Merchant Processing

Square Bears Attack

April 21, 2014
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It was the PR nightmare that wouldn’t end. With Easter Sunday still warm on everyone’s minds, bloggers went for the jugular over Square’s acquisition rumors. Whether based on fact or fiction (nobody seemed to know for sure), Alistair Barr, Douglas Macmillan, and Evelyn Rusli of the Wall Street Journal single-handedly hit Jack Dorsey’s famous payment company with a fresh dose of healthy skepticism. With that came the revelation that Square had lost $100 million in 2013, a dangerously large figure for a company that is apparently plagued with shrinking margins, not growing ones.

square losing money

What was happening behind the scenes at Square differed in dramatic context depending on which news site you read. Some writers claimed Square executives were considering a well thought-out strategic acquisition in light of a liquidity shortfall, while others insinuated that Jack Dorsey had last been seen raging drunk at a Market Street Starbucks wearing nothing other than flip flops. He reportedly told spectators that a 2% swipe fee was impossible and then he fled out the back door as four Baristas tried to wrestle him down.

When an IPO was taken off the agenda in February, some analysts wondered if their historic rise had come at a cost. In the Wall Street Journal article, it was alleged that the company was potentially less than a year away from insolvency. The quote was, “During the first quarter of 2014, a Square executive told a potential acquirer that the company had nine months before it would hit a predetermined ‘cushion’ of funds set aside as a last resort.” Thanks to the new credit facility they landed this month of nearly $200 million, they should have no problem with cash flow.

Square BearsBut questions remain. People supposedly close to Square confirm that the company had practically begged Visa and Google to acquire them. Though there were stiff denials from all parties throughout the day, it made for some enticing headlines. Square Bears were out in droves today:

Square Is Losing Millions Of Dollars And Wants To Sell – Huffington Post
Why Square Needs To Sell Itself And Do It Quickly – Forbes
Mobile payment startup Square plans sale as losses widen – Reuters
Did Jack Dorsey Do the Math on Square – UpStart Business Journal
Square denies sell-out plans; all eyes on the dicey-looking financials – ZDNet

Mobile-Payments Startup Square Discusses Possible Sale
Company Faces Wider Loss, Less Cash; Google Considered Potential Acquisition
– Wall Street Journal

What should also be of note is Square’s recent venture into the merchant cash advance business, which in practice should be a major liquidity drain. One has to wonder if this is a good time to position themselves as a working capital provider when they’re hemorrhaging cash from their payments operations. Besides, providing funding to micro-merchants in return for a split of their future card sales is an incredibly risky business model. One thing the established players in that market have learned is that it’s really easy to lose money if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I sure hope they know what they’re in for. Otherwise Dorsey might really run off drunk to Starbucks.

Largest Merchant Acquirers of 2013

April 12, 2014
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According to the Nilson Report, the 10 largest merchant acquirers of 2013 were:

1. Bank of America
2. Chase Paymentech Solutions
3. First Data
4. Vantiv
5. Elavon
6. Wells Fargo Merchant Services
7. Citi Merchant Services
8. Global Payments
9. Heartland Payment Systems
10. WorldPay

The only 2 changes in the top 10 were:
First Data fell from 2 to 3
Citi Merchant Services fell from 6 to 7

Regulatory Paranoia and the Industry Civil War

April 11, 2014
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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.

Regulation
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.

NAMAA
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.

No police
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?

Blind spot
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?

Paranoia
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.

Join Me at Transact 14

April 1, 2014
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Electronic Transactions AssociationI’ll be at the ETA’s Transact 14 Conference in Las Vegas next week (Apr 8 – 10) wearing my journalist hat for DailyFunder. DailyFunder is currently the only publication dedicated to merchant cash advance and alternative lending and is a media sponsor of this year’s event. All attendees will be able to pick up a free copy of the latest issue of the magazine at designated distributions bins.

If you’re on the fence about going, allow me to convince you. The Annual ETA hosted conference is more than a social event or meet and greet. It’s a chance to ink deals, forge partnerships, and learn about opportunities that you’ll never hear about from the comfort of your office. Of course you’ll only get out of it what you put into it. The Who’s Who of payments and financing will be all in one place. Are you one of them?

CNBC will be broadcasting the event live. It’s been reported that this year’s show has enlisted a record amount of exhibitors.

I’ll be taking photos and jotting down notes for both the live blog and post show recap for the May/June issue of the magazine. So if you’ve got something cool to show off, email me at sean@merchantprocessingresource.com or sean@dailyfunder.com and I’ll be happy to come pay you a visit.

pre-registration for the event closes in less than 5 hours but you’ll be to get tickets on site.

And of course if you’re planning to bring your wolf pack to Vegas, you might want to read DailyFunder’s helpful tips on how to keep your wolf pack in check. 😉

Hope to see you there.

Split Funding is Here to Stay

August 21, 2013
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split-fundingI’ll say it for the hundredth¹ time, the advantage of split-funding is the ability to collect payments back from a small business that has traditionally had average, weak, or poor cash flow. Let’s put that into perspective. There is a distinct difference between a working business with poor cash flow and a failing business. A failing business is typically not a candidate for merchant cash advance or similar loan alternatives.

Poor cash flow could be the result of paying cash up front for inventory that will take a while to turn over. A hardware store with a healthy 50% profit margin may be able to turn $10,000 worth of inventory into $15,000 in revenue over the course of the next 90 days. The only problem is that the full $10,000 must be paid in full to the supplier on delivery.

Enter the merchant cash advance provider of old that discovers the hardware store has had a fair share of bounced checks in the past, mainly because of the timing of payments going in and out. Cash on hand is tight, the credit score is average, but the profit margin is there. Most lenders would take a pass on financing a transaction that carries legitimate risk such as this one does, that is until the ability to split-fund a payment stream became possible.

Advocates of the ACH method tout that it’s just so much easier to set up a daily debit and scratch their heads and wonder, “man, why didn’t we think of just doing ACH in the first place?”

The thing is, people did think of it and they concluded that for a large share of the merchants out there that needed capital, it didn’t make financial sense to try and debit out payments every day with the hope that there would always be cash available to cover them. Banks have had a hard enough time collecting just one payment a month, so what makes 22 payments in a month so much more likely to work?

I’m not inferring that there is something wrong with the daily ACH system that has taken the alternative business lending industry by storm. There’s plenty of situations for which that may be the best solution, especially for businesses that take little or no credit card payments. My point is that the split-funding method isn’t going to shrivel up and die. It’s here to stay. So long as businesses have electronic payment streams, they will be able to leverage them to obtain working capital.

When it comes to splitting card payments however, it’s important for a business to have faith in the payment processor. Reputation, compatibility with payment technology, and the assurance that the business will be able to conduct sales just as it always has are important. If you’re a funder, ISO, or account rep, it’s your responsibility to make sure that those three factors are addressed. A lot of processors are willing to split payments but they haven’t all made a name for themselves in the industry. Integrity Payment Systems (IPS) comes to mind as one that almost everyone works with and I’ve been in touch with Matt Pohl, the Director of Merchant Acquisition of IPS for some time. He’s been nice enough to share a little bit about what makes a split partner special, and what has made them particularly stand out in the merchant cash advance industry.

Clearly, the role of the credit card processor has diminished over the last couple years when it comes to merchant funding. ACH/Lockbox models have become more prevalent which created a sales mindset that switching a merchant account was more of a hindrance than a necessity. Some argue the decline in profit margin on residuals, due to price compression, made it no longer worth the time and effort to make an aggressive pitch to switch the merchants processing. ISOs also argue that too often merchants have reservations to switch processors because of previous bad experiences, cancellation fees, or because they simply know its not necessary in order to be funded. This is where it’s important to have the RIGHT split partner, not just any split partner

What makes Integrity Payment Systems a “special” split partner is the fact we control the settlement of the merchants funds, in house. IPS is partnered with First Savings Bank (FSB), which allows us a unique way of moving money. Because of our state-of-the-art settlement system and direct access to FSB’s Federal Reserve window, we eliminate the necessity of having layers of financial institutions behind the scenes that merchants funds typically filter through. This is a HUGE benefit to cash advance companies for several reasons. First, we implement the fixed split % when we receive the request, in real time. This allows the deal to be funded quicker. Secondly, since we handle the settlement process we have access to the raw authorization data which allows us to provide comprehensive reporting on a daily basis from the previous days activity. But also we can do true next day deposits, including Friday, Saturday, and Sunday funds available for the merchant on Monday morning. This is especially valuable when selling to restaurants/bars, or any other industry with a lot of weekend volume. Lastly, IPS makes outbound calls to merchants, on behalf of the sales agent and cash company, to download and train the merchant on their terminal. A confirmation email is sent to the agent which includes any batch activity so the deal can fund.

As an added example of this, on the last week of every month, the merchant boarding and sales support team fully understands that our MCA partners have monthly funding goals they need to reach. The IPS team goes above and beyond to ensure merchants get setup properly in time so those accounts can be funded before the month is over. We have a motto at IPS that the sales force are our #1 customers, and nowhere is that more apparent than by the way we take over all the heavy lifting once the agent gets the signatures on our contract. We firmly believe that by helping the agent by taking over the boarding process, that this will allow them to do what they do best, sell more deals!! A lot of competitors expect the agent to be involved in the boarding process, and that’s valuable time that takes them away from selling.

IPS has opened their doors to every MCA company that wishes to have an exceptional split funding partner/processor. We have all the necessary tools to provide this service the right way, and we want the opportunity to earn the business of every working capital provider out there. You don’t have to listen to a sales pitch from me, because I strongly believe that our reputation in the cash advance space speaks for itself. We would love the opportunity to talk to any MCA provider about a few additional services we offer utilizing our settlement system that will allow ISOs to fund more deals.

Matt Pohl
(847) 720-1129
Integrity Payment Systems

One thing I can personally attest to about Integrity is their human factor. You can actually meet some of their team and see inside their office in the fun youtube video below:


Getting deals done

Ultimately, the financing business is about getting deals done and there are countless small businesses that just won’t ever be a candidate for ACH repayment. Heck, for many years the merchant cash advance industry wasn’t even a financing industry of its own, but rather it was one of many acquisition tools for merchant account reps. (See: Before it Was Mainstream). Technically it still is. You don’t want to sign up a merchant for processing and then have to move the account because the processor doesn’t split or because there is no dedicated customer service. I’ve been in that situation before personally and it’s a nightmare.

There’s a reason this website which is dedicated mainly to merchant cash advance is called the Merchant Processing Resource. You can’t know everything about cash advance without knowing about merchant processing. Get acquainted!


If you’d like to read the lighter side of Merchant Cash Advance History, you just might want to check out MCA History in Honor of Thanksgiving. 😉

¹ I said it for the 99th time on the Electronic Transactions Association’s Blog in Preserving the Marriage Between Merchant Cash Advance and Payment Processing

What Debit Card Interchange Reform?!

August 1, 2013
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debit cardAfter years of debating over the law to cap debit card interchange fees and its eventual enactment, a federal court has struck it down. The 21 cent cap is gone but not because it was deemed unfair to banks but because the court thinks the cap should be even lower.

Story about it on CNN

I wrote about the law several times over the last couple years. In the beginning, it was unclear as to what a debit card fee cap really meant, as I myself even explained it incorrectly the first time or two. The majority of folks believed the cap applied to the end user, the merchant, which helped to encourage small businesses,journalists, and even consumers to rally around it.

But when the law actually went into place, not much really changed because it didn’t have much to do with small businesses at all. The debit card reform law capped the amount of interchange fees that an acquiring bank pays a card issuing bank. The merchant wasn’t even involved although the acquirer can pass their new savings on to the merchant, but they don’t have to.

Many acquirers did pass some of the savings on but merchants went and did the opposite of what they promised. Their call to have their swipe fees lowered initially was so that they could lower their retail prices and and pass the savings on to consumers. Consumers believed this logic and supported small businesses to get this law implemented. A study by the Electronic Payments Coalition however, found that 67% of small businesses kept their prices the same or raised them.

There was clearly a lot of misinformation around this law and now it’s been struck down.

Two big misconceptions:
merchants will pay a maximum 21 cent debit swipe fee: Wrong
small businesses will turn their debit card fee savings into lower prices for consumers: wrong

My previous articles about debit card reform:

The Winners and Losers of the Debit Card Fee Ruling

MCA Track – A Merchant Cash Advance Back End

July 6, 2013
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Running your funding business off of excel spreadsheets or clunky old software that wasn’t meant for the Merchant Cash Advance (MCA) market? You might want to consider using something that was both made and used by MCA people. A couple weeks ago, Benchmark Merchant Solutions gave me a private demo of their all-in-one back end system to manage incoming and outgoing payments for both split-funding and ACH deals.

It had a lot of nice features and certainly would make it possible to manage your books with ease. The reports are very easy to produce, read, and make sense of. Alerts can be set up for merchants that have not processed for any gap of time you set. ACH rejects are automatically recorded and flagged.

MCA Track dashboard

MCA Track Merchants - Benchmark Merchant Solutions

At the current moment, the only direct split-funding integration it has is with Benchmark Merchant Solutions. They will be directly integrating with other processors in the coming month. The system uses a proprietary ACH provider.

Contact: Michael Jaffe or Benny Silberstein for more information.
Phone: 877-382-6262
Mike.Jaffe@SwipeBMS.com | BennyS@swipebms.com

Benchmark Merchant Solutions is a registered ISO and MSP of Deutsche Bank AG, New York. This is not a paid ad or review. The Benchmark team is run by solid folks.

Having issues with your books? Make it easy with MCA Track.

– Merchant Processing Resource
https://debanked.com
MPR.mobi on iPad, iPhone, and Android

Penguin 2.0 Epic Fails

May 23, 2013
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Just as the Merchant Cash Advance industry is beginning to enjoy positive publicity, Google has the potential to set the momentum backwards by pushing terrible results. I’m going to post some Penguin 2.0 epic fails over the next couple days. So check in every now and then to see what’s new. You can also send screenshots of any epic fails you find to webmaster@merchantprocessingresource.com

Epic Fail #3: Page 1 for the search of Business Cash Advance Companies
penguin 2.0

Epic Fail #2: Page 3 for the search of Business Cash Advance
google penguin fail

Epic Fail #1:
google penguin fail