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What’s filling the gap in small business lending?

Since the financial crisis, small business owners have had greater challenges getting loans. Traditional banks rarely lend those small amounts, and the community banks that typically serviced those loans have shrunk significantly.

That lending gap has been a boon for a rapidly growing financial product called a merchant cash advance. Business owners can quickly get the money they need, but it can come at a very high price.

Edgar Jones explained that many in his position don’t have other options. Jones asked to change his name for the story. He owns a company that cleans commercial sites. With less than 15 employees, the company makes about $500,000 in revenue each year. After booking a big job to do post-construction clean-up, Jones needed fast cash to buy more equipment. But the bank wouldn’t approve the small loan he was looking for. So he turned to a merchant cash advance, or MCA.

“At that time, you be so vulnerable you take it because you really need the money at that time. After that, that’s when things either go uphill or downhill,” Jones said.

The MCA company deposited the money in Jones’ account and began collecting on that debt the next day.

“When the checks don’t come on time, then they hit your account and then your account is in the negative,” Jones said.

So when the repayment period was up, Jones said his bank account was still being drained. In order to pay off his most recent advance, he had to take on side jobs.

Jones’ credit score wasn’t much of a factor in getting approval for the merchant cash advance. What mattered most was his daily cash flow.

Here’s how it works. The MCA firm will deposit a lump sum into the business’ account, and then repayment can happen one of two ways. The MCA firm could collect by taking a cut of the business’ daily credit card sales. If there’s no credit card sale that day, there’s no collection.

With the other repayment plan, the MCA firm takes a daily withdrawal from the business’ account. If there’s no sale that day, the MCA firm still debit the account. The repayment period is usually a short amount of time, like 90 days.

Sean Murray with the Daily Funder, a merchant cash advance forum, said it’s the business owners’ responsibility to comb over the fine print. He hasn’t heard of bad actors in the industry, but said he’d be disappointed if the contract wasn’t fully explained.

“At the end of the day, if they don’t get back their money. It hurts them, too,” Murray said.

Merchant cash advances first came on the scene in the late 90s, but really took off after the financial crisis. Murray expects this industry to be worth about $5 billion for 2014. That’s small compared to the personal lending industry, but it’s big growth from the millions MCAs earned before the financial crisis.

Murray said the interest rate on an APR basis does seem high, upwards of 80 percent.

“But what’s important to note when we’re talking about costs that are high like that—these loans sound really, really high–is that these loans advertise daily. And so the actual cost of the money might only be 20 percent. Let’s say I give you $10,000 and the cost is $2,000, so that’s 20 percent,” Murray explained.

The MCA might be referred to as a loan, but it isn’t the traditional personal loan with which most are familiar. It escapes the scrutiny of regulation.

“Merchant cash advances are business-to-business transactions. They don’t involve consumers. The consumer protections that exist elsewhere in the market don’t really apply to businesses. It doesn’t mean there are no laws, and it’s a free for all. But the laws are generally pretty lax,” Murray said.

There’s not really a central office these companies report to. It’s not something that state lawmakers are keeping an eye on either.

Murray said people can certainly file any complaints with the Federal Trade Commission. He said the general industry consensus is that self-policing is the best option.

“Regulators come in and have a tendency to see part of the picture. It makes things more difficult for everyone else in the long run. It ends up hurting the customers they’re trying to protect rather than helping them,” Murray said.

Kevin Daleiden is the owner of Flange Advantage in Waukegan. He and two other men sell nuts and bolts out of a warehouse. Daleiden’s taken out at least seven merchant cash advances. He said he’s planned carefully for each one, but has still been caught off guard by fees he didn’t notice in the contract terms.

“One of the hardest things to get out of people at the very front is give me the payoff information. Give me the way I pay this back to you. There’s not a one of them out there that will tell you the facts upfront. And they won’t put it in writing until you’re signing the documents,” Daleiden said.

He said he’s constantly getting calls, emails and letters from MCA firms trying to get him to sign a deal.

“I don’t know how they get my name, but there’s hundreds of these companies out there and I think they call me everyday. I’ve had one gentleman that yelled at me, says ‘you need to give me all your business.’ I said ‘I’ll give my business to who I feel comfortable with,’ and he actually yelled at me on the phone,” he said.

Daleiden is trying to move away from MCAs and toward microloans. He’s now working with the Chicago non-profit Accion for his latest deal.

Microloans are what they sound like, smaller loans to small businesses distributed by a qualified non-profit. Accion services amounts $100,000 and less.

CEO Jonathan Brereton said it’s a better loan option with less than 5 percent defaulting, but MCA firms can distribute the money faster. Brereton admits meeting the demand is a big challenge.

“We think the market has a need and supply, there’s still an enormous gap. So we think we’re only serving about 15 percent of the market demand in Chicago,” he said.

Brereton said this past year has exploded with clients like Edgar Jones and Kevin Daleiden trying to get out from under merchant cash advances. He’s even seen people layering them.

“So they take one, cash flow gets tight. They take another. We’ve seen people take five or six loans from different lenders. All in the 100-190 percent interest range. But no where on any of the agreements does it specify the actual interest rate,” Brereton said.

The gap in small business lending left behind by the financial crisis allowed merchant cash advances to thrive. The product has helped some businesses increase their revenue when they otherwise wouldn’t have.

But Kevin Daleiden said it’s also the reason why some businesses have failed.

“My merchant advances have made them more money than I’ve taken home this year, and I’m doing the work. But I did that knowing it would be expensive. I had a goal,” Daleiden said. “If you don’t’ have a long term goal, a way in and a way out, the merchant advances will kill you.”

Susie An is the business reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @soosieon.


A quick guide to credit card cash advances: No! Don't!

In an emergency, when you have no other options to get the cash you need, then maybe — maybe — taking a cash advance from your credit card makes sense.

That’s the consensus of credit counselors and consumer advocates, who say that withdrawing cash from your credit card is usually an unwise idea because of the high fees and interest rates. A November 2013 survey by of 100 top cards found that the median annual interest rate for cash advances is about 24 percent, or about 6 points higher than the interest rate on purchases.

“It’s a bad way to get cash,” says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities with Consumer Action, a consumer advocacy group. “All in all, we don’t really see a lot of reason for it.”

Still, most consumer groups advocate becoming informed about how cash advances work, rather than seeking to outlaw them.

The overwhelming majority of cardholders have little use for cash advances. According to an October 2013 report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, just 3.1 percent of active credit card accounts took cash advances in a three-month period at the end of 2012.

There are times when a cash advance can make sense: When you have no other option to pay for something you need, and that merchant does not accept credit cards for purchases.

We can all probably envision rare but plausible scenarios: Maybe your wife goes into labor and needs you to meet her at the hospital, but your car has broken down, you’re out of cash and the taxi you hailed doesn’t take credit cards but is willing to swing you by a bank (although the one with your money is on the other side of town).

Aside from emergencies, though, many people use cash advances in ways they shouldn’t.

For instance, casinos are becoming more sophisticated in the ways they accept credit cards for cash advances, including, in some cases, enabling gamblers to swipe cards directly on slot machines. Gambling with money you don’t have is a warning sign of a gambling addiction, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

“Many more folks are using credit cards,” he says. “The easier and quicker you can access these various accounts on the gaming floor, there is risk there.”

David Jones, president of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, says credit counselors often see people who use cash advances to obtain cash for their daily needs, such as giving cash to their kids to buy something at school. A lot of people use credit card cash advances as a form of payday loan, withdrawing a few hundred dollars to make ends meet until they receive their paycheck.

“We try to tell our clients not to use those cash advances; however, many of them do,” he says. “They get to be a habit.”

Jones offers the following advice on cash advances:

Use them only in true emergencies. For instance, Jones had one client who took a cash advance to pay a speeding ticket in a town that did not accept credit cards. “That seems to make a little bit of sense,” he says. Make sure you actually need cash. If you can charge an item on a credit card instead of using cash from a cash advance, your interest rates will probably be lower. Repay cash advances as soon as possible. Unlike using a credit card for purchases, withdrawing cash begins accruing interest immediately. There’s no grace period. Try to pay it off before your next statement arrives. Read the fine print. Understand the interest rate and fees associated with taking a cash advance. The survey found that fees are typically 3 percent to 5 percent of the amount withdrawn, with a usual minimum of $10. Also, be aware that the “convenience checks” that come in your credit card statement usually count as cash advances. Know your withdrawal limits, which are often lower than your usual limit for purchases. Should you withdraw too much, you’ll be hit with yet another fee. Consider alternatives. Instead of taking a cash advance, can you sell some items you own to raise cash, such as unused furniture? Can you hold a yard sale? Take a part-time job? Borrow money from a family member? Do some yard work for a neighbor? But don’t dip into your 401(k) retirement account and don’t go to a payday lender, whose rates are likely to be worse than those on a cash advance.

One of the best things people can do to avoid taking a cash advance is to plan — have emergency reserves, and make sure to live within their means.

“People need to be careful how they manage their money,” Jones says. “It makes a big difference.”

A quick guide to credit card cash advances: No! Don’t!How to use the grace period to avoid paying interest5 things people fail to budget forLoansFinancecredit card […]

ResCap Seeks Further Use of Cash Secured by its Loans

Residential Capital LLC wants to keep using the cash securing the claims of parent Ally Financial Inc. and bondholders, which ResCap says is necessary to complete the “great deal of work” that remains in its bankruptcy case.

In a Monday filing with U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan, ResCap asked Judge Martin Glenn if it could continue using that cash as it works toward resolving the issues in its Chapter 11 and filing a plan of reorganization. The judge has already approved ResCap’s prior requests to use the cash, which is secured by loans. ResCap said it wants to use the cash to maintain certain loan portfolios, as well as to sell those loans.

“Any use of Cash Collateral will be used solely to protect their collateral from a diminution in value,” ResCap said of the Ally lenders and other bondholders. As has been the case throughout its Chapter 11, ResCap would use the cash in accordance with a strict budget provided to creditors.

A group of junior secured noteholders, owed about $2.1 billion as of ResCap’s May 2012 bankruptcy filing, have balked at ResCap’s use of the cash, specifically about how expenses should be allocated. The company said it’s negotiating with those noteholders so it can at least temporarily use the cash until April 30, when a hearing is scheduled, but may have to have an emergency hearing on April 18–the current deadline for use of the money–if a compromise isn’t reached.

The negotiations over the cash started after Ally’s sale of its mortgage services platform earlier this year. ResCap said that if it’s unable to get creditors to agree to use of the cash, it will have to return collateral to the lenders, who would then be responsible for selling it off.

ResCap filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last May as bond payments loomed and litigation over soured mortgage securities mounted. The move was intended to help the company’s parent–Ally, the former in-house financing arm for General Motors Co. (GM)–eliminate its exposure to the mortgage business so it can focus on its core motor-vehicle-lending operations and repaying its government bailout.

Ally, which is not part of the bankruptcy, is nearly three-quarters owned by the U.S. government after receiving $17.2 billion during the financial crisis. The company last year struck several deals to sell international operations that could generate $9.2 billion in proceeds, which it would use to repay its bailout.

ResCap has generated billions by selling a portfolio of loans as well as the mortgage servicing platform, but the case has hit a hitch over settlement negotiations between Ally and creditors. When the case began last spring, Ally had proposed to pay $750 million to ResCap’s estate as long as it was released from liabilities. Creditors have balked at that number, throwing the case into uncertainty.

Judge Glenn last month gave ResCap 60 more days to file a restructuring plan without having to worry about rival proposals.

Adding to the uncertainty is an upcoming report from an independent examiner, former U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Arthur Gonzalez, who will weigh in on Ally’s pre- and post-bankruptcy dealings with ResCap. Creditors looking to hold Ally accountable for money they think they’re owed could use any negative findings by Judge Gonzalez as fuel for their lawsuits.

(Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review covers news about distressed companies and those under bankruptcy protection. Go to

Write to Joseph Checkler at

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Congress Considers Bill to Allow Payday Loan Companies to …

Image 52394-payday-loan_edited-300x212.jpg

While the candidates debate who will regulate Wall Street, there is a more sinister practice affecting the poor and working class that may well be given carte blanche if a bill pending in Congress is approved.

Attorneys general for 49 states have signed a letter to Congress objecting to H.R. 6139, which they say would harm many state consumer protection laws, including regulations of so-called payday loans, which have a disproportionate impact in poor and black communities.

The proposal, the AGs said in the Oct. 5 letter, “would eliminate crucial consumer protections in many states and curtail our authority to enforce state laws governing the conduct of financial services companies operating within our borders.”

The AGs said they want to “preserve states’ authority to regulate nonbank lenders and protect consumers from abuses in the high-cost, short-term loan marketplace.”

The letter follows a warning two months ago from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which also told Congress the bill was a bad idea.

Some states have tried to eliminate, or at least cap, the interest on payday loans, which often trap customers into long-term debt that can result in bigger banking problems, including credit card debt, checking account overdrafts, closed bank accounts and even bankruptcy, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer advocacy group.

A report by the Pew Charitable Trusts revealed African Americans use payday loans with more frequency, even though most payday loan customers are white. Further, studies have shown that payday stores tend to be found more often in minority communities and in states with large black populations.

In North Carolina, the state’s general assembly made payday lending illegal in 2001 and the attorney general forced out remaining payday lenders in 2006 after discovering they had been partnering with out-of-state banks to keep operating there.

Despite those efforts, according to the Center’s website, Regions Bank is making debt-trap payday loans at a minimum annual interest rate of 300 percent throughout the state and marketing the service directly to its checking account customers.

In a previous interview about banking fees levied against consumers, Kathleen Day, a spokesman for the Center, cited an example of a case in another state in which a bank levied so many overdraft fees against a customer’s account that it drained her assets. The bank then offered her a high-interest payday loan as a “bridge” until she could pay off the overages.

“The recent settlement agreement signed by 49 state Attorneys General and the five largest mortgage loan servicers exemplifies the importance of our engagement in matters affecting the consumers we serve,” the latest letter to Congress read.

“Although H.R. 6139 does allow our offices to engage in enforcement actions should we find violations of federal law, the bill prohibits us from enforcing state laws that were carefully designed to address problems in the local marketplace and significantly impairs our ability to respond in a targeted fashion to new abuses as they emerge. “

Basically, H.R. 6139 is an end-run around the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), a watchdog agency designed to rein in abusive financial practices that primarily affect the less affluent.

The bill allows nonbank lenders to bypass the CFPB and state legislation to allow these firms to offer the high-cost loans nationwide and under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), essentially eliminating oversight.

The proposed legislation also would allow a double standard to existing in lending law.

Congress passed the Military Lending Act of 2007 in 2006, after the Defense Department discovered predatory lending practices targeted military members and their families, with interest rates that ran as high as 800 percent. The new law covered payday, car title and tax refund anticipation loans and capped interest rates at 36 percent.

H.R. 6139 would exclude military personnel and their families, but civilians would have no similar protection.

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”


Lehman Brothers Boosts Its Cash Estimate to $40.5 Billion

Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. expects to have $40.5 billion in cash on its books in the coming years, a $6 billion increase from an earlier estimate, buoyed by gains from litigation and its real-estate holdings and derivatives positions, along with recoveries from settlements with foreign affiliates.

In a filing Wednesday night in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York, Lehman said it is boosting its cash estimate based on including $1.1 billion it collected last year in settlements with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM) and Bank of America Corp. (BAC).

Another chunk of cash, some $2.4 billion, is expected to come from gains in Lehman’s real-estate holdings and derivative positions. Those gains, however, will be partially offset by losses on Lehman’s corporate and residential loan portfolio and private equity holdings.

Lehman’s last estimate of how much cash it would eventually have in its coffers dates back to last August. The failed investment bank said it is updating that estimate based on recoveries from a number of legal settlement and intercompany claims.

The biggest portion of new cash expected to flow into Lehman’s coffers will come from settlements with the failed investment bank’s “non-controlled” foreign affiliates. Lehman increased its estimate by $3.5 billion to $7.6 billion, from $4.2 billion a year ago.

Lehman’s September 2008 Chapter 11 filing triggered foreign bankruptcy proceedings for more than 80 of the bank’s far-flung affiliates. The holding company has reached settlements on intercompany claims with virtually all of its foreign affiliates, including those in the U.K., Japan and Hong Kong.

But the bank has yet to reach a deal with several holdouts, among them the administrators winding down its former Switzerland-based derivatives unit and its Australian subsidiary.

Lehman’s holding company also has yet to reach a final deal on intercompany claims with the trustee winding down its former U.S. brokerage unit. However, the two sides have an agreement “in principle,” according to court papers.

Lehman Brothers officially emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March and began paying back creditors the following month. Although Lehman is out of bankruptcy protection, its case is far from over and will likely continue for years as a bankruptcy team liquidates Lehman’s assets.

Exactly when that end will be is unknown given Lehman’s ongoing litigation with former affiliates and derivative counterparties. Lehman said it is increasing its estimate of net cash through its “estimated end of activities.”

Lehman, once the nation’s fourth-largest investment bank, collapsed in the largest bankruptcy in history. Since then, a team of bankruptcy professionals under the direction of Alvarez & Marsal Inc. has managed Lehman’s assets. Lehman says it expects to pay those employees some $751 million in compensation and benefits from 2012 through sometime beyond 2015. It expects to pay out another $767 million in professional fees for the same time period.

In April, Lehman made its initial distribution to creditors, paying out $22.5 billion. The next wave of distributions in the company’s roughly $65 billion creditor-payback plan is set for later this year.

(Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review covers news about distressed companies and those under bankruptcy protection. Go to

Write to Patrick Fitzgerald at Follow him on Twitter @WSJBankruptcy

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Cleveland-based Check Into Cash firm buys British chain


Allen Jones, CEO of Check Into Cash

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Check Into Cash, the Cleveland, Tenn.-based payday loan business, has made its first foreign acquisition and bought a 16-store financial services chain in the United Kingdom.

“It’s a very good set of stores,” said Steve Scoggins, Check Into Cash president, about Cash and Cheque Express.

Scoggins said Check Into Cash, founded by Cleveland businessman Allan Jones, will continue to look at acquisitions in other countries as there’s high demand for its services.

“We’ll continue to look at further opportunities globally,” Scoggins said.

Check Into Cash spokesman Toby Pendergrass said the acquisition price wasn’t disclosed.

Founded in 1993, Check Into Cash operates more than 1,000 branch locations in 30 states.

But Scoggins said the U.S. regulatory environment is unpredictable, especially in relation to taxes and health care.

“We’ve done quite a bit of expansion in the U.S. We’re just wanting to be diversified with all the new regulations,” he said.

The U.K. operation employs about 55 people, Scoggins said. In addition to financial services and products, the stores offer new and second-hand inventory such as TVs, computers and cell phones.

“That’s part of what they do over there,” Scoggins said. “We’re excited to be over there.”

He said plans are to keep the same management team in place and put resources behind the U.K. business and try to grow it.

“Cash and Cheque Express has a rock-solid reputation in the communities they serve,” Scoggins said in a statement.

Check Into Cash offers a full suite of financial service products, including installment loans, title secured loans, short-term micro-lending, Western Union money orders and wire transfers, check cashing and bill payment in select locations.