Consumer Demand + Investment Trumps Market Turbulence

By Charles H. Green

With China’s economy stalled as Europe growth is limping, U.S. GDP growth in coming months ahead will be predicated on the return of healthy domestic consumer demand and more capital investment, despite recent stock market turmoil, says Rajeev Dhawan of the Economic Forecasting Center (EFC) at Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business.

Dhawan’s assertions were delivered in his quarterly “Forecast of the Nation,” released Rajeev DhawanThursday, against the backdrop of China’s currency devaluation in mid-August. Even though initial reactions were negative, he characterizes the devaluation as “positive news for the economy overall,” which will boost domestic profit margins on imported goods.

Between low gas prices and wealth gains from reflated home prices and stock portfolios, post-recession consumers are in the mood to spend, albeit judiciously, on utility items. For the first seven months of the year, vehicle sales averaged 17.0 million units – up 4.5% over the previous year’s strong sales numbers, led by light trucks that drove the increase, rising by 10.7% over the previous year. By contrast, consumers hit the brakes when it came to passenger car purchases, which declined 1.9%.

As for oil, Dhawan anticipates prices will stay below $60/barrel until late 2016 due to a drop in global demand and an increase in drilling efficiency by U.S. producers. “People can safely expect low gas prices to continue for the next year.”

But when will the Federal Reserve determine that the economy is strong enough to hike interest rates and by how much? “The expected rebound in investment spending (forecast to rise 6.2% in the second half of 2015), will be strong enough for the Fed to start normalizing interest rates,” Dhawan said. “The issue is whether it will do so at the September or December meeting.” At present, remarks by key officials strongly telegraph a September move provided the ongoing market correction doesn’t deepen further.

Highlights from EFC’s National Report:

  • After stumbling in the first quarter of 2015, real GDP grew strongly at 2.3% in the second quarter. Growth of 2.2% is expected for the second half of the year, which will lead to an overall annual rate of 2.2%.
  • Business investment growth will hit 3.0% in 2015, rebound to 5.4% in 2016 and 5.2% in 2017. Jobs will follow by a monthly rate of 219,000 in 2015, 226,000 in 2016 and 214,000 in 2017.
  • Housing starts will average 1.105 million units in 2015, rise to 1.202 in 2016 and 1.275 in 2017. Expect auto sales of 17.0 million units in 2015, 16.5 in 2016 and 16.4 in 2017.
  • The 10-year bond rate will rise to 2.7% in 2015 and should rise to 3.3% before the end of 2017.

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Candidates Need Lesson on Start-up Finance

By Amaresh Gautam

The race for the presidency is in full gear and plenty of noise will be heard during the next year heaping praise for “small business.” And as usual, none of it will mean anything. For most policymakers, getting pressed for finer details would reveal that they don’t actually have a clue about business, large or small. But then, when has anyone ever really been pressed for details?

This page will be listening for–and commenting on–what these candidates have to say, or Talking headmore likely don’t say, about small business finance. Yes, the Democrats may offer to throw the SBA another bone, but that’s old hat. The Republicans will talk about “entrepreneurs,” as if they could actually define one. But the ugly truth is none of the major candidates for president has ever demonstrated real knowledge about capital formation, one of the fundamental elements of a healthy economy.

And lest you’re already thinking that Donald Trump knows something about the subject (and certainly he’s borrowed–and defaulted on–billions of dollars), his perspective in business is jaundiced by the fact that he was gifted the entire sum of his seed capital. We’d all think we were subject matter experts on that topic if we inherited a $200 million NY real estate portfolio. But I digress…

Entrepreneurs typically look for start-up funding from equity investors. Nothing less than a carefully valued equity ownership and potentially rich share of the bonanza, when and if the start-up makes it big, will justify the risk of investing in a newly hatched business enterprise. However, not all–in fact most–entrepreneurs are not actually prime candidates to sell equity in their business so early on, so their only hope of raising cash from third parties is generally debt financing.

Why? Because the overwhelming percentage of new start-ups are designed to provide employment for the owner. About 75 percent of all U.S. businesses don’t even have a second employee. Nearly as many will never have–nor were they planned to have–scalability to the point of going public or merging into a larger organization.

As a commercial lender, you recognize first hand how difficult it is for start-up companies to raise debt when they don’t have much of a balance sheet or revenues to show. Their speculative business plans and pie-in-the-sky cash flow projections are often flawed or incomplete. Your search for collateral assets and the demonstrative capacity to service the debt usually winds up without adequate answers.

Changing these conditions as a means to stimulate economic growth could be achieved with some creative policy-making and federal/state investment in companies that create jobs, take risks, develop communities and put ideas to work. There’s been plenty of research and development in this area through many stakeholders, such as the Kauffman Foundation, the CDFI community and several state initiatives with venture funds and lending programs.

Loan guarantee programs offered through the federal government have dramatically tightened in their tolerance for providing this sort of financing in recent years, and in many respects, have narrowed the definition of the kind of borrower they can/will assist. Participating lenders are left without a clear understanding of exactly who the target client is, and who’s really eligible for financing due to dozens of nuances entering the way these programs are administered.

Which brings us back to these presidential candidates. Offering up some genuine ideas in this arena would be a way to grow jobs, GDP and opportunity in one gigantic swoop. It remains to be seen if any of them have the time, inclination or bright ideas to address this subject.

But we’ll be listening.

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Stock Market Plummets, SME Lenders Indirectly Impacted

By Amaresh Gautam

The U.S. stock market started falling last week dragging the global markets with them and presently (at post deadline), many leading global stock markets have experienced something of a meltdown. The source of this meltdown? Most analysts are blaming investors being concerned about recent news of the Chinese economy and disappointments in other emerging markets.

Data shows that Chinese factory activity has reached a low level last seen in 2009. Beijing Correctionreleased manufacturing figures showing fresh evidence of problems at the heart of their economy. The preliminary Caixin China Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index for August fell to a 77-month low. After Monday’s closing, the Shanghai Composite Index had lost all of their gains since the beginning of the year.

Low U.S. oil prices also add to the worries and have fallen to less than $40 per barrel, a level not seen since before the financial crisis. The dollar fell to a two-month low against the euro and added to speculation that the Federal Reserve may now postpone a broadly expected increase in interest rates next month.

Through last Friday, the Dow Jones index had lost about 10% from its record closing high on May 19, appearing to be entering a correction (a fall of at least 10% from a recent peak), and a rocky start Monday morning saw the DJIA fall over 1,000 points until investors started buying up bargains. Still the day finished down four percent.

Stock market swings are not the bellwether of all things in the economy, since the immediate impact only directly hurts those holding securities. If you’re personally invested in a broad basket of balanced securities, chances are the effects of this moment are only taking away inflated gains, not eating anything near your principal. If you’re buying on margin, you may have more reason to be concerned.

Amid this mayhem, small business lenders would do well to remember that markets often have its reasons that only the market can understand, and to be sure, some economic fundamentals are still strong (e.g. rising small business lending volume this year). But as written through several articles in these pages, it pays to pay attention to the world beyond your book of business.

The price of oil and devalued Chinese currency may not hit your pocketbook this week, but there are causes and effects that eventually are felt by most everyone. If one of those is that the Fed postpones rate hikes due to the uncertainty, that will hurt lenders more than borrowers, and that’s getting closer to home.

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Risky Mortgage Bonds Make a Comeback

When the U.S. capital markets were collapsing in the aftermath of the subprime financial crisis, many folks assumed that we had seen the last chapter of the financial product innovation known as ‘securitized mortgage bonds.’ After all, the market and the people making that market must have learned from their recent experience and never again make choices that led to propagation of such toxic financial securities, right?

However history-even financial history-has a pattern of repeating itself, and the only thing Cash Moneywe learn from financial history is that we do not learn from much from it. Already within just a few short years, risk-laden mortgage bonds are making a comeback.

In the years since the crisis, Wall Street’s mortgage-bond issuance has been largely restricted to bundling old, secured debt or big loans made to the wealthiest Americans. The only securities backed by new loans to delinquency-prone borrowers have been insured by taxpayers. However Lonestar, owned by billionaire John Grayken, recently made a deal in which about 220 home loans were packed into one $72 million bond offering.

Moreover the market analysts say that there is fair amount of excitement about such loans which will ultimately be securitized. The market players are saying that they will revive the market for such loans without repeating the mistakes that led to the subprime crisis. This time they’ll retain the risk instead of passing them to someone else.

Right. Recall that the first version of this financing bonds were sold touting a credit risk grade rated “AAA” for a reason, albeit a bad, probably illegal reason. The experience of previous financial derivatives offer plenty of reasons to be skeptical, although it’s fine for anyone to buy them so long as they, and they alone, bear the risk of loss. The American taxpayers should not be relied on to bailout the capital markets again.

In Lone Star’s offering, an affiliated vehicle that sponsored the deal will hold onto at least 15 percent that’s first in line to bear losses, according to preliminary offering documents obtained by Bloomberg. The mortgages were originated over the past nine months by Caliber Home Loans Inc., which is owned by Dallas-based Lone Star.

To someone familiar with market lore, this reintroduction of an old failed financing vehicle was to be expected. As the scars of the subprime crisis heal further, many other innovations that led to the disaster are also bound to make a comeback, albeit in a slightly different form, and quite possibly leading to another disaster that will also be slightly different.

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Average Consumer Credit Scores Are Rising

By Charles H. Green

American consumers are managing their obligations better these days, as the NYTimes reports that average scores have reached new highs and delinquent credit payments have dropped. The national average FICO® score is now 695 — the highest it has been in at least a decade, according to the latest analysis from Fair Isaac Corporation, the score’s creator. Nearly 20 percent of consumers now have scores above 800.

While the national FICO® score distribution continues to improve, Fair Isaac reports that FICO-April-2015-Average-FICO-Scorethey see evidence—both in terms of average scores and with delinquency measures—of a leveling off in credit quality. And that leveling could represent either a pause in the continued US financial recovery or possible cracks starting to show at the edges of several years of a relatively low-risk underwriting environment.

The higher scores are led by tangible reductions in delinquent real estate loans, however, there has been little change in the level of delinquent credit cards, and actually an increase in delinquent auto loans.

FICO® scores are determined by using loan and other vital information information reported through the three major credit reporting agencies. The score is widely used by commercial banks and non-bank lenders to assess credit risk in lending that ranges from credit cards, auto loans, and home mortgages to small business loans and equipment leases. The FICO® score, which ranges from 300 to 850, directly affects access to credit for millions of people as well as determining the credit terms offered.

There are plenty of reasons that the average credit score could be rising, not all of which are pointed out by FICO’s rosy news release. Obviously, as lenders worked through the financial crisis/housing bust, the volume of seriously delinquent loans impacted millions of borrowers. But through a combination of eventual repayment,  borrower deleveraging, or write-offs, virtually all lenders still standing have experienced a drop in these delinquent accounts, as average portfolios have improved.

So, the passage of time is also an important factor and older accounts help increase scores. Bad credit performance discourages most lenders to avoid granting credit to certain applicants, but as the years go by, that negative information starts dropping off credit reports. So it’s natural that the impact of all those delinquencies that weighed on credit scores during the recession (2007-2009) are most likely starting to erode.

Other contributors to these statistics may not be such a positive. Since the Great Recession, we’ve seen a rise in the fintech credit marketplace, many of whom offer consumer as well as business credit. Many borrowers have dropped out of the traditional credit market, and no longer get graded by FICO, since the consumer lenders in that channel (payday lenders) usually do not report credit results.

Another impact related to this average score improvement, particularly on the lowest score ranges, may have been the adoption of FICO 9 last year, which was a change in their algorithm where FICO finally deleted medical bills and other non-credit items from their analytics. These factors dragged down scores on many consumers who were unaware of unpaid obligations or were in a legitimate dispute with a creditor.

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Marijuana CU Sues Federal Reserve For Master Account

By Charles H. Green

The Fourth Corner Credit Union in Denver, a financial institution that aims to be the first to serve the expanding marijuana industry in Colorado, applied last November to the Federal Reserve for a “master account,” which would allow it to interact with other financial institutions and open its doors to some of the hundreds of state-licensed marijuana businesses in Colorado.

After toking on their reply, the Federal Reserve District Bank in Kansas City said no.

Although recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado last year, it’s still illegal at the No Moneyfederal level, and the banking regulatory community has been aggressively discouraging traditional banks from working with any clients known to be in the pot businesses.

For its part, the credit union has the backing of Colorado’s governor, and fired back on the Fed by filing a lawsuit in Denver Federal Court, demanding “equal access” to the financial system.

Most banks have refused to open accounts for the hundreds of marijuana businesses in Colorado and states with similar laws, leaving these businesses to operate in an all-cash economy. And the cash is piling up, bringing with it significant risks. The only alternative for these small-business owners is to improvise as their own bank, with safes, armored cars and other alternatives to banking.

The state of Colorado’s position is that the lack of access to banks is a public safety issue, as well as a deterrent in the state’s effort to collect legitimate taxes. Fourth Corner Credit Union won the state’s backing with a state license in 2014 after demonstrating their consultation with money-laundering experts to build their policies, but that approval was conditional on receiving approval from the Fed before opening for business.

The lawsuit could be an opening for the courts to resolve the ongoing conflict between federal laws against marijuana and the dozens of states that have legalized it in some form, mostly for medical treatment. In the lawsuit, the credit union contends that the Fed’s own rules give it little discretion in deciding who should and should not be able to have a master account, and do not allow it to rely on other agencies, like the credit union administration.

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Invoice Marketplace C2FO Attracts $40 Million Funding

By Ravinder Kapur

In a recent development, Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign investment fund, has led a $40 million investment round into C2FO, an online marketplace, which allows firms to get discounts from their vendors for upfront payments. C2FO, a company founded in 2008 with its head office in Fairway, Kansas, hopes to leverage Temasek’s emerging markets expertise to increase its business volumes.

DEALSTREETASIA has reported that C2FO, a fintech startup, has recorded exponential Accounts Receivable (2)growth in the three months ended June 30, 2015, in which period the capital flowing through its platform stood at $5.4 billion compared to $1.2 billion in the comparable three months a year ago.

John Kill, senior vice president and chief financial officer at C2FO said, “Our record growth in the past quarter for existing and new global customers generated a 334 percent increase in working capital flows. Our market operates globally across 15 countries and multiple languages. As we consistently outpace our year-over-year performance, we continue to attract the attention of world-class partners.”

C2FO’s business model is based on the use of an electronic trading platform through which suppliers can negotiate for early payment of invoices with buyers. The demand for its services hinges on the fact that while suppliers generally pay high rates of interest for borrowing working capital, the buyers, who may have surplus cash, do not have access to suitable investment opportunities for their short-term funds.

In a bid to boost its business volumes, C2FO has partnered with Tradeshift, which helps buyers and suppliers convert from paper invoices to electronic records. Kansas City Business Journal reported that the two companies have a natural synergy, as Tradeshift speeds up the record keeping, while C2FO hastens the payment process. Tradeshift has extensive operations, with 500,000 companies in 190 countries using its platform.

Temasek is Singapore’s $266 billion wealth fund. While, the investment in C2FO would form an extremely minor portion of its portfolio, it is significant that a sovereign fund is showing interest in an American fintech company.

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With Brief Pause, SBA 7(a) Loan Approvals Continue to Soar

By Charles H. Green

After the SBA 7(a) program was suspended for several days in July due to the exhaustion of the program’s authorization level, which peaked at the full $18.75 billion, the 7(a) program was back in business about a week later. And as has been the story all year, the loan approval rate continued climbing faster and higher than ever.

SBA publishes a monthly “Lending Statistics for Major Programs, and as of August 1st, Climbing higherthe results reflected the end of the tenth month of FY 2015. This report provides rolling year-over-year loan approval statistics for the 7(a) and CDC/504 loan programs broken down by the respective categories of policy-targeted penetration. The overall SBA lending program volumes and related 504/CDC program senior debt year-to-date, reaching almost the $24 billion mark with two months remaining in the fiscal year.

The 7(a) program continued its strong showing in FY 2015 with total loan approvals in $20.3 billion, a 32 percent jump over the same period at 7/31/14 ($15.3 billion). In FY 2014, all SBA financing programs started slowly after the federal government’s shutdown, but these results are about 40 percent higher than FY 2013 as well.

The number of approved 7(a) loans were 53,394 through July, 27 percent ahead of the number in YTD FY 2014, and 41 percent ahead the same period in FY 2013. The average loan size through July was $379,839, which  is about $15,000 higher than it was this month last year.

A graphical illustration of all SBA monthly loan approvals is found in Capital Views.

The spiked growth in approved loans for less than $150,000 continued in July, climbing to 28 percent over the same dollars approved in FY 2014 to $1.92 billion, with the average loan size holding steady at $61,353. This year is the second year SBA is waiving guaranty and lender fees on loans less than $150,000.

Meanwhile the total volume of approved CDC/504 loans rose in July to $3.4 billion for the fourth consecutive month of besting the FY 2014 lending level, and finished the month more than 2% ahead of the same period in FY 2014, reflecting continued improvement. That volume is about 19 percent behind the program’s YTD mark in FY 2013 at $4.3 billion.

The total number of approved CDC/504 debentures was 4,767 through July, which is about -.50% behind the number of debentures at this point last year.

The CDC/504 program’s average debenture size held steady this month, growing against previous years, with an average debenture at $729,889, which is almost three percent higher than last year’s average and almost eight percent higher than the average in FY 2013.

Total YTD approved SBA program dollars are $23.7 billion through 58,161 loans. The average loan size overall is $408,530, which is slightly higher than FY 2014 and smaller than the year before, given the growth in smaller loans. See total program approval rates here.

Read more results at SBA.

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Unregulated Financial Intermediaries Barter Application Data

By Charles H. Green

The NYTimes reported that thousands of cash-strapped Americans who filled out online loan applications on sites with names like paymeloans.com instead found their financial details had been used to make unauthorized debits or credit card charges, according to an investigation by federal regulators.

The Federal Trade Commission charged two information resale companies with illegally Apply Onlineselling the payday loan applications of more than 500,000 consumers. The third parties that bought the information subsequently “raided” consumers’ bank accounts for at least $7.1 million, regulators said.

While no such accusations or investigations have yet been announced regarding commercial loan lead aggregators, loan brokers, or online lenders, these cases will probably fuel support for advocates looking to crackdown on all parties to financial services, and tighten the regulatory web among all parties that interface with private information for consumers and business owners.

The Fair Credit Reporting Act already restricts how credit and personal information is shared for enabling credit decisions, but is less precise when such information is sold for marketing purposes. Logically there should be no difference, although some critics point to gaps that exist that allow mass data bartering that is conducted with no oversight among non-regulated financial intermediaries.

Much attention has been drawn to banks that sell off uncollected debts, which are purchased by collection agencies who benefit from the entire contents of the bank’s credit file on the subject debt. In those instances, the purchasing party has a direct interest in getting the consumers’s private information, which is usually needed to collect the debt. And, it would be presumed that the selling bank, subject to a myriad of applicable regulations, would contractually restrict how that information could be used by the buyer.

But what happens to non-regulated enties that are provided this kind of information by prospective borrowers? Online marketplace borrower aggregators such as BoeFly, Lendio.com and Biz2Credit gather thousands of credit files and route them to various client banks. It’s easy to assume that responsible bank clients are careful about the data they receive and what happens to it afterward. But what restrictions are there on these companies from reselling their entire database to other non-regulated entities, even those not in the lending business?

My guess is that these kinds of questions are being explored by the federal government as fintech lenders and their innovations are changing the financial landscape in ways not anticipated only a decade ago. As worrisome for regulators is the lax approach of many consumers, who’ve become accustomed to volunteering their personal information over the internet now for a dozen years to trusted brands such as Amazon and other retailers. Many are probably too trusting and offer up their information to unknown parties, making themselves vulnerable to these kind of crimes.

Lest this all sound like strictly a digital problem, recognize that there are plenty of manual data transfers as well that leave consumers and business owners vulnerable. A few months ago we published a story about unethical loan brokers, and the recommendation by some advocates to place their activity under the umbrella of regulation.

The article described a call for regulation by Brayden McCarthy, Head Policy and Strategy at Fundera. While the most prevalent ethical lapse he cited was price gouging borrowers for extraordinary and undisclosed fees, the handling of client’s private data was another concern that he explained needs to be attended. It’s no secret in the trade that many loan brokers engage in the practice of exchanging data after placing loan accounts, often leading to stacking or double parking among several online lenders.

In July, the Treasury Department opened a ‘request for information’ to explore online lending and the many issues that have arisen as fast as the sector itself. Although there are naysayers quickly reacting to this move, I’m guessing that privacy concerns of consumer data will be among the items at the top of the list.

And, I’m guessing that a robust regulatory response will follow, which will be welcomed by the top performing companies in the field not wanting to be dragged down due to consumer fear of the bad guys lurking around the space.

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Court Ruling Raises Threat to Fintech Lenders

By Charles H. Green

As reported by the American Banker, a recent court ruling rejecting an appeal by a Bank of America subsidiary could have negative consequenses for some fintech lenders who issue loans through banks in an effort to not be bound by state usery laws.

The decision involved the sale of charged-off credit-card debt by the BOA subsidiary, and Oops!was issued  by a three-judge appeals panel in New York who found that the bank’s legal authority to charge an interest rate that exceeds state usury caps did not transfer to the debt buyer.

The defendants in the lawsuit petitioned the full appeals court to reconsider the ruling, and were joined by industry trade groups including the American Bankers Association, the Consumer Bankers Association, and the Financial Services Roundtable. In late June, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition. It remains to be seen whether ruling will be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The broad ruling raises questions whether or not fintech lenders can issue loans through banks like WebBank, a $236 million bank based in Utah, which has no caps on interest rates, which are extended to borrowers in other states that may apply usury laws apply. WebBank can do so freely, since their standing as a chartered bank allows them to provide financing anywhere so long as it is consistent with it’s own state laws.

But fintech companies, such as Lending Club, Prosper and PayPal and others have relied on this capacity to fund loans in dozens of states with restrictions, with the full intention of repurchasing the loans afterwards for their own portfolio. This workaround meant that the fintech did not have to register to lend in many states nor comply with many restrictions implied by individual state laws.

According to the American Banker, during an August 4 earnings call, Lending Club’s CEO Renaud Laplanche disclosed that approximately 12.5% of Lending Club’s consumer loan volume would exceed state interest rate limits if the company were forced to obtain state licenses.

Lending Club, a peer-to-peer marketplace lender, serves to connect borrowers seeking to lower borrowing costs to lenders that generally buy into small portions of multiple loans. Their loans are facilitated with the borrower’s opt-in after acknowledging the effective cost of the loan ahead of agreeing to accept it.

The impact on these lenders will possibly be the requirement to register as a lender in the many states they currently lend in for future business, which is expensive and carries the burden of applying individual local limitations for all applicants that originate in the individual states.

This decision could also affect the sale of charged-off debt by banks, the private-label credit card industry and other nonbank lenders such as PayPal, which partners with Comenity Capital Bank on its PayPal Credit product.

Read more at AmericanBanker.com.

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