It’s not said often, but it has been suggested by some players in the merchant cash advance industry to introduce sales licensing requirements. Anybody can sell and broker MCAs or alternative business loans, even your mom.
That’s been a boon for growth but a bust for maintaining any kind of uniformity or standards. That’s a bad position to be in when influential political leaders are beginning to talk about oversight and regulation, even if it’s way too early to sound the alarm.
Earlier today, former SBA head Karen Mills published, Can Lending Technology Revive America’s Small Businesses? in which she states, “there is already concern that, if left unchecked, small business lending could become the next subprime lending crisis.”
One way to dispel future regulation is through self-licensing, much like the payments industry worked to pull off three years ago. For the first time ever, merchant account sales reps could take an official exam and become a CPP, a Certified Payment Professional. This originated when I was still directly selling merchant cash advances and along with it, merchant accounts.
Merchant accounts were the focus of my compensation strategy and I seriously considered taking the first ever CPP exam in 2011 even though it cost $350. I considered it solely on the basis of whether or not it would convince more people to change their merchant accounts. I finally decided to wait and see if it was helping others before jumping in myself. The question in my mind was, would merchants care? If not, then why busy myself with being accredited?
Now that three years have gone by, the Green Sheet is attempting to answer this question: Is the CPP Dead on Arrival? Members of their forum reported that accreditation had no teeth because the Electronic Transactions Association (ETA) which created it, lacks industry oversight authority. Others said it was a flawed idea from the beginning. And just as I expected to find, there is belief that merchants do not recognize it as meaningful, don’t know about it, or they don’t care.
The story concludes by saying there is hope since three years is too early to judge CPP adoption. Regardless of what will become of CPPs, today any person with access to a phone or the Internet can sell merchant accounts. If you don’t understand how interchange works or what it is, it doesn’t matter.
Ironically, in the very same Green Sheet issue there is a story that argues the secret to selling merchant accounts successfully is really just about having the right tone. Accreditation? What’s that? Interchange? Huh? Instead, ask the owner a few things about their business, “match your response as closely as possible to that of the merchant. Use similar words. Try to pause as the prospect paused.”
The advice touches upon an interesting aspect of sales, that your clients don’t necessarily care about how smart or knowledgeable you are about the subject matter. They’re buying YOU even if your product sucks. Compare that to say accounting where prepared financial statements need to be constructed in such a way to comply with IRS codes or law where a lawyer needs to be admitted to the Bar to practice. In those cases the clients can’t even receive the service unless the seller meets certain professional standards.
And that’s where accreditations become murky. As a business owner, you’re allowed to wildly overpay for printer ink and buy it from someone who doesn’t know anything about printers or ink. I’ve done it myself. I don’t care if they have a certificate in printing expertise or if they’re members of the National Ink Masters of America. Part of being a business owner means being automatically qualified to make transactional decisions.
The same can be applied to merchant accounts. Need to accept cards? Find a rep you like that can articulate what’s important to you. You can make a deal based on no intellectual substance or one completely dependent on it. If it’s not legally required to be a CPP, then the target audience needs a lot of convincing as to why it should be important to them.
Tom Waters and Ben Abel of Bank Associates Merchant Services are the writers behind the CPP DOA piece in Green Sheet and they admit that success in mainstreaming accreditation can and has taken up to 25 years in other industries. That of course brings me full circle to MCA and business lending. The enormity of self-licensing could take years or perhaps even decades to nail down. And even if they were instituted, would the merchants care? That’s the question I ask myself.
With virtually no outcry from merchants over best practices currently, I think the dream some have of becoming a CMCAP (Certified Merchant Cash Advance Professional) will have to be put on hold. Of course you could always be proactive and become a Certified Lender Business Banker, though I predict it would do nothing to help you in this business.
The reality is that we should expect to live with the status quo at least for now. My advice is to be honest, fair, and a good example for everyone else. Do that and we’ll never have to worry.
While crowd funders navigate the JOBS Act and a possible revision to what constitutes an accredited investor, non-bank business lenders are raising eyebrows with sky high interest rates. Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) are reaching into the triple digits and critics are reaching for their megaphones to say something about it.
Unfortunately APRs don’t spell out the true dollar for dollar cost, a flaw pointed out by OnDeck Capital CEO Noah Breslow in regards to daily amortizing loans. In the June Access to Capital Small Business Panel, Breslow explained that a 60% APR loan could actually only cost 15% on a dollar for dollar basis over 6 months simply because of daily amortizing.
Still, the figures make for enticing headlines and it is to be expected that they will come under greater public scrutiny as time goes on.
In an opportunity I got to speak one-on-one with former Congressman Barney Frank in June, he offered some pretty interesting thoughts on the governance of business to business transactions.
Frank, who was the key author of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that was signed into law in 2010, was a longtime champion of consumer financial protections. But he sings a different tune when it’s all about business. Many people may not realize that he opposed the Durbin Amendment of the Dodd-Frank Act, the addition that placed caps and restrictions on debit card interchange fees. Federal restrictions on how much a business can charge another business? Not his thing…
Unsurprisingly then when I asked him if he’d be in favor of a federal cap on business loan interest rates, he sternly replied, “no.” He went on to say that he supported transparency in business loan transactions, such that the borrower should be easily able to identify the terms, but that the premise behind consumer loan protections was that consumers were less sophisticated.
Curiously, there are a few states that impose caps on commercial interest rates, making the regional landscape for high rate business lenders a little bit tricky. In a recent publication by financial law firm Hudson Cook, they spelled out federal laws that already govern business loans.
To date there has been no legislative activity related to merchant cash advance or alternative business lenders. If such discussion did arise though, it’s ironic to say that one of the most liberal congressmen of the last decade, a man who wrecked Wall Street, would stand to make an excellent champion of the alternative business lending cause.
I never thought I’d say this, but too bad the guy retired.
So much for a lack of transparency… While sitting directly next to Maria Contreras-Sweet, the head of the Small Business Administration, OnDeck Capital’s CEO corrected U.S. Senator Cory Booker’s comments about the APR of their loans. High teens? Not so, said Noah Breslow who explained their average 6 month loan has an APR of 60% even while costing only 15 cents on the dollar.
Why is access to capital so expensive? Rob Frohwein, the CEO of Kabbage said that up until recently his company was borrowing funds at a net rate of more than 20% APR. In order to turn a profit, they had to lend at a rate much higher than that.
— Maria ContrerasSweet (@MCS4Biz) June 13, 2014
— Biz2Credit (@biz2credit) June 13, 2014
The Access to Capital small business panel included:
Maria Contreras-Sweet – Head of the U.S. Small Business Administration
Noah Breslow – CEO, OnDeck Capital
Rohit Arora – CEO, Biz2Credit
David Nayor – CEO, BoeFly
Rob Frohwein – CEO, Kabbage
Paul Quintero – CEO, Accion East
Rohan Matthew – CEO, Intersect Fund
Jonny Price – Senior Director, Kiva Zip
Jeff Bogan – SVP, LendingClub
Steve Allocca – Global Head of Credit, PayPal
Jay Savulich – Managing Director of Programs, Rising Tide Capital
Just recently I found myself in an office surrounded by some folks who had each worked in the merchant cash advance business for more than 10 years. The first generation of MCA pioneers are still out there of course but it’s rare to be in the presence of so many at one time. It was weird. Weirder still was the realization that no matter how much things have changed, some things continue to be exactly the same.
Me: You guys looking to recruit ISOs?
Them: Damn right
As far as the industry is concerned, these guys might as well have fought in ‘Nam. They’re from another generation where life was hard and men were still men. When businesses couldn’t get bank loans, these guys were splitting payments with their bare hands and reprogramming credit card machines with nothing more than a paper clip and a ball of twine. Funding a deal wasn’t a product of technology, it was one of sweat, tears, and blood. Have you ever bled for your deals?
This August I celebrate my 8th year in the industry. Next month marks the 4 year anniversary of this blog. I enjoy reading some of my posts from back then, particularly since most of them discuss the ordeals of credit card processing. A lot of what I’ve written no longer applies and some of what I’m writing these days will be outdated years from now. As I approach 600 articles and blog posts on this subject matter, I’ve had to stop and ask myself if everything has already been written. What more can possibly be said about this business? Perhaps the tale of the industry has already been told and I am on my way to retelling exaggerated stories to anyone who will listen. I don’t want to be that wrinkled up old man swaying back and forth in a rocking chair talking about how ISOs got it so easy these days.
Sadly, even the name of the website is reflective of a previous era. This is the Merchant Processing Resource, not exactly what you’d expect a top destination to be called on the subject of alternative business lending.
But the story’s not finished. Every passing month is filled with events that inspire a dozen new chapters, which is more than one man can keep up with. Last month at the LendIt conference, I got a glimpse of just how many opportunities still lie ahead.
Some alternative business financing companies such as Funding Circle and DealStruck are diverging away from merchant cash advance and going back to the traditional roots of term lending. Funding Circle is doing it with a 21st century twist, by making their system peer-to-peer based.
Still other firms have sprung up around LendingClub’s and Prosper’s APIs and offer their users ways to make better loan investment decisions.
And even among the players we’re all familiar with, there is innovation, growth, and new ideas. Just recently CAN Capital launched CAN Connect, a software application that can be integrated with any other company’s software. According to CAN’s release,
Through CAN Connect™, merchants will be able to receive a CAN Instant Quote™ based solely on data provided by the partner. Once the merchant elects to proceed, they are taken through a simple online application process and can obtain access to working capital without ever leaving the partner’s platform.
Indeed technology has even allowed me to become a lender myself,
My LendingClub portfolio, which is still very young and made up by hundreds of $25 consumer loan contributions has a current Net Annualized Return of more than 10%. Contrast that against the average U.S. savings account that pays out less than 1%.
While it’s certainly not the 54% yield that OnDeck Capital enjoys, there are levels of risk and markets set up for just about anyone interested in alternative lending.
And what might come next may not all be broker/funder related. As the industry flies in a thousand different directions, entire new industries and services are going to grow up around them. That brings me back full circle. Has everything already been written? 4 years of blogging here and this might as well be my first day.
Some things haven’t changed a bit, but the rest of it, well… we must soldier on in this strange new world.
Do you see opportunities ahead? Discuss with industry insiders on DailyFunder.
Have an opinion on which way the industry is headed? Or eager to read about events that you feel are most relevant? DailyFunder is running a preliminary research survey geared towards those involved in merchant cash advance and alternative business lending. It’s completely anonymous and it will be used to help steer the direction of DailyFunder, the only alternative business lending publication. That means we want to know how you think, what you think, and what you care about.
Collected responses already prove that industry insiders have a lot to say, especially in the write-in questions. So go and make sure your voice is heard. It’s anonymous and it’ll only take a minute or two.
Some of the statistical results may be published in the next issue of the magazine.
A few weeks ago, I recapped my two days at the LendIt conference in San Francisco.
Peter Renton of Lend Academy, who hosted the conference, is putting up the professionally finished videos on his youtube channel. I’ve embedded the ones I think you’ll find most relevant, though I think there’s still one or two good ones that aren’t up yet.
As a side note, many of you in the merchant cash advance space have asked if LendIt was worth it. The answer is yes, but it is not a place to recruit ISOs. I actually don’t think there were any ISOs there at all. It was a good place to meet institutional investors, technology companies that cater to alternative lenders, leading industry attorneys, and the wild pack of peer-to-peer lenders. Basically, it was a way to hear and see everything outside of the bubble that can be merchant cash advance.
Next year it’s in New York City and I’ll definitely be attending again. And on that note, check out the full videos below:
When times are tough, small businesses take chances. Last year, a family run business in Cohasset, MA made a snap decision and agreed to a $75,000 loan with infinity percent interest, literally. The principal was completely repaid in just 74 days but as per the contract, they still had to make fixed interest payments for as long as the business was open.
It wasn’t necessarily a good deal. Heck, some might think it was a really bad deal, but they got the cash when they needed it. The perpetual fixed payments kicked in after the principal was repaid because the lender structured them as royalty fees. A normal merchant cash advance will take a percentage of a merchant’s sales up until a predetermined amount has been satisfied, but this deal required a percentage forever. Is Wall Street running amok yet again? Shouldn’t people be monitoring stuff like this?
As it would turn out, about 6.5 million people were witness to this transaction. More than half of those people, most of whom are hard-working American families, cheered the business owner on. That’s because this deal had nothing to do with Wall Street and did not involve a commercial loan broker.
The business is named Wicked Good Cupcakes and it’s a deal they made on Shark Tank, a hit TV show on ABC. Kevin O’Leary loaned them $75,000 and took a percentage of every sale until he was repaid just 2.5 months later. Since then he is taking a permanent royalty of 45 cents per cupcake sold.
As quoted in the Boston Business Journal
“The royalty deal has worked great for us,” said Tracey Noonan, the CEO of the company.
Many people told her immediately following the deal that she was stupid. But today, Wicked Good Cupcakes is doing better than ever.
O’Leary, whom the business owners called an “angel in disguise” has referred to the deal as one of the most phenomenal ever made on the show. Wicked Good Cupcakes is actually on pace to do $3 million in revenue in 2014.
While it’s true that part of their success is due to the appearance on the show, nowhere does it say that entrepreneurs have to agree to take a deal if offered one. That means the owners could have walked away from O’Leary’s offer and still experienced the same post-show hysteria of celebrity. But they needed the money… and there was an offer on the table. It wasn’t the best deal, but it was A deal.
And that’s the nature of business. Everything is about circumstances. You could be flush with cash or in a pinch, growing fast or playing defense. All the while opportunities and obstacles approach from every turn.
Unlike consumers who are afforded protections from making decisions that might not be in their best interest, small businesses are free to pursue whatever strategy they want. The best part about capitalism is that you’re the master of your own destiny.
The terms O’Leary offered to Wicked Good Cupcakes were not unique. Just recently in the 12th episode of Season 5, he offered a $100,000 loan to Tipsy Elves that once repaid, would still require payments in perpetuity in the form of a royalty fee for every sale. That’s an equivalent APR of infinity. In the end, they turned it down and went with Robert Herjavec’s equity offer instead.
Many viewers have taken to twitter to share their doubts about the viability of the Tipsy Elves business model, which is selling ugly Christmas sweaters. That healthy dose of skepticism is something alternative lenders are no strangers to, and as such they tend to price their deals accordingly.
Even deal making that is done on TV in front of millions of witnesses can go sour. Just ask Marcus Lemonis, the star of the TV show The Profit, who recently made a deal with a business in my own backyard, A. Stein Meat Products in Brooklyn, NY. After learning the business was on the brink of insolvency, Lemonis offered them a cash lifeline in exchange for buying their Brooklyn Burger brand at a bargain price of $190,000. In any other circumstances, that deal might not have happened.
Lemonis expeditiously wired them the cash, but never got what he paid for in return. Mora and Buxbaum, the owners, claim the funds were a loan but they have never made a payment. Defaults like these happen every day, especially in alternative business lending.
Hated to do it but here's the update on stein meats and Brooklyn burger. I tried not to but was ignored for 90 days. http://t.co/4oyYOiXK68
— Marcus Lemonis (@marcuslemonis) May 16, 2014
The entrepreneur applies for a business loan, the loan gets made, and the borrower quickly defaults. The result is that the price goes up for the next guy. That’s the risk part that lenders always talk about, the odds that they’re not going to get paid back. If every business repaid their loans, the average cost of financing in alternative business lending would probably be about 6% a year, around what an A rated personal loan costs on LendingClub, instead of the high double digit or triple digit rates that exist now.
Even Kevin O’Leary isn’t taking any chances, hence he protects himself by charging infinity percent interest, and America thanks him every Friday night for blessing entrepreneurs with an opportunity. It’s not the best deal, but it’s A deal.
Small business owners are sophisticated enough to make tough decisions all on their own. That’s the reason we can put them in the public eye, in front of more than 6 million people who either cheer for their success or literally cry out for their demise. These entrepreneurs don’t go on Rainbow & Unicorn Tank, they go on Shark Tank. Sometimes the entrepreneurs walk away with a partner, sometimes they get a loan with infinity percent interest. In the end, it’s their choice, a choice that 36,000 small businesses hoped they would have in 2012. That’s how many applied to be on the show that year.
Business is business and a deal’s a deal. The ball’s always in your court…
Quotes from Kevin O’Leary
Business is war. I go out there, I want to kill the competitors. I want to make their lives miserable. I want to steal their market share. I want them to fear me and I want everyone on my team thinking we’re going to win.
Here’s how I think of my money – as soldiers – I send them out to war everyday. I want them to take prisoners and come home, so there’s more of them.
You may lose your wife, you may lose your dog, your mother may hate you. None of those things matter. What matters is that you achieve success and become free. Then you can do whatever you like.
I’m not a tough guy. I’m just delivering the truth and only the truth and if you can’t deal with it, too bad.
Nobody forces you to work at Wal-Mart. Start your own business! Sell something to Wal-Mart!
Don’t cry about money, it never cries for you.
The only reason to do business is to make money; that’s the only reason for doing business.
Money has no grey areas. You either make it or you lose it.
Working 24 hours a day isn’t enough anymore. You have to be willing to sacrifice everything to be successful, including your personal life, your family life, maybe more. If people think it’s any less, they’re wrong, and they will fail.
I have met many entrepreneurs who have the passion and even the work ethic to succeed – but who are so obsessed with an idea that they don’t see its obvious flaws. Think about that. If you can’t even acknowledge your failures, how can you cut the rope and move on?
I don’t mind rude people. I want people that I can make money with, so if their executional abilities are good, and they’re arrogant and rude, I don’t care.
Can you handle it?
It’s not easy being in the lending business. Just talking about money can make people uncomfortable. Bringing up how much money you have, don’t have, or wish you had is like bringing up politics at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s taboo in this society. It’s even rude to ask somebody how much they make a year. That’s one of two reasons why being a lender or loan broker is so difficult, you’re forced to dive head first into emotionally charged waters.
The second reason is telling an applicant ‘no’. It feels personal even if it’s not. “It’s just business,” the bearer of bad news will say, but it never feels that way. I know that firsthand through my experience as both a broker and an underwriter. Rejection is a painful experience for an applicant no matter how professional they are.
But sometimes you get to tell an applicant ‘yes’ and that can be an emotionally moving experience as well. Looking back, the only applicants I ever heard cry were the ones that got approved. Some of those approvals were expensive but they were given an opportunity in a world where up until that point, no one was willing to give them any opportunity at all. They were the forgotten businesses of America.
PayPal’s VP of SMB Lending recently said that he feels “blessed to be serving this higher need.” Blessed was an interesting word choice. Being able to support small businesses doesn’t just make him feel happy or hopeful or satisfied, it makes him feel blessed.
What is the real impact that alternative financing companies have on small businesses? Thanks to the funding companies who took the time to find out. Today, we can see for ourselves:
Above is just a small handful of the testimonials you can find on the websites of CAN Capital, Kabbage, RapidAdvance, Fora Financial, and Merchant Cash and Capital. Real businesses, real stories, real impact.
And there you have it…
Another day, another capital raise for some company or other involved in alternative business lending. That’s the way it is these days, but the news about the American Finance Solutions (AFS)/CapFin Partners deal announced on Wednesday is markedly different.
It’s the Rockbridge Growth Equity (RGE)/RapidAdvance deal all over again, the welcoming of a major MCA company into a wider lending family. Though the release does not specify the amount of equity CapFin Partners acquired in the transaction, nor any valuation figure, the headline literally says it’s significant.
CapFin Partners is also a significant investor in Contintental Business Credit (CBC), an asset-based lender that’s been in operation since 1989. The CapFin deal will bring AFS and CBC together strategically. As said in the release, “the union of these two financial lending companies will widen the portfolio of services offered, which now include merchant cash advances, factoring and asset based loans.”
The design is strikingly similar to the RapidAdvance/RGE deal.
The investment and close relationship with CBC will provide operational expertise, a diversified client base and a larger pool of capital for funding customers
By aligning with Rockbridge, we will leverage our new relationship with its portfolio of companies, bringing best practices and expertise to nearly every aspect of our business.
Both funders were founded in the pre-recession era, giving investors a chance to review performance and returns both through good times and bad.
Two years ago I predicted that “MCA will simply assimilate into other financial products.” As is the case with these two deals, it’s already becoming just one product out of many offered by financial institutions. Elsewhere in the industry, MCA companies are offering true loans to stay competitive and some funders are passing on MCA completely to focus just on traditional business loans with terms up to 10 years and traditional interest rates.
The AFS deal proved yet again though that there is a market to buy (or buy into) established reputable merchant cash advance companies. That should give hope to new funders that are trying to formulate a long-term exit strategy.
Congratulations to American Finance Solutions.
– Professor Michael Barr at LendIt 2014
One of the clear themes of the LendIt 2014 conference was that borrowers are willing to pay extra for speed and convenience. Regulators have taken note of this trend but they’re still supportive of the alternative lending phenomenon anyway. Truth be told, the government is acting like a weight has been lifted off its shoulders. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the feds have prodded banks to lend more, but they’ve barely budged, especially with small businesses. Non-bank lenders have relieved them of the stress and all they need do now is make sure everybody plays nice.
Professor Michael Barr, a former US Treasury official, key architect of the Dodd-Frank Act, and Rhodes Scholar, believes the best way forward is to empower consumers. That’s something lenders can accomplish through education and transparency. On transparency, he cited many of the commendable practices that credit card companies and mortgage companies have implemented, but did not fail to note that these were forcibly instituted through regulation (Hint hint…).
When a LendIt attendee asked Barr to name someone in the alternative lending industry that is a great role model for transparency, Barr answered by saying, “I haven’t seen anyone in the industry doing things the way I would do them in regards to education and disclosure.” On the path towards transparency, “the potential is not yet realized,” he added.
While it sounded as if he favored eventual regulation of alternative lending, he offered all in attendance advice to prevent it. “Take the high road to prevent regulatory interest,” he said.
Barr’s sobering presentation also covered the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the role they might play in alternative lending, if any. Payday lenders and debt collectors were their primary supervisory targets he said, but added the “the CFPB has the flexibility in the marketplace to address problems before they occur.” That flexibility essentially gives them jurisdiction over whatever they decide they want to be in their jurisdiction.
Sophie Raseman, the Director of Smart Disclosure in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Consumer Policy appealed to the industry in a different manner. “Small businesses are at the heart of the economy. We want to serve you [alternative lenders] better so that we can better serve them,” Raseman pleaded. As part of that, she came bearing gifts, a reminder that the federal government had loads of data available via APIs at http://finance.data.gov. The government wants to make sure we have access to as many tools as possible, most likely to help drive borrowing costs down. If you need to verify someone’s income, Raseman recommended the IRS’s Income Verification Express Service.
The Income Verification Express Service program is used by mortgage lenders and others within the financial community to confirm the income of a borrower during the processing of a loan application. The IRS provides return transcript, W-2 transcript and 1099 transcript information generally within 2 business days (business day equals 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. local IVES site time) to a third party with the consent of the taxpayer.
The irony with this service is the two business day timeline, though I haven’t confirmed if that’s still the case. Delays and archaic data aggregation methods are the exact things alternative lenders are trying to overcome. Kabbage comes to mind as the length of time it takes for them to go from application to funding can be as quick as 7 minutes, a time frame I found to be reality after watching the demonstration by Kabbage’s COO, Kathryn Petralia.
Kababge’s blazing speed is made possible by access to big data, which made Petralia an excellent choice to have on the Big Data Credit Decisioning Panel. She was joined by Noah Breslow of OnDeck Capital, Jeff Stewart of Lenddo, and Paul Gu of Upstart.
Stewart, whose company lends internationally presented the idea of mining not just data on social networks, but the photographs on them. One possibility was measuring whether or not borrowers appeared in photographs with other borrowers known to be bad, or whether or not they hung out with undesirables such as ex-convicts. He was a big believer in association risk, speculating that friends of bad borrowers also made them more likely to be bad borrowers themselves.
Breslow of course said you have to be careful with the noise of social media as there can be a lot of false signals. Does that mean there are big data problems then? Upstart’s Paul Gu said, “we have small data problems” in reference to why there seems to be so much trouble evaluating applicants that have little to no credit history. Gu believes that basic information such as where a borrower went to college, their major, and their grades can be used as an accurate predictor of payment performance and his company has acquired the data to back that up.
Somewhere along in the discussion though the meaning of automation got twisted. OnDeck for instance has an automated process, yet humans play a role in 30% of the loan decision making. Does that mean they are not actually automated? Breslow clarified that aggregating data from many different sources using APIs and computers was automation and that there was still a role for humans. The goal is to make sure that humans aren’t doing the same things that the computers are doing.
“The world’s greatest chess human can beat the world’s greatest chess algorithm,” said Lenddo’s Stewart. “Humans should be pulling what the algorithms can’t think of,” added Breslow. He presented an example of an applicant satisfying all of an algorithm’s criteria but sending up a red flag at the human level. “Why would the owner of a New York restaurant live in California?” Breslow asked. That’s something an algorithm might get confused about. It might mean nothing or it might mean something.
“Algorithms are probabilistic,” Stewart reminded the audience. They spell out the likelihood of repayment, they don’t guarantee it.
For Kabbage, algorithms and automation have been instrumental in allowing them to scale. “I don’t need to hire a lot more people to serve a lot more customers,” Petralia explained.
“Let the data speak for itself,” Breslow proclaimed. And there is a lot of statistically interesting data. “People with middle names perform better than people without them,” added Breslow.
For Gu, borrowers with degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics fare better than their academic peers, though he wouldn’t reveal which major is #1. That information, while probably available to OnDeck, likely plays little or no role. “There is a lot more data to analyze on the business side than the consumer side which is why [things like] the social graph is a little less relevant,” Breslow said.
In the end, lenders don’t need to go on a wild data goose chase to learn all about their prospective clients. Kabbage applicants for instance are asked to provide their online banking credentials in the very first step of the applications. “A lot of people would be surprised as to the amount of data borrowers are willing to share,” Petralia proclaimed. Indeed, many alternative business lenders and merchant cash advance companies are analyzing historical cash flow activity using third party aggregating services like Yodlee, something that requires the client’s credentials.
During Kabbage’s earlier demonstration, some members in the audience worried that factors such as deposit activity could be gamed. Petralia assured them that their algorithm was sophisticated enough to detect manipulation and at the same time explained that they analyzed far more than just deposit and balance history.
Perhaps all this technology though has gone overboard. Is it possible to predict performance just based on what the applicant says? Believe it or not, “the language someone uses is an indicator of default probability,” Stewart said. But even that kind of detection has become automated. “Lenddo uses semantic analysis. People tend to use different words when they’re desperate.”
Who knows, a year from now getting a loan might be as easy as picking up your phone and saying, “Siri, send money.” Just make sure to delete all the photos of you hanging out with criminals off your phone first. A lender might use them against you.
Have you heard? Banks aren’t lending. Nobody at LendIt seems to mind though. Ron Suber, the President of Prosper Marketplace, said earlier today that banks are not the competition. That’s an interesting theory to digest when contemplating the future of alternative lending. If banks are not the competition, then who is everyone at LendIt competing against? I think the obvious answer is each other, but much deeper than that, the competition is the traditional mindset of borrowers.
The biggest challenge the wider alternative lending industry faces is awareness and understanding. Those happen to also be two of Suber’s three edicts for growth. The third is education. Just because alternatives are available today doesn’t mean that potential borrowers know about them or feel comfortable enough to use them. Today we are competing against the old way of thinking.
Other products in the new “share economy” have encountered a similar struggle. Several presenters today cited Uber as having revolutionized the way people use taxis. “A long time ago, people used to stand on corners and hold out their hand to get a cab, but that’s all changed,” was the oft-paraphrased proof that age-old industries were falling like dominoes. But as a New York City resident, I hadn’t quite noticed a change at all. Hailing cabs off the street is still very much the norm. It is only by sheer coincidence that I used Uber for the very first time to travel to JFK airport on my way to this conference.
I first encountered Uber a year ago when an acquaintance dazzled me with his ability to summon a car using an app on his phone. It was then that I became aware, but I did not understand how it worked. It took me 12 months to get comfortable enough to try it myself, and the experience was okay I guess if you discount the fact that my driver went through the E-ZPass lane without actually having an E-ZPass. Needless to say, that led to a major holdup that caused me to almost miss my flight.
If it took me a year to get past the confusion of hailing a cab from my phone, I can only imagine what potential borrowers must think when told they can raise money from their peers, the crowd, or a lender that requires payments to be made every single day.
Perhaps most telling about the awareness challenge, is that many people I’ve spoken to at LendIt had never heard of a 16 year old product known as merchant cash advance. That speaks volumes about how much more work merchant cash companies still have to do in order to gain mainstream awareness.
Even those fully aware were not entirely certain about how to define the product. In the Online Lending Institutional Investors Panel, merchant cash advance was briefly discussed as a topic but it was almost entirely spoken in the context of being something that OnDeck Capital does. That would come as disheartening news to OnDeck since they have spent considerable resources in positioning themselves as anything but a merchant cash advance company. Confusion over what somebody is or isn’t will probably increase especially as alternative lenders from different industries start to compete for the same clients.
Funding businesses instead of people
Brendan Ross, the President of Direct Lending Investments, and the moderator of the Short Term Business Lending panel pointed out that a dentist could pursue two different loan options and get completely different results. With excellent credit a dentist could expect to land a 3-5 year personal loan at 7-8% APR on a P2P platform. If he were to apply for the loan using his dental practice though, he could expect to incur costs over 25% and get nothing longer than 2 years.
Ross, who was a very active moderator, subscribes to the belief that businesses are overpaying for credit. Unlike the consumer loan space, there hasn’t been price compression. The cost of business capital remains high, perhaps higher than what is necessary to turn a reasonable profit. Ross argued that the padded cost serves as a hedge against defaults and economic downturns. “The asset class works even when the collection process doesn’t,” Ross said. “The model works with no legal recovery.”
Building on that premise, Ross asked the panelists if an increase in defaults were simply the cost of doing business towards automating the underwriting process.
Stephen Sheinbaum, the CEO of Merchant Cash and Capital argued that just the opposite had occurred, that automation had led to a decrease in defaults. Others on the panel confirmed a similar outcome, though Rob Frohwein of Kabbage admitted they could potentially weather higher defaults through automation by offsetting it against decreased infrastructure costs.
Noah Breslow of OnDeck echoed something similar to Frohwein in the Small Business Term Lending Panel. He asked this question, “Do underwriters add value or not?” and followed up by saying that 30% of their deals were still manually underwritten, usually the deals that are larger.
Is full automation right around the corner?
The debate between humans and computers in risk analysis is a featured segment in the third issue of DailyFunder that is being mailed out this week, but there is another angle that is seldom discussed, whether or not customers want automation. Breslow said today that, “if customers want full automation, we are prepared to deliver it.” They’ve learned over time that “many customers want someone to talk to at some point in the transaction.” Rohit Arora, the CEO of biz2credit expressed much of the same in a recent interview with DailyFunder’s Managing Editor Michael Giusti.
The only dissenting voice was Gary Chodes, the CEO of Raiseworks who seemed to be of the belief that human involvement in underwriting was nothing short of ridiculous. He stated that, “if you look back over the last 20 years, the loss rates on business loans under 24 months has been really low.” To him, that data seemed to be proof enough that complete automation could and should be achieved, though he admitted to performing back-end checks such as landlord verifications. They currently have no physical underwriters however.
Is there a transparency problem?
Tom Green, a VP of LendingClub shared an interesting tale. While trying to convince potential borrowers to ditch a merchant cash advance in favor of a LendingClub business loan, they get pushback on the cost of their money. The reason being? Some borrowers think they’ve already got a great deal or at least a better deal than what LendingClub is offering. The problem stems from the borrower’s belief that the holdback percentage set up in their future revenue sale (the most common way a merchant cash advance is set up) is the APR.
Merchant Cash Advance Companies pay cash upfront in return for a specified amount of a businesses’s future sales. They collect these sales by withholding a percentage of each credit card transaction or bank account deposit until the agreement is satisfied in full. On a dollar for dollar basis, the cost of these programs typically range from 20%-49%, but on an APR basis, substantially higher. The holdback % is not even a factor in the APR. Green said they’ve learned that some small business owners are not sophisticated when it comes to finance.
Ethan Senturia, the co-founder of Dealstruck would probably agree. Earlier today he said, “you need to speak the borrower’s language.” Some understand APR, some don’t. “Dealstruck offers more than just APR comparisons to borrowers,” Senturia said. “Whatever helps them understand.”
When the OnDeck Capital model and merchant cash advance model were questioned as possibly being bad for borrowers, Tom Green was quick to clarify. “There are different capital needs that small businesses have,” he said. And “there is a trade-off between the length of the term and the risk.”
OnDeck Capital’s clients are not entrepreneurs born yesterday. “The typical customer has been in business for 10 years,” Breslow said. Their deals are “structured to protect through daily and weekly payments in addition to the interest rates we charge,” something he reminded everyone was “not single digits.”
Still, transparency issues remain in business lending. Sam Hodges, the Managing Director of Funding Circle explained that when he was previously a small business owner, there were hardly any lenders willing to provide him with an amortization schedule. Ashees Jain, a managing partner of Blue Elephant Capital Management admitted he would find it hard to justify the high rates of merchant cash advance if asked by a regulator, so he’d rather not invest in that market. When it comes to those types of transactions, they “don’t want to have to explain themselves” at some point in the future.
Scott Ryles, the managing member of Echelon Capital Strategies, LLC commented on OnDeck capital’s model as unbelievable. “The arbitrage is huge,” Ryles said. And Eric Thurber the managing director of Three Bridge Wealth Advisors believes that alternative business lenders are at odds with themselves. “They always talk about their risk management,” Thurber said, but he feels that players in that industry are concerned with how much market share they have. That conflicts with risk management in his opinion.
They pay or they don’t
At the end of the day Ashees Jain said as far as unsecured loans go, “borrowers pay or they don’t.” The recovery process on secured loans can be 12-18 months Jain said, a statistic cited by Brendan Ross earlier in the day.
It’s clear at LendIt that there are a lot of products available, but Ryles summed it up nicely. In the consumer space, all the volume is in the 36 month installment loans, he reckoned. For businesses it’s merchant cash advance. “It’s an awareness thing,” Ethan Senturia said in regards to getting businesses to use alternative lending sources.
It is indeed. Awareness, education, and understanding…
Stacking is on everyone’s minds in the merchant cash advance (MCA) industry but that war is little more than smoke compared to the fire burning in our own backyard. One of the major topics of debate at Transact 14 has been Operation Choke Point, a federal campaign against banks and payment processors to kill off the payday lending industry and protect consumer bank accounts. Caught in the mix are law abiding financial institutions, some of which if affected, could potentially disrupt the merchant cash advance and alternative lending industries. Both have become heavily dependent on ACH processing. Could their strength become their Achilles heel?
Indeed, there was a rumor circulating around the conference that a popular ACH processor in the MCA industry is no longer accepting new funding companies. I know the name but was not able to confirm it as fact. There is a two-fold threat on the horizon:
1. The probability that ACH processors in this industry are also processing payments for payday lenders or other high risk businesses.
2. The likelihood that a bank or ACH processor would take preemptive action and terminate relationships with merchant cash advance companies and alternative business lenders, not because it’s illegal but as a way to make their books squeaky clean.
The sentiment at the conference however was that MCA providers and alternative business lenders had little need to worry. While Operation Choke Point specifies online lenders, they are narrowly defined as businesses making loans to consumers. MCA and their counterparts do not fall under that scope, even if they themselves lend exclusively online.
Is regulation coming?
There seems to be both a call for and paranoia about regulation, especially in the context of stacking merchant cash advances and daily repayment business loans. On the popular online forum DailyFunder, several opponents of stacking are under the impression that regulators will be busting down doors any day now to put an end to businesses utilizing multiple sources of expensive capital simultaneously. Many insiders who have had their merchants stacked on view the issue as both a legal and a moral one. Opponents get worked up about it for many reasons. They believe any one or multiple of the following:
- The merchant can’t sell something which has already been contractually sold to another party.
- That the merchant ends up borrowing and selling their future revenues at their own peril, endangering their cash flow and their business.
- That the stackers endanger the first lender or funder’s ability to collect.
- That the merchant taking on stacks won’t be eligible for additional funds with the first company, hurting the retention rate.
Stacking is not illegal, but it may be tortious interference. That allegation is the one that gets thrown around the most, but it’s important to recognize that actual damages are an integral part of any such case. If I stack on your merchant and the deal performs as expected for you, then what damages would you have suffered? But if I stack on your deal and it defaults 3 weeks later, you might be able to allege that I was the cause of it.
Insiders on DailyFunder’s forum that wonder how they might be able to get stacking to stop, only need to follow the example of what a few select funders are already doing, going on the offensive. The first thing one west coast MCA company does when they have a merchant default is find out if there was a stack that came on top of them. If they find out who it was, they send the offending funder a bill for the outstanding balance. That may sound cheesy, but given their industry prowess and litigious nature, they said that some stackers quietly mail them a check, rather than risk things escalating to the next level. The threats only hold weight of course if you’re actually prepared to bring the case to court.
I’ve spoken with dozens of proponents for stacking, many of sound character, high intelligence, and business acumen. They buck the stereotype of stackers as sleazy wall street guys with pinky rings. Few of these proponents believe that future revenue is a precise asset. It’s been said that, “future revenues are unknowable and possibly infinite. A business should be able to sell infinite amounts of these future revenues if there are investors out there that will buy them.” The general consensus on this side of the aisle is that a 2nd position stack, or “seconds” are here to stay. There’s a sense of calm and conviction, as if seconds were a boring subject of little contention. Many are okay with thirds “if the math works” but discomfort sets in on fourths, fifths and beyond. If they believe it’ll be a good investment, they’ll do the deal. They scoff at the notion that they’d willingly chance putting a merchant out of business since that would jeopardize their own investment.
To date, I’ve seen no data to support that stacking causes merchants to go out of business. I would not be surprised if there was a correlation between defaults and stacks, but that would not imply causation. A business that is on its way towards bankruptcy regardless may be able to obtain a few stacks in the process as a last ditch effort to stave it off. When the business finally fails, it may appear to look like the stacks caused it, even if they didn’t.
For those that don’t want to play cat and mouse with threats and lawsuits, there’s a growing call for regulation, both self-regulation and federal. That call feeds off the paranoia that regulators are knocking at the industry’s door already anyway.
In regards to self-regulation, insiders have been looking to the North American Merchant Advance Association (NAMAA) to create rules and become an enforcer. It’s no secret that their members are opponents of stacking, but as a powerful body of industry leaders, they’re up against a threat of their own, antitrust laws. Creating rules and enforcing them could be construed as anti-competitive. In truth, a lot of the MCA industry’s growth over the last 2 years can be attributed to stacking. A private association of the largest players actively working to establish rules to squash the fast growing segment of new entrants could indeed be perceived as anti-competitive.
But that doesn’t mean NAMAA is powerless to promote their views. Following in the footsteps of the Electronic Transactions Association, they could create a set of best practices, host workshops, and offer courses and sessions to train newcomers on these best practices. Such benefits and opportunities are a standard in the payments industry, but nothing like it is available in MCA or alternative business lending.
But is it too late for self regulation?
With all the government enforcement occurring in the rest of the financial sphere, fears of imminent federal involvement in MCA and alternative business lending are not unfounded… or are they?
In the wake of the financial crisis, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was formed to protect consumers in financial markets. The CFPB was instrumental in Operation Choke Point and they would be the most likely federal agency to field complaints about stacking. Unlike the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency which has jurisdiction over banks, the CFPB’s oversight extends to non-bank financial institutions. They’re the wild card agency that has financial companies across the nation on their heels.
I had the opportunity to speak with a former lead attorney of the CFPB off the record today about the definition of consumer. Could a small business be construed as a consumer? The short answer was no. The long answer was that there is no specific definition of consumer at the CFPB but it was meant to represent individuals. Although businesses at the end of the day are run by individuals, I got a pretty confident response that the CFPB would not have jurisdiction over a business lending money to a business, even if it was a very small 1 or 2 man operation. If they were acting in a commercial capacity, then they’re no longer consumers.
The other side of her argument was that it would take up too much resources to take on a case where the victim class was basically outside of their scope. The CFPB already has enough on their plate.
Is the government busy?
I also spoke with a few lobbyists and payments industry attorneys off the record and the unilateral response was that MCA and alternative business lending were not on any agenda, nor does the government have the resources to juggle something that is basically…insignificant in their eyes.
In the grand scheme of financial issues, a few billion year in small business-to-business financing transactions isn’t worth anyone’s breath. “A business acting in a business capacity was unhappy with a business contract they entered into? Take it up in civil court,” I imagine a regulator might say.
Regulators aren’t completely in the dark about MCA. Just a month or two ago, several industry captains and myself included were contacted by the Federal Reserve as part of a research mission to basically find out what this industry even was. The feds appear to have stumbled upon the MCA industry as part of their research into peer-to-peer lending. Who would’ve thought a 16 year old industry could be so stealthy?
If the big PR machines like Kabbage, Lending Club, and OnDeck Capital didn’t exist, I’m inclined to believe no one in the government would’ve heard of MCA for at least another 10 years. In 2014, they’re just now discovering it.
My gut tells me we’re a long way from any kind of regulatory enforcement. In a session I attended at Transact 14 today, a former member of the Department of Justice and a current member of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency both offered examples of cases that took 3-8 years before there was an enforcement action. In each scenario, they alerted the parties there was a problem and they were given time to correct it. They had to show progress along the way and eventually when no such progress was made after years of warnings, they acted.
In the conversation of regulation, alternative business lending and MCA are relatively tiny. Lending Club does more in loan volume each year than the entire MCA industry combined. So long as there’s no fraud involved, small business-to-business financing transactions are not likely to make it on the agenda for federal regulators for a long time. That doesn’t mean it won’t be there some day in the future.
I think it was Brian Mooney, the CEO of Bank America Merchant Services that said in the Transact 14 roundtable discussion that if something feels wrong in your gut, don’t do it. Debra Rossi, the head of Wells Fargo Merchant Services added that you can’t tell a regulator, “I didn’t know.” Keep those suggestions in the front of your mind.
For the foreseeable future it’s on us as an industry to find a resolution to stacking. There’s no such thing as the cash advance police. On one side is tort law. On the other is creating best practices and actively educating newcomers. That’s where the blood boiling debates need to turn to. After all, there’s already a large crowd that yawns over seconds, a group that wholeheartedly believes a stack is just as legitimate as a first position deal.
Instead of waiting for a referee to call foul on somebody, I think 2014 is the year to realize that you might be stuck in the room with the person you hate. Could you bring yourself to tolerate them for years to come?
We should consider that the greatest threat to the industry may not come from within, but from outside. More than 50% of MCA/alternative business lending transactions are repaid via ACH. Government action on ACH providers or the banks that sponsor them could end up hitting this industry as collateral damage.
One metric that banks and regulators consider is the return rate of ACHs, namely the percentage of ACHs rejected for insufficient funds or rejected because the transactions weren’t authorized. Daily fixed debits run the risk of rejects and boost the return rate. Could the frequency of your rejects eventually scare the processor into terminating the relationship? With the pressure they’re getting from the Department of Justice, there’s always the possibility.
Data security is another sleeping giant to consider. Do you keep merchant data safe? Are you protected from hackers?
Know your merchant. The push towards automated underwriting seems dead set on eliminating humans from the analysis. But what if the algorithm misses something and loans get approved to facilitate a money laundering scheme? Or what if it approves a known terrorist?
If you’re paranoid you’re doing something wrong, then maybe you are doing something wrong even if there’s no current law against it. Follow your gut, create value, and work together. Who knows, maybe one day there will be an ETA-like organization for MCA and alternative business lending. Now is a good time to be proactive.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
This blog has been many things over the years, all of it relative to who the reader was. It has encouraged and deterred, informed and confused, made people laugh or stoked their anger. The merchant cash advance industry it spoke of had been small. Annual funding volume was a billion or two or three, a blip of a blip on nobody’s radar. There was a sense of unity, a shared objective amongst competitors. They were guided by one dictum, “grow, but don’t rock the boat.”
But opportunity enticed everyone, the good, the bad, and the unexpected, and it brought a relatively peaceful chapter to an end. Winter is coming, Eddard Stark would likely say of the uncertainty that hangs in the air. Merchant cash advance has become a spoke in the alternative lending wheel that is spinning forward uncontrollably. Non-bank financing has become a worldwide phenomenon virtually overnight, setting the stage for the lords of funding to play a game of thrones. Investors with bottomless pockets are emptying them, government agencies are assessing the landscape or crafting responses, and journalists stand ready to shape public opinion.
This is a transformational moment in human history, perhaps bigger than what Facebook did for social media. Individuals are taking control of the monetary supply. Strangers pay each other in bitcoins, neighbors are bypassing banks for loans and lending to each other instead, and businesses are rising and falling with the funding they get from other private businesses. Winter is coming for traditional banking. The realm calls for a new king.
Wonga’s epic rise is being countered by both regulatory and religious resistance, and the man who dared the world to lend algorithmically has admitted defeat. Peer-to-peer lenders have encountered massive regulatory setbacks on their road to stardom and merchant cash advance companies are currently engaged in a civil war over best practices. Winter is coming indeed.
In what is perhaps their first step towards an IPO this year, Lending Club is reducing transparency over its loan volume. Up until April 3rd, anyone could see how many loans they issued on a daily basis. Now this information will only be available quarterly. Peter Renton in his Lend Academy blog shared his belief that the move was entirely tied to the impending IPO. “Without this daily loan volume information their stock price will be less volatile and they will be able to “manage the message” with Wall Street every quarter,” Renton wrote.
OnDeck Capital is also in contention for an IPO this year. A year ago a company executive hinted that becoming a public company would not be on the agenda for consideration until 2015, yet I am hearing rumors that they may make a late 2014 go at it. Such rumors hold weight in light of reports that they are cleaning up their ISO channel. Insiders on DailyFunder are saying that resellers with abnormally high default rates are in jeopardy of being cut off.
OnDeck Capital is unique in that outsiders chastise them for their rates being too high while insiders argue their rates are too low to be profitable. It’s a classic example of how tough the court of public opinion can be on a lender even if they are not getting rich off their loans.
Kabbage came and conquered the entire online space before anyone had a chance to blink. PayPal, ebay, Amazon, Etsy, Yahoo, Square, they claimed those territories for themselves and then launched an attack into the brick and mortar space. Kabbage’s secret value is their patents. They are a serious player on a serious path.
CAN Capital’s greatest weakness is their lifespan. They’ve managed to stay on top after 16 years in the business but that makes them old enough to be Kabbage’s grandfather by today’s tech standards. As a pre-dot com era business, it’s impossible to argue against their sustainability. If anyone has alternative lending figured out for both the good times and the bad, it’s CAN Capital.
Peer-to-peer lending has already been under strong scrutiny from the Federal Government. Lending Club and Prosper are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission these days, but they may never be free of oversight. Just two months ago, the Federal Reserve published a report on trends in peer-to-peer business lending. They hinted at further regulation.
As small business owners are increasingly turning to this alternative source of money to fund their businesses, policy makers may wish to keep a close eye on both levels and terms of such lending. Because such loans require less paperwork than traditional loans, they may be considered relatively attractive. However, given the relatively higher rate paid on such loans, it may be in the best interest of the business owner to pursue more formal options. More research is required to understand the long-term impact of such loans on the longevity of the firm and more education to potential borrowers is likely in order.
– a 2014 Federal Reserve study
Once upon a time nobody talked about alternative lending online except for the companies offering it. Merchants didn’t talk about it with each other or there were too few businesses to give rise to centralized discussions. Today, merchants communicate and compare notes:
Merchants discuss PayPal’s working Capital program: http://community.ebay.com/t5/PayPal/PayPal-Working-Capital-Loan-DONT-SIGN-UP/td-p/17630207
Merchants discuss Square’s merchant cash advance program: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/forum/welcome-to-the-forum/square-to-offer-small-business-loans-at-exorbitant-interest-rates/
Merchants discuss Kabbage: http://community.ebay.com/t5/Part-time-eBay-Sellers/Kabbage-quot-loans-quot/td-p/3002329
OnDeck Capital’s 30+ Yelp Reviews: http://www.yelp.com/not_recommended_reviews/FOndxpkaBRP6LVIlOv6Dfw
Potential Lending Club borrowers make their cases: http://www.lendacademy.com/forum/index.php?board=3.0
Are computers better predictors of performance than humans? Some people think so. This debate will play a pivotal role in the future of alternative lending.
Public opinion will be at their mercy.
The bigger alternative lending gets, the juicier the stories become. Just last week, Patrick Clark of BusinessWeek dove head first into the reseller model, revealing insider commissions, the truth about buy rates, and the alleged antiquated practice of enlisting a broker to secure funding. On trial was a documented 17% commission, an example I believed to be an extreme case. For a long time commissions ranged between 5% and 10% on average. But there are some big names paying up to 12 points and others boasting of 14. All were topped by the mass solicitation I received a few days ago that promised a 20% commission. These kind of figures if they continue will become an easy target for journalists looking to portray the industry in a negative light.
There is a raging civil war within the merchant cash advance community specifically over stacking. This is the instance that a merchant sells their future revenues to two or more parties at the same time, leading to multiple daily deductions from their sales. This debate is bound to spill out into the mainstream if it cannot be resolved on its own.
Some funding companies intend to license their automated underwriting technology to banks, potentially handing the keys of alternative lending’s greatest asset (speed) to traditional bankers. It is unlikely that banks would engage in some of the high risk deals that alternative lenders target but they could recapture the top credit tier borrowers that have been flocking away from them.
Also at stake here is the sustainability of algorithmic underwriting. There are critics that believe computers appear to make great decisions during good economic periods but suffer during downturns. Do the technology based funding companies have enough data to weather a future economic storm?
So many things are happening at once, that it’s impossible to know what fate awaits the realm. Will there be a new king or will alternative lending fall apart like a house of cards?
For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: hunt or be hunted.
May the best man win.
You might not have known this, but one of the most lucrative opportunities in merchant cash advance is the ability to participate in deals. It’s a phenomenon Paul A. Rianda, Esq addressed in DailyFunder’s March/April issue with his piece, So You Want to Participate?
Syndication is industry jargon of course. You probably know the concept by its sexier pop culture name, crowdfunding. For all the shadowy rumors and misinformation that circulates out there about merchant cash advance companies, they’re similar to the trendy financial tech companies that have become darlings of the mainstream media.
Did you know that many merchant cash advances are crowdfunded? To date, no online marketplace has been able to gain traction in the public domain aside from perhaps FundersCloud, so crowdfunding in this industry happens almost entirely behind the scenes. There is so much crowdfunding taking place that it’s becoming something of a novelty for one party to bear 100% of the risk in a merchant cash advance transaction. Big broker shops chip in their own funds as do underwriters, account reps, specialty finance firms, hedge funds, lenders, and even friends and family members of the aforementioned.
Merchant cash advance companies find themselves playing the role of servicer quite often, which is coincidentally the model that Lending Club is built on. A $25,000 advance to an auto repair shop could be collectively funded by 10 parties, but serviced by only 1. Each participant is referred to as a syndicate. This is not quite the same system as peer-to-peer lending because syndicates are not random strangers. Syndication is typically only open to businesses, and most often ones that are familiar with the transaction such as the company brokering the deal itself.
In the immediate aftermath of the ’08-’09 financial crisis, some merchant cash advance companies became very mistrusting of brokers and deal pipelines were going nowhere. Underwriters had a list of solid rebuttals for deals they weren’t comfortable with. “If you want us to approve this deal so bad, why don’t you fund it yourself!,” underwriters would say. Such language was intended to put a broker’s objections over a declined deal to bed. But with all the money being spent to originate these deals, it wasn’t long until brokers stumbled upon a solution to put anxious merchant cash advance companies at ease. “Fund it myself? I’d love to, but I just can’t put up ALL of the cash.”
And so some brokers started off by reinvesting their commissions into the deals they made happen. That earned them a nice return, which in turn got reinvested into additional deals. Fast forward a few years later and deals are being parceled out by the truckload to brokers, underwriters, investors, lenders, and friends. There’s a lot of money to be made in commissions but anybody who’s anybody in this business has a syndication portfolio. The appetite for it is heavy. Wealthy individuals and investors spend their days cold calling merchant cash advance companies, brokers, and even me, trying to get their money into these deals. They know the ROI is high and they want in.
That’s the interesting twist about crowdfunding in the merchant cash advance industry. You can’t get in on it unless you know somebody. There are no online exchanges for anonymous investors to sign up and pay in. It requires back door meetings, contracts, and typically advice from sound legal counsel. A certain level of business acumen and financial prowess are needed to be considered. These transactions are fraught with risk.
In Lending Club’s peer-to-peer model, investors can participate in a “note” with an investment as small as $25. This is a world apart from merchant cash advance where it is commonplace to contribute a minimum of $500 per deal but can range up to well over $100,000.
Lending Club defines diversification as the possession of more than 100 notes. At $25 a pop, an investor would only need to spend $2,500. With merchant cash advance, 100 deals could be $50,000 or $10,000,000. By that measure, syndication is crowdfunding at the grownup’s table, a table that doesn’t care about sexy labels to appease silicon valley, only yield.
Strange merchant cash advance jargon keeps the industry shrouded in mystery. Did you know that split-funding and split-processing are terms often used interchangeably? Or that they have a different meaning than splitting? Or that the split refers to something else entirely?
Do you know what a holdback is or a withhold? How about a stack, a 2nd, a grasshopper, an ISO, an ACH deal, a junk, a reup, a batch, a residual, a purchase price, a factor rate, or a UCC lead?
Paul Rianda did a great job detailing the risks of syndication, but there is one thing he left unsaid, and that’s if you’re going to participate in merchant cash advances, you better be able to keep up with the conversation.
At face value, syndication is nothing more than crowdfunding. But if your reup blows up because some random UCC hunting ISO stacked an ACH on top of your split while junking him hard and upping the factor with a shorter turn, you just might curse the hopper that ignored your holdback and did a 2nd. And on that note, perhaps it’s better that the industry refrain from adopting mainstream terminology. We wouldn’t want everybody to think this business is easy. Because it’s not.
One factor to consider is the actual product being crowdfunded. In equity crowfunding, participants pool funds together to buy shares of a business. In crowdlending, participants pool funds together to make a loan. But in merchant cash advance syndication, participants pool capital to purchase future revenues of a business. An assessment is made to predict the pace of future income and a discounted price is paid to the business owner upfront. That purchase price is commonly known as the advance amount.
Syndication has more in common with equity crowdfunding than crowdlending. If you buy future revenues and the business fails, then your purchase becomes worthless. There is typically no recourse against the business owner personally unless they purposely interfere with the revenue stream and breach the agreement. Sound a bit complicated? It is, but crowdfunding in this space is prevalent nonetheless. To get in on it, you need to know someone, and to do it intelligently, you better know what the risks are.
If you want to sit at the grownup’s table and syndicate, consult with an attorney first. There’s a reason this industry hasn’t adopted sexy labels. It isn’t like anything else.
Ever since OnDeck Capital stopped doing verbal landlord references, the underwriting landscape of alternative lending has changed dramatically. Kabbage will supposedly fund applicants in just 7 minutes. Everybody’s under the gun to streamline their process, fund deals faster, and produce record breaking numbers month after month.
And why shouldn’t they? Investors are practically foaming at the mouth to get in on any and all kinds of alternative lending. Even Lending Club has thrown in the towel by no longer allowing investors to ask applicants questions. Prior to March 19th, applicants on Lending Club’s platform had the option to answer standardized questions about themselves and their purpose for seeking out a loan. This was set up to help investors feel more informed and comfortable. Once the loan was posted, prospective investors could ask the applicant additional questions of their own to help them decide if it was a deal they wanted to participate in. For example, “what are the interest rates on the credit cards you claim you want to consolidate?” That’s a fair question to ask someone seeking a debt consolidation loan.
Lending Club did away with the Q&A in the name of privacy but conceded in their blog that people are funding deals so fast that no one cares what applicants have to say.
We know that in the past some investors enjoyed reading these descriptions and answers, but as the platform has grown, fewer and fewer investors are using this approach to inform their decisions. Fewer than 3% of investors currently ask questions and only 13% of posted loans have answers provided by borrowers. Furthermore, loans are currently funding in as little as a few hours – well before borrower answers and descriptions can be reviewed and posted.
Loans are being fully funded by institutional investors and mom & pop investors before the applicant can even finish filling out the questionnaire.
The demand to invest outpaces the amount of loans that Lending Club can originate. In a call I had with Lending Club today as a potential investor, I was told that businesses were not even allowed to invest on their platform at this time because they’ll take up all the loans and leave nothing for the average mom & pop investors, the ones which have made their peer-to-peer fame possible.
In the Lend Academy blog forum, mom & pop investors debated the usefulness of the Q&A system. Some argued that responses from applicants allowed them to weed out folks with poor spelling and grammar. Others believed that a poorly worded response was better than someone who didn’t respond at all because it showed that they actually cared about the loan they were applying for.
There were folks that analyzed the applicants language on a scientific level, with one going so far as to cite this study: Peer-to-Peer Lending The Relationship Between Language Features, Trustworthiness, and Persuasion Success.
I am reminded of my underwriting days conducting merchant interviews prior to a final decision. There were applicants that looked good on paper that came across as completely clueless about their business over the phone. Like beyond clueless. And then there were applicants that looked ugly on paper that really impressed me with their command of business subject matter. What shocked me were the former and it’s a testament to how tricky business lending is. Those phone calls impacted my final decision all the time.
But in today’s world where funders are dealing in kilos of cash instead of nickels and dimes, there’s a growing impatience over non-automated things like interacting with the applicant. Fund the deal and ask questions later!
The vast majority of merchant cash advance companies still conduct applicant phone interviews and there’s a part of me that hopes that never changes. As investors grow restless for new pools of loans or advances to participate in, I fear there will be more underwriting sacrifices to satisfy that demand.
It was only a year ago that I laughed at my friend in commercial banking when he told me a small business loan application begins with lunch and a few rounds of golf. “It’s about relationships,” he said. That couldn’t be less true in peer-to-peer lending where the goal is to know as little as possible about where the money is going. I see that mentality creeping into merchant cash advance as well. Sure, there are folks that point to thousands of data points aggregated through online sources but it only takes a 5 minute phone call to determine that an applicant is completely full of crap.
Maybe Jeremy Brown of RapidAdvance was on to something. When Will the Bubble Burst?
Join the discussion about this on DailyFunder.
If you’re planning on introducing new technology to the merchant cash advance or alternative business lending space, you might want to start filing a patent, or else end up violating someone elses.
I’ve brought up Kabbage and patents before, but another one of theirs caught my attention. In their invention named, Method and Apparatus to Evaluate and Provide Funds in Online Environments, they claim the right to an automated application, scoring, approval, and funding model for online businesses.
Will their claim interfere with what the rest of the industry is already doing or has set their sights on?
Kabbage CEO Rob Frohwein is no amateur to the intellectual property game. With more than 30 patents to his name, Intellectual Asset Magazine once referred to him as one of the world’s top intellectual property strategists. That makes Kabbage a rather dangerous foe in the booming world of alternative lending.
The above referenced patent is summarized as:
(a) receiving mandatory information about a user and storing the mandatory information in an electronic computer database; (b) allowing a user to choose whether to enter optional information about the user, and upon receiving the optional information, storing the optional personal information in the electronic computer database; (c) computing a score using the mandatory information and optional information if provided; and (d) determining whether to approve a transfer of funds using the score, and upon approval initiating an electronic transfer of funds from a cash server to an account associated with the user, (e) wherein upon the user entering the optional information the user receives an incentive.
If you read through the entire description of the patent and scan through the photos, you’ll notice they included an option for applicants to submit additional data that could reward them with a higher approval. Such data includes sharing all their LinkedIn and Facebook friends with Kabbage, which Kabbage says it will use to systematically evaluate, determine the ones that are business owners, and solicit them.
Additionally, it outlines how such optional data could be used in their assessment of the applicant:
site metric significance
FACEBOOK user has more friends favorable
FACEBOOK user has less friends unfavorable
FACEBOOK fan page existsf or user favorable
FACEBOOK no fan page for user unfavorable
FACEBOOK more people like user’s fan page favorable
FACEBOOK less people like user’s fan page unfavorable
FACEBOOK more people comment on user’s fan page favorable
FACEBOOK less people comment on user’s fan page unfavorable
FACEBOOK new articles posted more frequently on user’s favorable fan page
FACEBOOK new articles posted less frequently on user’s unfavorable fan page
TWITTER user has more followers favorable
TWITTER user has less followers unfavorable
TWITTER user’s followers have more followers favorable
TWITTER user’s followers have less followers unfavorable
LINKEDIN user’s company has more employees favorable
LINKEDIN user’s company has less employees unfavorable
LINKEDIN user’s profile has more views favorable
LINKEDIN user’s profile has less views unfavorable
In their filing they also submitted what they believe to be the definition of a merchant cash advance.
A merchant account advance is an advance by an advancing party that uses a seller’s merchant account in order to receive payments by the seller for the amount advanced. For example, a seller uses their merchant account to receive payments by credit card (e.g., VISA, MASTERCARD). Once payments are processed the amounts go directly into the seller’s merchant account. When a merchant account advance (or “merchant cash advance”) is made, when a payment is processed, instead of it going directly into the seller’s account the payment may go directly into an account of the advancing party. There are alternative ways to implement merchant cash advance, including a simple advance against future receivables, but when these receivables are received they still go into the existing payment account.
That last line totally acknowledges the ACH payment phenomenon. Hopefully they didn’t file for a patent on that too. Then there might really be trouble.
Whether or not your inventions or technology is patentable or conflicts with a Kabbage held patent would best be determined by consulting with an attorney. Let this be a reminder or notice though that the battle taking place in alternative lending is happening on many levels. As the industry matures, patents could become an Ace in the hole.
In late 2013, consumer peer-to-peer lender Lending Club announced their plans to start offering small business loans. That caused a stir in the merchant cash advance world for a few weeks, but the hype died down. The general consensus was that there would be little to no overlap between the applicants each target.
To this day, I continue to doubt that the overlap will be anything less than substantial. Nik Milanovic of Funding Circle would probably disagree with me. The main argument has been that Lending Club will only target small business owners with good credit, which assumes that businesses with anything less are the only users of merchant cash advances. Not to give anyone’s figures away, but I have seen data to suggest that a large segment of merchant cash advance users have FICO scores in excess of 660. Somewhere along the line we convinced ourselves that merchant cash advances were for businesses with really bad credit. That was never the purpose it was intended for, though it’s true that many applicants have low scores.
Historically, merchant cash advances were for businesses that posed a cash flow risk to banks. Split-processing eliminated that risk by withholding a percentage of card sales automatically through the payment company processing the business’s transactions. Funders today that rely on bank debits for repayment don’t have that safeguard, but they make up for the risk they take by doing something banks don’t do, require payments to be made daily instead of monthly. This allows businesses to manage their cash flow throughout the month and enables the funder to compound their earnings daily. It’s a phenomenon I wrote about in the March/April issue of DailyFunder (Razzle Dazzle Debits & Splits: Daily is the Secret Sauce)
According to the Wall Street Journal, Lending Club will require a minimum of 2 years in business and participation will initially only be open to institutional investors.
Lending Club’s website states that they will recoup funds on a monthly basis via ACH and that interest rates range from 5.9% APR to 29.9% APR + an origination fee. Terms range from 1 to 5 years and there are no early payment penalties.
TechCrunch openly pegs CAN Capital and OnDeck Capital as chief rivals for Lending Club in the space. CAN has enjoyed frontrunner status in the industry since 1998 and while they have been tested in the last 2 years, they haven’t come up against something like this.
In the same Wall Street Journal story, Lending Club’s CEO, Renaud Laplanche lays out who his competitors are with his quote, “The rates provide an alternative to short-term lenders and cash-advance companies that sometimes charge more than the equivalent of 50% annually.”
But will the impact be felt right away? In Laplanche’s interview with Fortune, he claims that it’s very likely they’ll focus on the 750+ FICO segment first, where institutional investors will be comfortable. But make no mistake about it, that will change quick, especially with a probable IPO in the next 8 months.
Is Lending Club really all that big? To draw a comparison, RapidAdvance got a $100 million enterprise valuation when they got bought out by Rockbridge Growth Equity about 6 months ago. Lending Club on the other hand was valued at around $2.3 billion at that time. It took OnDeck Capital 7 years to fund $1 Billion in loans. Lending Club is funding a billion dollars in loans every 3 and a half months. Granted, they’ve all been consumer loans, but let’s not kid ourselves about their capabilities.
Lending Club is funding more consumer loans than the entire merchant cash advance industry is doing combined. Thanks to the peer-to-peer model, they have infinity capital at their disposal. We can pretend that no one with good credit ever applied for a merchant cash advance or we can acknowledge the 3 billion pound gorilla in the room.
Lending Club and other peer-to-peer lenders that follow them will disrupt the alternative business lending status quo.
Previous articles on this subject:
Will Peer-to-Peer Lending Burn the Alternative Lending Market?
As news of OnDeck Capital’s $1 billion milestone spread yesterday,
— Noah Breslow (@noahbreslow) March 14, 2014
I couldn’t help but reflect on a major detail revealed about their operation a week prior in American Banker. OnDeck’s underwriting system is not as fully automated as they would have us believe. For the last few years its been said that their success is related to their advanced underwriting algorithm which analyzes thousands of factors. We were reminded of such recently in a Bloomberg interview:
Such capabilities have been received with both awe and skepticism. Do factors like social media activity really make a difference in how loans perform? OnDeck’s CEO, Noah Breslow has openly acknowledged that many of their algorithm’s innovative factors carry little to no weight. Things like credit history, cash flow, and profitability still have a major impact in approval.
American Banker revealed that 30% of all loan decisions at OnDeck are human made. That’s a shockingly high percentage for a company that has 56 employees with backgrounds in math, statistics, computer science, and engineering. Furthermore, as human involvement is reserved for the larger deals, 30% of all loan decisions could easily be 50% of all actual dollars loaned. That would seem to prove that computer automated underwriting is a far greater challenge than anyone could have been led to believe.
With 7 years in business and a tech savvy board of directors that would make most billionaires blush, one has to wonder why so much human involvement is still necessary.
More than a year ago, UK payday lender Wonga almost acquired OnDeck but the deal fell apart in the late stages. Wonga’s CEO is a strong believer that human involvement in underwriting leads to poor decisions not better ones. As was quoted in The Guardian,
Asking for a loan from a financial institution had traditionally involved making a strong first impression – putting on a suit to see the bank manager – then rigorous questioning, checking your documents and references, before the institution made an evaluation of your trustworthiness. In a way, it was exactly the same as an interview, but instead of a job being at stake it was cash.
Damelin found this system old-fashioned and flawed. “The idea of doing peer-to-peer lending is insane,” he says. “We are quite poor at judging other people and ourselves – you get to know that in your life, both with personal relationships and in business. You realise that we’re not as good as we think we are at that stuff, and that goes for almost everybody. I certainly thought I was much better at it.”
That begs the question if that mentality can be applied to (1) lending in the US as opposed to the UK and (2) to businesses as opposed to consumers.
Fast growing merchant cash advance provider Yellowstone Capital hasn’t fully subscribed to the theory that automation is better. In an ISO&Agent interview, Managing Partner Isaac Stern said, “A computer-generated algorithm is no substitute for human analysis when brokering big loans. There are companies making decisions about merchants without ever speaking to them. You cut out a lot of important information.”
Peter Renton, the founder of both Lend Academy and the LendIt Conference shared with me that, “it is very true that [business lending] requires an entirely different skill set when it comes to measuring risk.”
I think a lot of this explains why peer-to-peer lenders like Lending Club were able to get very big very quickly. Pre-packaged factors like FICO score can still largely predict consumer loan performance. That helped them scale because FICO is widely understood and believed to be reliable. Future business performance on the other hand is a mystery. The stock market is a great example of that unknown. Expectations of future performance change every nano-second.
All one thousand variables examined by a computer could confidently signal a lender to approve a loan to a restaurant. But 30 days later when a brand new competing restaurant opens up across the street, all that analysis goes out the window. Loan performance may be nothing like you possibly expected.
Is it any surprise that OnDeck isn’t fully automated? In my opinion, no. But when 30% of all loan approvals are human based, that should be a strong indication that computers can’t go all the way.
Wonga’s Damelin might have it backwards. Humans might be better judges of people than any algorithm could aspire to be. An algorithm creates scalability though. OnDeck would not have broken the $1 billion mark without one. It could just be about allowing a computer to do as much of the human work as possible without delivering significantly worse loan performance results. If you can at least get close to the performance that your best and brightest human underwriters could produce, that may be considered success.
Brick and mortar chain stores died this week, after a long illness. Born along Main Street, raised in shopping malls across post-World War II America, the traditional store enjoyed decades of good health, wealth and steady growth. But in recent years its fortunes have declined. Survived by Amazon.com and online outfits too numerous to list.
– CNN 3/7/14
Just a day after Jeremy Brown’s new CEO Corner post appeared on DailyFunder with an overt bubble warning, CNN’s Chris Isidore alluded that the era of brick & mortar retail may be drawing to a close. In Isidore’s brief sensational article, he fingers an overabundance of retail space, a weak economy, and the Internet as the culprits behind Main Street‘s decline.
In the broad alternative business lending industry, the sentiment is quite the opposite. Small business demand for working capital is surging and no one is predicting anything less than stellar growth for the foreseeable future. But is the growth real?
Jeremy Brown is the CEO of Bethesda, MD-based RapidAdvance and he explains the growth may not be what it appears to be on the surface. Some cash providers are overpaying commissions, stretching out terms longer than what their risk tolerance supports, and are growing by funding businesses that have already been funded by someone else (a practice known as stacking).
If the industry collectively booked 50,000 deals in 2013 and increased that to 100,000 deals in 2014, you’d have 100% growth, or at least it would appear that way on the surface. What if the additional 50,000 deals funded this year were not new clients but rather additional advances and loans made to existing clients? It’s a lot easier to give all of your clients money twice instead of acquiring new ones.
This all begs the question, is demand for non-bank financing really growing by leaps and bounds? Or does it just appear that way because those that have already utilized it are demanding more of it?
Brown left his readers with this conclusion, “There will be a rebalancing at some point. And it will not be pretty.”
When Will the Bubble Burst? by Jeremy Brown will also appear in the next print issue of DailyFunder. If you haven’t subscribed to the magazine already, you can do so HERE.
OnDeck Capital CEO Noah Breslow is no stranger to CNBC. Just as word hit the press that his company had raised another $77 million, he made a television appearance to discuss their success.
So why are small businesses owners turning to alternatives?
Many businesses that use alternatives such as OnDeck qualify for traditional bank financing and use the alternatives anyway. Now that’s something to think about…