Commercial Financing – The Benefits of Off-Balance-Sheet Financing

There are two different categories of commercial financing from an accounting perspective: on-balance-sheet financing and off-balance-sheet financing. Understanding the difference can be critical to obtaining the right type of commercial financing for your company.

Put simply, on-balance-sheet financing is commercial financing in which capital expenditures appear as a liability on a company’s balance sheet. Commercial loans are the most common example: Typically, a company will leverage an asset (such as accounts receivable) in order to borrow money from a bank, thus creating a liability (i.e., the outstanding loan) that must be reported as such on the balance sheet.

With off-balance-sheet financing, however, liabilities do not have to be reported because no debt or equity is created. The most common form of off-balance-sheet financing is an operating lease, in which the company makes a small down payment upfront and then monthly lease payments. When the lease term is up, the company can usually buy the asset for a minimal amount (often just one dollar).

The key difference is that with an operating lease, the asset stays on the lessor’s balance sheet. The lessee only reports the expense associated with the use of the asset (i.e., the rental payments), not the cost of the asset itself.

Why Does It Matter?

This might sound like technical accounting-speak that only a CPA could appreciate. In the continuing tight credit environment, however, off-balance-sheet financing can offer significant benefits to any size company, from large multi-nationals to mom-and-pops.

These benefits arise from the fact that off-balance-sheet financing creates liquidity for a business while avoiding leverage, thus improving the overall financial picture of the company. This can help companies keep their debt-to-equity ratio low: If a company is already leveraged, additional debt might trip a covenant to an existing loan.

The trade-off is that off-balance-sheet financing is usually more expensive than traditional on-balance-sheet loans. Business owners should work closely with their CPAs to determine whether the benefits of off-balance-sheet financing outweigh the costs in their specific situation.

Other Types of Off-Balance-Sheet Financing

An increasingly popular type of off-balance-sheet financing today is what’s known as a sale/leaseback. Here, a business sells property it owns and then immediately leases it back from the new owner. It can be used with virtually any type of fixed asset, including commercial real estate, equipment and commercial vehicles and aircraft, to name a few.

A sale/leaseback can increase a company’s financial flexibility and may provide a large lump sum of cash by freeing up the equity in the asset. This cash can then be poured back into the business to support growth, pay down debt, acquire another business, or meet working capital needs.

Factoring is another type of off-balance-sheet financing. Here, a business sells its outstanding accounts receivable to a commercial finance company, or “factor.” Typically, the factor will advance the business between 70 and 90 percent of the value of the receivable at the time of purchase; the balance, less the factoring fee, is released when the invoice is collected.

Like with an operating lease, no debt is created with factoring, thus enabling companies to create liquidity while avoiding additional leverage. The same kinds of off-balance-sheet benefits occur in both factoring arrangements and operating leases.

Keep in mind that strict accounting rules must be followed when it comes to properly distinguishing between on-balance-sheet and off-balance-sheet financing, so you should work closely with your CPA in this regard. But with the continued uncertainty surrounding the economy and credit markets, it’s worth looking into the potential benefits of off-balance-sheet financing for your company.

How Asset-Based Loans From Commercial Finance Companies Differ From Traditional Bank Loans

When it comes to the different types of business loans available in the marketplace, owners and entrepreneurs can be forgiven if they sometimes get a little confused. Borrowing money for your company isn’t as simple as just walking into a bank and saying you need a small business loan.

What will be the purpose of the loan? How and when will the loan be repaid? And what kind of collateral can be pledged to support the loan? These are just a few of the questions that lenders will ask in order to determine the potential creditworthiness of a business and the best type of loan for its situation.

Different types of business financing are offered by different lenders and structured to meet different financing needs. Understanding the main types of business loans will go a long way toward helping you decide the best place you should start your search for financing.

Banks vs. Asset-Based Lenders

A bank is usually the first place business owners go when they need to borrow money. After all, that’s mainly what banks do – loan money and provide other financial products and services like checking and savings accounts and merchant and treasury management services.

But not all businesses will qualify for a bank loan or line of credit. In particular, banks are hesitant to lend to new start-up companies that don’t have a history of profitability, to companies that are experiencing rapid growth, and to companies that may have experienced a loss in the recent past. Where can businesses like these turn to get the financing they need? There are several options, including borrowing money from family members and friends, selling equity to venture capitalists, obtaining mezzanine financing, or obtaining an asset-based loan.

Borrowing from family and friends is usually fraught with potential problems and complications, and has the potential to significantly damage close friendships and relationships. And the raising of venture capital or mezzanine financing can be time-consuming and expensive. Also, both of these options involve giving up equity in your company and perhaps even a controlling interest. Sometimes this equity can be substantial, which can end up being very costly in the long run.

Asset-based lending (or ABL), however, is often an attractive financing alternative for companies that don’t qualify for a traditional bank loan or line of credit. To understand why, you need to understand the main differences between bank loans and ABL – their different structures and the different ways banks and asset-based lenders look at business lending.

Cash Flow vs. Balance Sheet Lending

Banks lend money based on cash flow, looking primarily at a business’ income statement to determine if it can generate sufficient cash flow in the future to service the debt. In this way, banks lend primarily based on what a business has done financially in the past, using this to gauge what it can realistically be expected to do in the future. It’s what we call “looking in the rearview mirror.”

In contrast, commercial finance asset-based lenders look at a business’ balance sheet and assets – primarily, its accounts receivable and inventory. They lend money based on the liquidity of the inventory and quality of the receivables, carefully evaluating the profile of the company’s debtors and their respective concentration levels. ABL lenders will also look to the future to see what the potential impact is to accounts receivable from projected sales. We call this “looking out the windshield.”

An example helps illustrate the difference: Suppose ABC Company has just landed a $12 million contract that will pay out in equal installments over the next year, resulting in $1 million of revenue per month. It will take 12 months for the full contract amount to show up on the company’s income statement and for a bank to recognize it as cash flow available to service debt. However, an asset-based lender would view this as receivables sitting on the balance sheet and consider lending against them, depending on the creditworthiness of the debtor company.

In this scenario, a bank might lend on the margin generated from the contract. At a 10 percent margin, for example, a bank lending at 3x margin might loan the business $300,000. Because it looks at the trailing cash flow stream, an asset-based lender could potentially loan the business much more money – perhaps up to 80 percent of the receivables, or $800,000.

The other main difference between bank loans and ABL is how banks and commercial finance asset-based lenders view the business’ assets. Banks usually only lend to businesses that can pledge hard assets as collateral – mainly real estate and equipment – hence, banks are sometimes referred to as “dirt lenders.” They prefer these assets because they are easier to control, monitor and identify. Commercial finance asset-based lenders, on the other hand, specialize in lending against assets with high velocity like inventory and accounts receivable. They are able to do so because they have the systems, knowledge, credit appetite and controls in place to monitor these assets.

Apples and Oranges

As you can see, traditional bank lending and asset-based lending are really two different animals that are structured, underwritten and priced in totally different ways. Therefore, comparing banks and asset-based lenders is kind of like comparing apples and oranges.

Unfortunately, many business owners (and even some bankers) don’t understand these key differences between bank loans and ABL. They try to compare them on an apples-to-apples basis, and wonder especially why ABL is so much “more expensive” than bank loans. The cost of ABL is higher than the cost of a bank loan due to the higher degree of risk involved in ABL and the fact that asset-based lenders have invested heavily in the systems and expertise required to monitor accounts receivable and manage collateral.

For businesses that do not qualify for a traditional bank loan, the relevant comparison isn’t between ABL and a bank loan. Rather, it’s between ABL and one of the other financing options – friends and family, venture capital or mezzanine financing. Or, it might be between ABL and foregoing the opportunity.

For example, suppose XYZ Company has an opportunity for a $3 million sale, but it needs to borrow $1 million in order to fulfill the contract. The margin on the contract is 30 percent, resulting in a $900,000 profit. The company doesn’t qualify for a bank line of credit in this amount, but it can obtain an asset-based loan at a total cost of $200,000.

However, the owner tells his sales manager that he thinks the ABL is too expensive. “Expensive compared to what?” the sales manager asks him. “We can’t get a bank loan, so the alternative to ABL is not landing the contract. Are you saying it’s not worth paying $200,000 in order to earn $900,000?” In this instance, saying “no” to ABL would effectively cost the business $700,000 in profit.

Look at ABL in a Different Light

If you have shied away from pursuing an asset-based loan from a commercial finance company in the past because you thought it was too expensive, it’s time to look at ABL in a different light. If you can obtain a traditional bank loan or line of credit, then you should probably go ahead and get it. But if you can’t, make sure you compare ABL to your true alternatives.

Commercial Finance – The Mortgage Meltdown

Banks lend money to people and businesses. The money is used for investment purposes and consumer purchases like food, cars and houses. When these investments are productive the money eventually finds its way back to the bank and an overall liquidity of a well functioning economy is created. The money cycles round and round when the economy is functioning effectively.

When the market is disrupted financial markets tend to seize up. The liquidity cycle may slow, freeze up to a degree or stop completely. This is true because banks are highly leveraged. A well capitalized bank is only required to have 6% of their assets in core capital. It is estimated that the residential mortgage meltdown will cause credit losses of about $400 billion dollars. This credit loss is about 2% of all U.S. equities. This hurts the bank’s balance sheets because it impacts their 6% core capital. To compensate, banks have to charge more for loans, pay less for deposits and create higher standards for borrowers which leads to less lending.

Why did this happen? Once upon a time after the great depression of the 1930’s a new national banking system was created. Banks were required to join to meet high standards of safety and soundness. The purpose was to prevent future failures of banks and to prevent another disastrous depression. Savings and Loans (which still exist but call themselves Banks today) were created primarily to lend money to people to buy houses. They took their depositor’s money, lent it to people to buy homes and held these loans in their portfolio. If a homeowner failed to pay and there was a loss, the institution took the loss. The system was simple and the institutions were responsible for the building of millions of homes for over 50 years. This changed drastically with the invention of the secondary market, collateralized debt obligations which are also know as collateralized mortgage obligations.

Our government created the Government National Mortgage Association (commonly known as Ginnie Mae) and the Federal National Mortgage Association (commonly known as Fannie Mae) to purchase mortgages from banks to expand the amount of money available in the banking system to purchase homes. Then Wall Street firms created a way to expand the market exponentially by bundling up home loans in clever ways that allowed originators and Wall Street to make big profits. The big stock market firms were securitizers of mortgage-backed securities and resecuritizers who sliced and diced different parts of the groups of home loans to be bought and sold in the stock market based on prices set by the market and market analysts. Home loans, packaged as securities, are bought and sold like stocks and bonds.

In the quest to do more and more business, the standards to get a loan were lowered to a point where, at least in some cases, if a person wanted to buy a house and could assert they could pay for it they received the loan. Borrowers with weak or poor credit histories were able to get loans. There was little risk to the lender because unlike the earlier days when home loans were held in their portfolios, these loans were sold and if the loans defaulted the investors or purchasers of these loans would take the losses i.e. not the bank making the loan. The result today is tumult in our economy from the mortgage meltdown which has disrupted the overall financial system and affects all lending in a negative way.

Who is responsible for this situation? All loan originators, including banks, are responsible for turning a blind eye to loans that were based on poor credit criteria. Under the label of “subprime” loans there were low documentation loans, no documentation loans and very high loan to value loans- many of which are the foreclosures we read about on a daily basis. Wall Street is responsible for pumping this system into a financial disaster that may grow from the current $400 billion dollar estimate to over a trillion dollars. Realtors, mortgage brokers, home buyers and speculators are responsible for their willingness to pay higher and higher prices for homes on the belief that prices would only go higher and higher. This basically fueled the system for the mortgage meltdown.

Are there any similarities to the saving and loan crisis of the 1980’s? Between 1986 and 1995 Savings and Loans (S&L’s) lost about $153 billion. The institutions were regulated by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation. These entities passed laws that required the S&L’s to make fixed rate loans only for their portfolios. The rates that could be charged for these loans were determined by the marketplace. Imagine an institution with $100 million in loans at 6% to 8%. For years the interest rates on deposits were also regulated by the government. The interest rate spread between the two allowed institutions to make a small profit.

In 1980 the U.S. Congress passed the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 (DIDMCA). A committee was established in Congress. Over a period of years the committee deregulated the rates S&L’s could pay on savings. Nothing was changed with respect to what could be charged for home loans. Many institutions started to loose huge amounts of money because they had to pay market rates of 10% to 12% for their savings, yet they were stuck with their old 6% to 8% loans. Some executives in the savings and loan business referred to this committee as the damned idiots in Washington.

Many books have been written about these events. There is documented evidence of substantial wrongdoing by S&L executives who were trying to invest funds to save their institutions, sometimes for personal gains. Some were sophisticated criminals. Congress recognized their mistake in 1982 when the Garn-St.Germain Depositary Institutions Act was passed to allow S&Ls to diversify their activities to increase their profits. It also allowed S&L’s to make variable rate loans. It was too little too late. After bankrupt institutions were liquidated by the government, the surviving S&Ls were assessed billions of dollars by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to replenish the fund that insures the depositors of all U.S. banking institutions.
The mortgage meltdown and the savings and loan crises are similar with regard to the presence of greed and criminal activity. They are very different with respect to the fact that the S&L crises originated from a broken government mandated regulatory system and the mortgage meltdown has been caused primarily by a system that went wild with greed.

This has impacted non-bank lenders such as private commercial finance companies that provide hard money real estate loans, purchase order financing and accounts receivable financing. Most of these firms have raised their prices and their origination standards for safety and soundness of operations.

The bottom line: Bank lending can be replaced by other sources such as commercial finance companies to some degree. Hard money, purchase order financing and accounts receivable financing will help some businesses grow during these difficult times. But for the average borrower, businessman, or business owner these are difficult economic times, caused by the mortgage meltdown, which are here to stay for several years.