to consult an attorney for a legal analysis and plan of action for compliance with this law. The governor still needs to sign the bill and New York’s DFS still has to prepare for its new oversight role.
Passage of the law was celebrated by Funding Circle on social media and retweeted by Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski who sponsored the bill. The Responsible Business Lending Coalition simultaneously published a statement.
There’s new management over at Bitty Advance. The Fort Lauderdale-based funding company has been acquired by long-time industry veteran Craig Hecker. Hecker, who years ago founded, grew, and sold Rapid Capital Funding had originally acquired a stake in Bitty earlier this year, but in the following months purchased the remainder of the business from founders Eddie Siegel and Lenny Duvdivani.
Hecker told deBanked that under his management Bitty has committed capital that will allow the business to fund up to $10 million per month.
“I’m very excited to take my industry experience and knowledge and apply it to this segment of the MCA space,” he says.
As part of the takeover, Hecker says that he has “re-assembled his dream team of technologists and ops” that have been part of his inner-circle for nearly a decade and “were critical in building out the platform” that had made Rapid Capital Funding successful.
Bitty has historically focused on micro-advances and the company plans to really scale up its efforts in the $2,500 – $12,500 small merchant market segment with the aid of automated technology. In addition to this, Bitty has launched a new sales partner portal for ISOs. “That way [ISOs] will always know what’s going on with merchant applications,” hecker said.
For 2M7, the Toronto-based alternative funding company, the concept of a global economic shutdown was far-fetched. January and February of 2020 had been some of their best months in business yet. But, like every company, 2M7 was forced to reckon with the unreckonable and feel the effects of an economic lockdown.
“In terms of client onboarding and funding volume, in terms of collecting volume, and in terms of any metric you would look at, [January and February] were two very strong months,” CEO Avi Bernstein explained in a call. “And then in March, I don’t want to say we slammed on the brakes, but in the first or second week of March we basically just said, ‘you know what, we just need to really change the focus of what we’re doing.”
Saying that they were a week or two ahead of the curve, Bernstein notes that in the leadup to the shutdown their customers had already been asking for deferred or reduced payments. And with anxiety and concern in the air, 2M7 changed course and moved from focusing on bringing in new customers and increasing collections, they “hunkered down” and worked exclusively on the needs of existing clients.
“We funded throughout very minimally … and really our main effort was to get in touch with all our existing merchants and see how they were being affected, if they needed a payment plan, or if they needed a little bit more capital to tide them over. And we adjusted each one on an ongoing basis as we kind of floated through the panic of the lockdown to the waiting time to when we really started to reopen. … And you know, the ones that were still operating in the kind of environment that they were operating, if they had any additional expenses, they had additional requirements for capital.”
This approach lasted up until mid-June, around the time that the Canadian economy began to reopen. Lasting all of three months, this halting was not without victims as 2M7 had to furlough a number of staff members, many of whom were on the sales team that had reduced responsibilities during this time. Since then though, these employees have been brought back in, new customers have been brought on, and 2M7 has returned to its offices.
“As the Canadian economy started reopening and wrapping up even a little bit earlier than we were, we worked with provinces that were already more advanced in the opening stages. Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, they were doing better in terms of reopening and they were ahead of us. … We were able to work with them in terms of ramping up. Now as the economy’s kicking into gear, we’re seeing more and more demand from businesses and we’ve started feeling our how much of their client base is still in existence, how much of their market is still in existence; whether it be manufacturing or transportation, or whatever it is.”
Looking ahead, Bernstein is cautiously optimistic, believing the worst is behind them but that there is still a ways to go for the Canadian market that has shown resilience in that last four months. Explaining that he think the shutdown won’t lead to any great reset of the Canadian market, the CEO thinks that it will instead act as a catalyst for events that were already in motion: debt-laden companies will struggle and possibly perish.
But beyond that, Bernstein is feeling positive about the future, saying that “people are starting to come out of their caves, and slowly but surely businesses are starting to reopen and invest. A lot of businesses are hiring back their employees. So that’s good news for Canada and good news for small businesses in the Canadian marketplace. … I feel like we’re going to come out okay.”
I recently connected with Matthew Washington, the Chief Revenue Officer of PIRS Capital to get his take on the state of the industry right now and whether or not there are opportunities in the market. Video below:
Over the last few months, “securitizations” were frequently cited as a reference point for the health of a small business lender or alternative finance provider. Given the vague information and inferences that circulated, I decided to schedule a chat with Methodical Management co-founder Gunes Kulaligil to get his perspective. Our discussion on the state of securitizations in alternative lending below:
A recent roundtable hosted by Pepper Hamilton partner Gregory J. Nowak examined some broad questions about merchant cash advances including:
- What is a merchant cash advance?
- How should a merchant cash advance transaction be structured?
- What are the key features for enforceability?
- Could a merchant cash advance transaction be a security?
- What is participation? is it a security? If yes, what does that mean?
- What is syndication?
- What’s the role of FINRA?
They published the presentation on jdsupra.com and it can be viewed here:
Last week’s Broker Fair Virtual was the first of its kind for the industry. The day-long event offered talks and networking, just like the in-person event, albeit without the catering service and open bar. Offering a digital space that included a virtual auditorium, networking lounge, expo hall, and individual company booths, the event attempted to recreate the experience of connecting and mingling with the rest of the industry, as much as was possible.
Kicking off with a Matrix-inspired introduction to the virtual space led by alternative finance’s version of Neo’s mentor, Mur-pheus (Murray as Morpheus), the show then went in numerous directions, with panels and talks covering a variety of topics and sectors.
Funding Metrics’ David Frascella took to the virtual stage to talk about how his company and the industry at large have been getting through the pandemic; what’s to come for America was up for discussion with Scott Rasmussen, the veteran pollster, who elaborated on how business could be effected by the upcoming presidential election; the future of combining people with data was debated by figures from Become, Elevate Funding, and Ocrolus; Canada’s lending situation and prospects were talked through in Covid and Canadian Credit;The new normal was discussed by NYC’s Fintech Women; and John Henry, an entrepreneur and star of VICELAND’s ‘Hustle,’ spoke of his experience running businesses and what made his story a success.
As well as this selection of talks, another standout was the cannabis panel. Led by a number of industry veterans, which broke down the difference in funding marijuana-based companies compared to other deals, and what could be down the road for the industry as more states consider legalization.
National Funding’s CRO, Justin Thompson, held an extended Q&A session, fielding queries about how National has been faring through these times and what its approaches are as the economy begins to open back up.
How long-term is long-term for the coronavirus’s impact? Are SBA deals the way to go? Does the industry need to go further with its adaption to this new normal? All these questions were asked and answered in The Great Debate, a panel made up of industry figures from various backgrounds.
And brokers’ futures were considered by Lendio’s Brock Blake, United Capital Source’s Jared Weitz, National Business Capital & Service’s James Webster, and The Watson Group’s Gerald Watson. Here, the idea of a recovery, how each struggled through March and April, and PPP were all debated by the panelists, with perspectives of what’s to come leaning both ways.
There’ll be an evolution of new industries and how we do business,” Gerald Watson noted in his closing words, “just look at this conference for example.”
There was no lobby to find brokers and funders hashing out deals in relative privacy away from the expo hall, instead this was replaced by private messages exchanged. Rather than line up for some chicken wings, people chowed down to whatever was in their home on that day. And instead of gathering around a bar and finishing the day after the final talk, attendees cracked something at their desk and chatted it up in the networking lounge, recalling previous events and what was once taken for granted: the ability to connect effortlessly.
The coronavirus continues to physically keep people apart, but for one day last week the industry was able to come together and network, make deals, and gain insight; albeit in a different way, internet connections providing.
A three-year-old deBanked blog post turned out to be a bit prophetic.
Titled If You Don’t Make Loans, You’re Not a Lender (And definitely not a ‘direct lender’) and posted on January 19, 2017, I hypothesized that the misuse of financial language on the phone or in an e-mail, particularly if one conflated merchant cash advances with lending, could one day result in a subpoena for a deposition to explain it.
In the People of the State of New York, by Office of the New York State Attorney General v. Richmond Capital Group LLC et al, that very scenario played out. Several people were subpoenaed last year and were required to give testimony to lawyers for the New York State Attorney General to explain why internal company communications allegedly referred to MCAs as loans or why a purported MCA company website made use of lending terminology.
The answers, which are public record, were not great. At least two individuals answered that line of questioning by pleading the fifth to potentially avoid self-incrimination.
While there are a lot of colorful details to consider in this case, the AG’s lawsuit dives into the various ways in which the defendants allegedly conflated financial products, including that a defendant company allegedly advertised itself as a “lender” when it actually was not.
While the allegations in the AG’s complaint are probably somewhat unique, there are claims and arguments within them that may be worth further legal review and analysis. Contact an industry-knowledgeable attorney if you have questions.
Broker Fair reached a milestone yesterday by successfully completing the industry’s first-ever virtual conference. The experimental concept was a response to this year’s restrictions and precautions on large gatherings.
We hope that the hundreds of attendees found the event fun, educational, and productive! The in-person show is still happening at Convene at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan on March 22, 2021.
Yesterday’s show included live sessions, a networking chat, and a virtual exhibit hall. Attendees will have formal access to the recorded sessions very soon (There were a lot of them).
Nearly three months on from the beginning of the United States’ lockdown, the alternative finance industry is starting to feel a recovery. As states look to ease lockdowns, businesses seek to start back up, and offices are reopening, an element of normalcy, if it can be called that, appears to be returning. deBanked reached out to a number of businesses in the industry to find out how they were plotting their recovery, as well as what they thought of the future for the space and the American economy.
One such company was Everest Business Funding. After experiencing a strong start to 2020 in January and February, covid-19 and the economic shutdown that accompanied it came as a shock to Everest, CEO Scott Crocket explained.
“It’s difficult to imagine an exogenous event outside of our control that could more squarely impact an industry like this,” Crockett stated. “I mean, after all, we provide capital to small and medium-sized businesses all across the United States, all 50 states, every type of small business you can imagine. And we’re cruising along, we had a record 2019, we’re off to a great start with January, February, even the beginning of March … and we really saw it come on in the third week of March, the week that started with Monday the 16th. It started as a kind of a trickle in, but by the end of the week it was more of a tidal wave in terms of the number of small businesses in our portfolio that were calling in looking for some type of relief as a result of what was happening.”
Crockett said that they paused all new funding the following week, out of concern for the company’s ability to generate business while there was a national economic shutdown in place. Since then however, Everest has been slowly getting back to what it was, with employees now returning to the office in waves and discussions being had over when exactly to start funding again, be it late June or early July.
Another firm that halted its funding operations was the New York-based PIRS Capital. Similarly, it was mid-March when the pressure was first felt, and PIRS didn’t return to funding until May 15th. PIRS COO Andrew Mallinger chalked this up to the company’s lack of reliance on automated underwriting processes, saying that although “the industry was leaning towards automatic funding and all these models and 20-second approvals, we weren’t fully invested in that yet. So it was good to see that the old-school approach is back and working again, interfacing with these brokers and really understanding their deals and what they’re bringing to the table.”
Mallinger is also confident going into the rest of 2020. Saying that while the company is maintaining a cautiously optimistic outlook, PIRS is working off the assumption that there will eventually be growth this year and that it is set to continue working from home for however long that may be, on the basis that New York may be one of the last states to return to offices.
Also looking forward is Velocity Group USA’s Trace Feinstein, who believes there will tough times ahead for many in the industry, but who also holds that there are opportunities for those who can make it through.
“Anyone who can weather this storm is going to come out 10 times better than they did going in.” The Chief Syndication Officer said in a call. “It’s an adjustment for our economy, it’s an adjustment for our country, and I think it’s an adjustment for our industry on top of that. So there’s a lot of different changes and things are going to be happening, but I think it’s going to be very good for the ones who make it out of it.”
Feinstein, who said that most of Velocity’s workers are back in its offices, noted that it approached underwriting during the pandemic with thoroughness. Daily underwriting meetings entailed going through each state, looking at what was happening there with infection rates, and discussing how various industries could be affected.
Reporting that applications following the lockdown were actually cleaner than before, with average credit scores going up to be between 650 and 750, Feinstein explained that he pushed underwriters to rely on common sense rather than overthinking their decisions and to treat these deals like they would any MCA application.
And while many funders have struggled through the lockdown period, another part of the industry, collection agencies, have been doing well after an initially tough stretch.
Shawn Smith of Minneapolis’ Dedicated Commercial Recovery has claimed to have grown the company’s portfolio by 100% in 60 days despite a particularly trying period in mid-April. Explaining that the company was two weeks away from having to bring in strict measures to keep things going, Dedicated began getting calls again just in time, with its clients mostly phoning in about MCA deals.
Looking ahead, Smith is anticipating a busy summer and fall as businesses, funders, and the courts come back, but he is worried about a second wave and the alternative finance industry not putting in the precautions needed to stave off the economic impacts this next time around.
“Anyone can lend out a lot of money or put out a lot of money on the street, but your ability to get it back is going to be very important, and you want the fire extinguisher in place before the house is on fire … what you’re seeing in the MCA industry is because it’s just not as aged as the equipment leasing and banking industries … the MCA companies just didn’t have 20-30 year veterans in collections and legal … we’re so concerned with how to write more deals and get more money out there, and not about how to get it back and not about having strong enough underwriting standards and things like that. So when it got stress tested, the pain came back real quick.”
Likewise, Kearns Brinen & Monaghan’s Mark LeFevre claimed that after having a rocky road during the earlier stages of the pandemic and switching to a “plan B” for the year, the collections company is optimistic about going forward. Having weathered what may be the worst stretch without having had to furlough or lay-off anyone, KBM now has brought most of its workers back after a reworking of the office space. A pre-return fumigation, sneeze guards, and temperature-taking upon re-entry to the office building have all been employed after KBM’s employees asked to return to the workplace.
“The industry is changing literally day to day,” explained the President and CEO. “Some of the laws that are passed by the House and by the Senate are changing quicker than I’ve ever seen. I’ve just never seen it before. But I think it’s for the better and we’re starting to see the comeback of the economy, the stock market, employment. The unemployment numbers are really good and, in my opinion, [the numbers will] continue to go down from what we’re seeing in our industry.”
deBanked recently caught up with Gunes Kulaligil, author of Merchant Cash Advance Valuation Dynamics.
Gunes Kulaligil (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-founder of Methodical Management, a New York based firm providing valuations, transaction advisory and due diligence services to lenders and investors active in the specialty finance sector. www.methodicalmgmt.com
deBanked: The economic effects of the coronavirus are myriad and widespread. What are some of the specific challenges that the merchant cash advance market is currently experiencing? And what new obstacles can the industry expect further down the line as a result of the pandemic?
Gunes Kulaligil: The pandemic has redefined what “off the charts” means for unemployment claims and other leading economic indicators, but the full impact of job losses and halted economic activity has yet to be observed in the credit performance of many specialty finance assets. MCAs are unique in the sense that payments are daily or weekly and tied directly to revenues. As such, we were able to observe the preliminary impact of the lockdown on MCA cashflows earlier than for most other types of non-bank specialty finance loans.
When incomes and revenues are disrupted, consumers and businesses alike will often prioritize which debt to service first. They may be unwilling to pay certain accounts, even if able to do so, in order to preserve cash for prolonged uncertainty. However, this is not the case for MCAs as payments are remitted automatically; therefore, the cashflows are aligned with and reflect true business performance free of the impact of payment prioritization. As early as the second half of March, we observed payments from merchants drop approximately 20% to 30% depending on the type of industry. In addition, payment pace continued to decline into April and May, albeit at a slower pace, as modifications and servicing efforts picked up. Funders have a vested interest in merchants being able to stay in business and to build their revenues back up. Thus, any modification effort — whether that is a deferral, reduced percentage of sales remitted, or lower payback amounts — that incentivizes the merchant and provides some flexibility goes a long way.
At the same time, funders’ portfolios look worse as performing MCAs pay down and a lack of new origination results mechanically in the remainder of their portfolios having more tail risk – a lack of new origination would be a drag on performance even without the pandemic. For these portfolios, it is crucial to monitor portfolio performance at a granular level to identify businesses that will successfully navigate reopening and increase their revenues; so that servicing resources can be directed where they are most needed and will be most effective. Funders that have invested in technology and maintain connectivity with merchants via CRM tools and with established servicing / resolution teams and processes will have a competitive edge in doing so.
Poor performance caused by the pandemic has also led warehouse facilities to breach covenants or take-out partners to pause purchases unless platforms pledge additional skin in the game or pay higher interest rates to go forward with covenant modifications or resume purchases. They may also increase monitoring requirements and the level of oversight they apply.
deBanked: Conversely, is the pandemic creating any opportunities for funders and brokers as the situation develops?
Gunes Kulaligil: Indeed. While the near-term outlook is grim, a lot of relief and stimulus is working its way through the economy. The U.S. Government is intent on providing support as states are starting to re-open as quickly and as safely as possible. In retrospect, nobody had a pandemic playbook and programs like PPP were designed, deployed and funded on the fly with collaboration from both banks and non-bank lenders during volatile markets.
Non-bank lenders’ success in being able to reach truly small businesses, as well as the speed and efficiency in deploying the funds, has not gone unnoticed. The PPP experience also highlighted stark differences between the types of clients that large commercial banks serve versus those served by non-bank lenders. As deBanked reported, banks focused on larger clients whereas non-bank and fintech lenders assisted much smaller businesses in comparison. Origination fees on PPP loans were not insignificant either. SBA pays PPP lenders a 1% to 5% origination fee depending on the funded amount. For example, Ready Capital reported a gross revenue of $100 million on $2.1 billion funded. Notably, Ready Capital’s average PPP loan size was approximately $70,000 compared to an average of more than $500,000 for JP Morgan Chase for approximately $15 billion the bank funded in round one of PPP.
Small business activity is not only a leading indicator of distress but also at the center of any significant economic recovery. Small businesses account for 45% of GDP with 88% of these businesses employing fewer than 20 people. There is no meaningful recovery without small businesses getting back on their feet. As businesses re-emerge, their financing needs will vary widely in timing, amount, frequency, term, etc. depending on industry and many other factors. Continued involvement from the federal government whether in the form of deploying more low-interest rate loans, forgivable loans or loans with some sort of guarantee is likely. Lenders who can continue to serve their clients either by extending a suite of bespoke private credit or by facilitating the deployment and servicing of government funds will succeed.
A survey conducted by Overland Park, KS-based Strategic Capital revealed that only 36.8% of respondents plan to completely return to the office full-time after cities fully open back up. The vast majority of respondents were small business finance brokers.
44.7% selected that they would minimize office space or only use office space to house core team members while 18.4% planned to terminate their office lease altogether and adopt a work from home model permanently.
Coming June 11th, Broker Fair in Virtual Reality. Much different from a webinar, Broker Fair Virtual will actually be a virtual world with a lobby, exhibit hall, networking lounge, and auditorium. Attendees will be able to interact with each other as well as visit and interact with sponsors at their virtual booths.
There will be live video sessions too of course (see the agenda here), but if you’re there for the networking, get ready for a totally unique experience!
Broker Fair 2020 Virtual isn’t replacing the In-person event. That’s been rescheduled to 3/22/21 at the same location, Convene at Brookfield Place in New York City. All attendees registered for the in-person event are able to attend this virtual event on June 11th for free. If you never registered for that, you can still buy tickets that grant access to both at: https://brokerfair.org/register/
See you at Broker Fair!