Vegan Bakery Owners Find Merchant Cash Loans Can Be anything but sweet

By Ben Wieder McClatchy Washington Bureau

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Be careful what you borrow! As columnist Ben Wieder reports, merchant cash advance providers don't have to ensure that small businesses can afford to repay the funds borrowed. And for some entrepreneurs, that lax regulation may come at a steep cost.


The good news for Miami entrepreneurs Mariana Cortez and husband Sebastian Ghiragossian was that Whole Foods wanted to sell their popular vegan cupcakes in local stores, a highly-sought measure of success for any small-scale food producer.

Then an electrical problem threw a needed expansion of their Bunnie Cakes bakery six months behind schedule and wrecked the project's budget. The couple turned to two online companies that promised them all the cash they needed in a matter of days.

That speed came at a cost. They received $133,000 and were on the hook for paying back a total of $193,000, roughly one-and-a-half times what they had taken out.

And the companies providing the funding, Can Capital and Yellowstone Capital, were given direct access to Bunnie Cakes' bank account; they sucked out a portion of the bakery's receipts each day until the full amount was repaid, in a matter of months, not years.

Yellowstone and Can are among the most prominent providers of online loans and so-called merchant cash advances that are increasingly popular with small businesses.

Unfortunately, a growing number of small business owners who have turned to these largely unregulated suppliers of capital have also filed for bankruptcy in the past five years, particularly in Florida.

Call them payday loans for your corner grocer.

"These things have the same functional problems as payday loans, except they're worse," said Mike Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer advocacy group. "There's very manipulative pricing."

Why sign up for this costly type of financing? For one thing, despite the old bromide that small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy, many of those who run or are trying to start such an effort find it exceedingly difficult to get a traditional bank loan.

Community and regional banks approved just under 50 percent of their small business loan applications, while the rate was a much lower 25 percent at big banks, according to an April survey by online lending marketplace Biz2Credit.

Those aren't great odds, and leave a lot of small businesses, over four hundred thousand of which are started each year, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, looking elsewhere for financing.

Enter merchant cash advances and other online options.

The contracts typically carry the equivalent of what most would consider a hefty interest rate.

The effective annual rate on Bunnie Cakes' biggest contract was roughly 60 percent, an amount that would be considered usurious for similar consumer products in 38 states and Washington D.C., according to the National Consumer Law Center. And experts say it's not uncommon to see rates for these products that reach into the triple digits.

For Bunnie Cakes, the high costs and daily withdrawals associated with their agreements made it hard to stay afloat.

"That almost put us into bankruptcy," Ghiragossian said. "It was horrible."

Sleepless nights Individuals who take out payday loans are getting no bargain. But at least those loans are regulated by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and most states. Five states and Washington D.C. outright ban them, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

Small business financing attracts far less scrutiny.

"Small business borrowers are not afforded protections that consumer borrowers rely on," said Karen Mills, the former head of the Small Business Administration and a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School.

Merchant cash advance providers, in particular, slip through the regulatory framework, which has led industry observers to label this kind of financing the "Wild, Wild West."

"And many of them do prove to be bad actors," Mills said.

Little attention has been paid at the federal level. But California, where the state Senate passed a bill last week to ensure uniform disclosure of the costs of these less conventional offerings, could be on its way to being the first state in the nation to impose rules on the providers.

The high cost of the quick capital infusions can prove to be a death knell for small businesses already struggling to pay their bills.

"There were nights when we couldn't even sleep," Ghiragossian said. "I remember that and it gives me chills."

Business owners watching payments disappearing from their accounts often wind up in a ditch. A McClatchy analysis found more than 700 personal and business bankruptcies in the past 10 years associated with major merchant cash advance companies, as identified by industry trade publication deBanked.

And that tally may undercount how many businesses actually have gone under. Because merchant cash advances aren't technically loans, their providers don't necessarily appear as creditors in a bankruptcy filing. And many smaller businesses don't even go through the trouble of filing for bankruptcy if they fail.

"It will just be a sale and the proceeds will be distributed to creditors informally," said Craig Goldblatt, a D.C.-based bankruptcy lawyer at WilmerHale.

The number of bankruptcies has increased each year and there were nearly four times as many in 2017, 193, as five years earlier.

One feature that likely contributes to the failures: Merchant cash advance providers and other nonbank lenders don't have to ensure that small business borrowers can afford to repay the funds. That sets these instruments apart from most other types financing, including home mortgages.

Experts say some of the blame rests with the borrowers themselves.

"There are small businesses looking for credit who probably shouldn't be given credit," Mills said.

But when a customer does run aground, these cash providers often are out less than other lenders, because they are repaid directly from the daily receipts of the business, even in its final days.

No state has seen more small businesses fail in connection with this kind of financing, even adjusted for population, than Florida, which accounted for nearly one in five of the bankruptcies reviewed by McClatchy. The Sunshine State saw nearly 40 associated with merchant cash advance companies in 2017 alone.

Miguel Pena's Miami home health care company closed in 2015, but he continued to be pursued by the merchant cash companies and online lenders whose high fees had been part of what drove him out of his business. He was forced to file for bankruptcy both personally and on behalf of the company in 2016.

"It was the worst experience in my life," he said.

Credit gaps Some entrepreneurs have appreciated the cash these companies provide.

Ainsley and Johnny Tsokos don't regret the cash advances they took out to pay for unexpected costs as they transformed a former beauty salon into Cream Parlor, their ice cream shop and cafe in Miami's Upper Eastside neighborhood.

"The value is that you can make your dreams come true," Johnny Tsokos said. "I would not be here talking to you if we had not had those opportunities."

Industry experts say that the popularity of these products that provide financing in exchange for a percentage of sales, as well as other nonbank alternatives, took off around a decade ago, when the recession brought a decline in small business lending from traditional banks.

"Even now, bank lending hasn't fully recovered," said Ann Marie Wiersch, a senior policy analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

She co-authored a 2013 report that pointed to tighter lending standards, decreased borrower demand and long-term consolidation in the banking industry as some of the factors creating a tight market for bank loans to small businesses.

Mills has done research that shows that small businesses have an especially hard time getting traditional loans under $250,000, which come with many of the same costs for banks as larger loans, but less potential for profit.

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