August 2012 – The Future of Small Business Financing

Posted on August 23, 2012

Everyone loves small business.

At least that’s what the politicians want you to believe.

The reality is different. Small business is under attack from every quarter. Government policies favor large banks and large multinational businesses. Credit is tight and the banks favor the larger borrowers. Increased regulations stifle innovation and protect large incumbents that can afford teams of lawyers and lobbyists.

What’s the little guy to do? Waiting for the politicians to change the system is wishful thinking. Smart business people find ways to prosper in every environment.


And the current environment is not great for small firms. The Federal Reserve Senior Loan Officer survey has recently confirmed what we have suspected for some time: banks have been more generous in easing underwriting requirements for larger companies than they have been for smaller companies. Paynet, which maintains data on 17 million small business loans, reports that lending conditions for small firms have deteriorated in recent months after two years of bounce back from the 2009 bottom.  For additional details go to the full article on Capital Matters.


Financial Market Risk
And there’s a risk that things could get a lot worse for businesses that don’t tie down their financing soon.  We just published an article on Seeking Alpha that has received a great deal of attention with more than 14,400 page views so far. Our thesis is that the Fed’s zero interest rate policy has led to a situation where longer term treasury bonds are trading at yield levels that provide a spread to inflation far below the historical norms. Markets eventually return to their mean and often overshoot it so there is growing risk in the longer term debt market. Our concern is two-fold. First, that individual investors need to be aware of the potential impact of this return to the mean … read the rest

A Swan Blacker Than The Darkest Night

Posted on August 18, 2012

Interest Rates Rise at 2652% Annualized Rate! That’s probably a headline you will not see in the Wall Street Journal and it’s certainly a bit over the top, but those are the facts. From July 18 to August 17, the interest rate on the two-year Treasury jumped from .22% to .29%. That’s a 32% one month increase and works out to an annual jump of 2652% if you compound the increase monthly. Just to be fair the ten-year rate “only” rose from 1.52% to 1.81% or about 19% over the same period. With the magic of compound interest that generates a far more benign 713% annualized rate rise.

If you haven’t already done the math, those growth rates would take you to a 43.8% annual interest rate on the two year a year from now and a 12.9% interest rate on the ten year at that point. Of course that is not going to happen. Most likely we’ve just seen a random fluctuation in an overbought market. The Fed has promised to keep interest rates low for an extended period after all.

We’ve been saying for some time that the seeds have been planted for a move into a period of stagflation comparable to what we saw from the mid-1960’s and the 1970’s. That move, which transformed the benign inflation of the 1950’s to a raging inferno by the end of the period, eventually took Treasury rates for the 10 year to unheard of levels of 15% by the end of the 1970’s. This resulted in a collapse of the bond market and the eventual failure of entire savings and loan industry in the United States in the 1980s.

The United States and most of the developed world have benefited tremendously over the past 30 years from a steady drop in long-term bond rates.… read the rest

Financial Innovation Aids Small Business Borrowers

Posted on August 15, 2012

The most recent Federal Reserve Senior Loan Officers Survey conducted at 64 large banks confirms what we have suspected. After a long period of tightening, loan standards have stabilized and for larger borrowers they have loosened slightly. The survey provides less hope for smaller borrowers, shown in red on the chart below.

(Click on Image to enlarge)

This confirms data we published previously showing that small business lending has entered into a choppy period in 2012 after seeing moderate improvement from the 2009 lows during 2010 and 2011. Things are only likely to get worse for smaller borrowers as their natural allies, the community banks, struggle with maturing underwater CRE (commercial real estate) loans, continued pressure from their regulators and rapid industry consolidation.

FDIC data shows that bank credit availability is likely deteriorating for many cash starved small businesses. From December 31, 2010 to March 31, 2012, C&I (commercial and industrial) loans at banks over $1 Billion, i.e. those that focus on lending to large multinationals and mid-sized domestic firms, grew approximately 20% from $1 Trillion to $1.2 Trillion. For banks under $1 Billion, i.e. those most focused on small business lending, C&I  loans actually dropped 6% during the period from $110 Billion to $103.5 Billion.

We increasingly see smaller firms struggle to obtain funding if they do not have adequate hard collateral (equipment, inventory or receivables) or if the owners don’t have personal assets to pledge to support the loans. If you are a small business with a capital need to support a growing business, you’re asking “what options do I have?” Recently some innovative non-bank financial services firms have stepped into the breach and are beginning to offer new forms of small business finance based not on specific collateral, balance sheets or income statements, but on a company’s proven ability to generate … read the rest

The JOBS Act and the Future of Commercial Banking

Posted on June 12, 2012

America needs jobs!   That’s a point where there is universal agreement among the political parties.  So much so that Congress overwhelmingly passed the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act; 390 to 23 in the House and 73 to 26 in the Senate.  My suspicion is the most of those voting for the Act had little idea of how far-reaching the effects of the JOBS Act might be.

The JOBS Act may represent the most radical change in how securities can be privately sold and business capital can be raised from private investors since the securities laws were passed in the 1930s.  Under the JOBS Act most of the restrictions with regard to solicitation that have impeded the growth of a vibrant private placement capital market among accredited investors (i.e. those with liquid net worth over $1 million or incomes over $200,000) have now been removed.

The devil is always in the details and SEC regulations promulgated under the Act could potentially curtail some of its impact.  As written, the JOBS Act has the potential to democratize the financing of business growth in a very dramatic and potentially unintended manner.  By removing many, if not most, of the restrictions on accredited investors seeking to invest in small companies, the JOBS Act provides a basis for many innovative new vehicles for small business financing to blossom.

While most of the commentary around the JOBS Act focuses on funding of startups, the real financing need is to support the expansion of the rapidly growing mid-sized companies that, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, provide the engine for new jobs in America.  These companies typically have progressed past the startup stage.  They may have 20-50 employees and several million dollars of revenue, with the potential to grow to hundreds if not thousands of employees as … read the rest

January Video Newsletter

Posted on January 26, 2012

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Preparing for an Asset-Based Financing

Posted on November 20, 2011

Many businesses have recently faced a new reality when they are abandoned by their traditional commercial banks and are forced to search for non-traditional sources of capital. Commercial banks have tightened their credit standards dramatically over the last several years or have abandoned commercial lending entirely. For many middle market distributors, manufacturers and service firms, asset-based lending (“ABL”) may be the best alternative.   Such firms typically have plentiful working capital assets that have historically not been leveraged to their full potential.

The basic concepts of an asset based financing are simple.  Rather than rely on balance sheet ratios or the earning power of the business, the lender can advance funding based upon the expected net liquidation value of the available collateral, typically inventory and receivables.  In theory asset based lenders (sometimes call “hard money lenders”)  can provide funding to even the most troubled borrowers.  In fact debtor in possessions (“DIP”) loans in Chapter XI bankruptcy have been a stock in trade for a number of such lenders.

The reality of ABL financing turns out to be more complex.  Most ABLs do care about the financial condition of their borrowers and will expect to see historical cash flow performance that supports loan payment plus a comfortable cushion. The resulting financial package will often include a variety of constraints, many of which the borrower may not be aware of until the closing table:

  • Restrictions on advances, dividends, and other related party transactions
  • Restrictions on capital expenditures and leases
  • Strictly constructed personal guarantees (including spousal)
  • Tight financial covenants
  • Requirements to maintain excess liquidity or deposits
  • Reserves for technical collateral protection issues (landlord payments, payroll taxes, lender-perceived weaknesses in working capital collateral, etc.)
  • Prohibitions on disposition of assets
  • Prohibitions from entering alternative financial arrangements and acquisitions
  • Surrender of cash management to the lender

Planning for the Transaction

It … read the rest

Gear Up for the Refinancing Wall

Posted on November 14, 2011

Remember the fall of 2009? We had just survived the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the stock market was enjoying the early stages of a very powerful bear market rally. We could all breathe a great sigh of relief. Of course a few party poopers were still around to remind us in articles like this one published by the Wharton School that a mountain of debt built up during the bubble years of 2006 and 2007 would need to be refinanced by the middle of the next decade. This debt, measured in the trillions of dollars, encompassed both commercial loans–many generated to support highly leveraged buyout financings–and commercial real estate funding.
Chart: Distribution of leverage loan maturities, 2010-2018
Source: Ancala.com

No need to worry, 2012 was a long way in the future. Well that future is now and Wall Street is again teetering on the brink of panic. Many firms that survived the crash have seen their profits–if not their revenues–return to past highs. Large profitable corporations have successfully refinanced much of their debt with very low cost long term bonds. For much of 2010 and the first half of 2011, strong high yield and leveraged loan markets enabled even middle market firms to stabilize their debt with relatively low cost funding as well. So the question is, “Have we dodged the bullet?”

Unfortunately, two recent reports answer the question with a resounding NO. The Financial Times, in an article entitled “Door Slams Shut for Corporate Have-Nots,” describes a two tier world in which a few very strong companies like Apple Inc. have taken advantage of the recovery to build up tremendous hordes of cash. On the other hand, weaker firms remain overleveraged and at extreme risk in the event of another financial crisis or a material rise in interest rates.

To accentuate the depth of … read the rest

Interview with Peter Lehrman – CEO of AxialMarket

Posted on February 4, 2011

When I first started in the M&A business there were a few hundred private equity firms in the U. S. and virtually none overseas.  Getting to know them was relatively easy.  Today there are literally thousands of PE firms in the U. S., hundreds, if not thousands  in Europe, and a rapidly growing complement of Asian and middle eastern PE firms focused on the emerging market countries. Picking the perfect candidate to acquire or invest in any particular lower middle market company has become an overwhelming challenge for intermediaries focused on a good ‘ole boy Rolodex approach to the M&A business.

AxialMarket (www.axialmarket.com) was created to fill that gap.  Axial provides an online marketplace populated by more than 1500 intermediary firms and thousands of PE firms, strategic buyers, family offices, venture capitalists and other qualified private market participants who use Axial’s controlled, trusted marketplace to confidentially source and manage a pipeline of transaction opportunities across the private markets.  Pre-qualified intermediaries have the opportunity to post blind listings of companies for sale or needing financing or recapitalization.  On the buyside PE firms as well as strategic buyers pay monthly subscription fees to have access to thousands of qualified listings.  Axial uses its sophisticated SaaS database to pre-select those buyside firms most likely to be interested in a particular deal.  These firms are then presented to the intermediary for consideration and only approved buyers are permitted to see the deal summaries.  The bottom line is that deals are getting down; more than three thousand business sales, including companies with revenues from $1 million to $400 million have been completed utilizing Axial listings since its inception.

Today we are pleased to have with us Peter Lehrman, the driving force behind AxialMarket.  Highlights of Peter’s interview (4 1/2 minutes) as well as the full interview (about 30 … read the rest

Commercial Lending – Schizophrenia Reigns Supreme

Posted on June 26, 2009

senior-loan-officers-survey

Many companies remain under pressure from their lenders, but we have seen recent signs that selected lenders are becoming more aggressive in offering new loans to credit-worthy borrowers.  We are quite active in helping companies find senior debt to replace existing lenders and are getting good response from selected lenders, primarily banks that were less impacted by the financial crisis and independent asset based lenders.  In prior years there was little or no need for an investment banker’s assistance in arranging senior facilities, as multiple lenders (both banks and non-banks) aggressively chased all but the worst of credits.  That is no longer the case; today senior deals take a lot of work and persistence, but they can be done.

To summarize the current situation:

•    At the higher end, the loan syndication market remains catatonic with no signs of near term recovery.  This both reflects and creates the almost complete collapse of the Private Equity acquisition market for the larger deals north of $100 million.  Most syndication activity that does occur relates to restructuring of existing credits.

leveraged-loan-maturities
Source: Churchill Financial and Standard and Poors

As the chart above demonstrates, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in leveraged loan maturities.  The peak years for refinancing/renegotiation of the loans created in the buyout boom are 2013-2014, but we are already seeing a strong increase in the number of buyout bankruptcies.  This five year overhang in potentially troubled leveraged loans, means that we are a long way from cleanup of the problems created by excessively liberal lending practices during the buyout bubble.  This indicates that we are unlikely to see another debt fueled boom in the buyout industry before we are well into the 2010’s.  The chart below provides a dramatic demonstration of the extent of the decline in syndicated loan volume, with very little … read the rest

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Secondary Loan Markets On a Tear – Is M&A Rebirth Far Behind?

Posted on April 23, 2009

Since the collapse of the syndicated loan markets in August 2007, the private equity M&A market has gone from red hot to stone cold at the high end and luke warm in the middle market. The primary cause of this collapse is not lack of equity; at the beginning of the year PE firms had close to $200 Billion of dry powder. The issue holding back the M&A market worldwide has been the lack of leverage for new deals.

The M&A bubble of 2005-2007 was driven in great part by an explosion of new funding sources that entered the leveraged lending market, leading to an unprecedented narrowing of lending spreads. At the peak, leveraged loans were being written at spreads as much as 300 basis points narrower than historical norms. Funding sources included hedge funds, special purpose entities created by the banks, collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), institutional investors and various international purchasers.

From the market crack in August 2007 through August 2008, this market traded at a discount of up to 10% of principal, reflecting a partial return to normality in terms of risk based loan spreads. During this period it became increasingly difficult for lenders to syndicate new deals. In September 2008, coinciding with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, this market went into freefall with a basket of the largest leveraged loans trading below 65% of principal by late 2008. The market for new syndications, particularly the multibillion dollar deals that had been so prevalent, ground to a virtual halt.

leveraged-loans

Source Churchill Financial – On the Left; S&P LCD Index

At the beginning of this year, the leveraged loan market priced in not only a correction of the previous mispricing of risk, but the assumption that battle horns were blowing in the Valley of Armageddon. After rising from 63.5 to 80.6 in … read the rest

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