Regulatory Paranoia and the Industry Civil WarApril 11, 2014
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.