Lending startup Portal Finance nabs $200 million for small business loans in Latin America

Latin American small businesses just got a big boost with a new commitment for a $200 million lending joint venture between the Bogota-based startup Portal Finance and Latin America’s largest financial services institution, BTG Pactual.

For Portal Finance, the deal with BTG caps a meteoric rise, which has seen the company raise $1.5 million at a $60 million valuation and move from a small $5 million lending pilot to a $200 million deal in the span of two years.

A year ago we were four guys in a closet. Now we’re 70 people,” says Diego Caicedo, the company’s chief executive and co-founder. 

The company’s success is a testament to the changing fortunes of many Latin American economies and the role that venture capital is playing. For the last several years Colombia’s economic fortunes have been rising since the successful conclusion of peace talks with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, brought an end to 50 years of civil war.

Meanwhile, investment firms like Magma Partners, which led the pre-seed and seed rounds for Portal Finance are linking innovative companies in places like Buenos Aires, Bogota, and Lima with Chile’s stable economic base to provide a market where innovative startups can gain traction.

It’s also a sign of the significant demand for small business loans across Latin America. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis small businesses found their credit lines pulled as banks refused to take on the risks associated with lending to small businesses.

That left businesses with only supply chain financing and factoring as the only alternatives. With interest rates that are typically between 20% and 50% annually. These rates are being charged even though invoices can be used as collateral and default rates hover at around 1% per year.

Portal Finance, and other companies like it, solve the problem by giving banks a better window into their borrowers finances by tackling the problem from three ways. The first is by working with factoring firms who were the lenders of last resort to companies who needed cash for operations and improvement and could not take out loans or raise equity financing. Second, the company has a window into the receivables of small businesses through the large corporate customers they supply. Finally, the company has reached out to the small businesses themselves to collect additional data, giving lenders a complete view of the borrowers’ financing.

That “full-stack” approach to small business financial statements was the vision that Caicedo had for his company from the moment he and his co-founders Felipe Puntarelli and Nicholas Bohorquez, took their first financing — $50,000 from Magma Partners (a Latin American focused venture capital firm).

The opportunity was so great that he was able to convince his eventual Charlie Cliff, a former defense contractor in the aerospace industry, to come down to Bogota without knowing a single word of Spanish to help jumpstart the business as Chief Technology Officer. Cliff, who was connected to Caicedo through Magma Partners’ managing director and co-founder Nathan Lustig, flew down after three phone calls.

Diego Caicedo and Charlie Cliff, the chief executive and chief technical officers for Portal Finance

Caicedo and Cliff first tackled the problem for the factoring firms that would lend money to businesses off of the projected income for accounts receivable. It was the first product that Portal Finance brought to market when it launched in 2016.

By 2017, it expanded its products to include an offering for large corporations to help them manage their payments to small businesses.

With that information in hand, Caicedo reached out to financial services firms to set up a lending operation. BTG Pactual agreed to a pilot in Chile in January, and expanded to the $200 million lending joint venture in July that covers both Chile and Colombia.

Caicedo called the program the largest investment in a fintech startup by a Latin American financial services firm. So far, the company has issued 200 loans in Chile and 500 in Colombia. On the heels of that investment, Caicedo says that the company expects to close an additional $2.5 million in financing soon and will be profitable by the end of November.

Payday startups are increasing access to wages, but is “make any day payday” the right choice?

Imagine you get a monthly paycheck on the 15th of the month but your bills come in on the 1st of the month.  Between the 15th and 1st you must set a portion of your check aside to pay bills.  This becomes a complicated budgeting equation. How much can I spend today vs how much do I need to set aside?

In a perfectly rational world people would reduce their consumption by the amount needed to afford their bills and have money left over to make it to the next payday.  Sadly, this isn’t what happens. When income and bills are farther apart, we struggle to make the math work.

Researchers Brian Baugh  and Jialan Wang found that financial shortfalls – payday loans and bank overdrafts – happen 18% more when there is a greater mismatch between the timing of someone’s  income and the bills they owe.

We come up short.

Baugh offers some reasoning: When we get paid, we spend money. More money than usual.  Research from Arna Olafsson and Michaela Pagel supports this. They find that both poor and rich households respond to the receipt of income, with the poorest households spending 70 percent more when they get paid than they would on an average day and the richest households spending 40 percent more.  This inclination to spend more on payday makes the monthly budget harder to balance – and sometimes makes it unable to balance at all.

Many fintech companies are starting to address pay period timing, in hopes they can close the gap between income and consumption needs.  Apps like Even, Earnin and PayActive provide people with instant access to their paycheck.  Gig economy employers like Uber and Lyft have features that allow drivers to cash out immediately after they drive.  For people who would otherwise get paid on a monthly schedule, this is critical.  Jesse Shapiro of Harvard  found that food stamp recipients consume 10 to 15 percent fewer calories the week before food stamps are disbursed.   Even a few days matter. In Baugh’s study, the difference between a paycheck period of 35 days vs a paycheck period of 28 days resulted in 9% more instances of financial distress.

The question we should be asking now is what is the optimal timing for pay periods?  Too long between checks causes hardship, but how short should pay periods become?  These fintech companies are offering to “Make Any Day Payday” with promises that people can “Get your paycheck anytime you want.”  While this smooths the gap between pay periods, given Olassof’s research, it may also serve to increase spending if everyday is payday.

To dive deeper into this problem, our team sought to understand what employees preferred.  As a reminder, our preferences don’t always represent what’s best for us. You may want to eat that chocolate cake, but that doesn’t mean it will help you with your summer dieting goals.  However, we were curious: do people have the intuition that more frequent pay periods are better, and how frequent is optimal?   To do this we asked 384 people making less than median income ($30,000 a year) to tell us their preferred pay schedule. Using Google Consumer Surveys, we gave them six payment schedules to choose from: Annual, Monthly, Bi-weekly, Weekly, Daily or Hourly.

What should people say? If everyone acts rationally, we would expect people to say they want to get paid hourly – immediately after working. It’s their money and they would be best off with unfettered access to it.

This is not what we found. Instead, people prefer to get paid on a bi-weekly or weekly schedule.  Aggregating everyone’s responses, people preferred bi-weekly (37.2%), followed by weekly (26.6%).

Why aren’t more people choosing hourly or daily?  While we can’t be sure, one guess is that Baugh’s findings ring true. Weekly and biweekly paychecks can act as a self control device for spending. If paydays were every day, they may be more tempted to spend on non-critical items, leaving less money for bills.  Weekly and biweekly paychecks also serve as a way to fix the misalignment of income and bills that Baugh cites drives overdrafts and payday loans.  Our team interviewed 40 people in Fresno, California and found this to be a popular budgeting strategy – one paycheck is used for the family car payment and one is used for rent.

When we break out responses by income, we find some correlational differences across income groups. People reporting less than $6,000 income (50% below poverty line) are more likely to opt for an immediate pay schedule.  As people’s income level rises above poverty (or part time status), the preference for weekly and bi-weekly pay schedules increases.

We also asked people to tell us how they would describe their personal need for money when paying their bills over the past year. No surprise, but the more people felt they needed money for immediate bills (or feeling scarce) the higher the demand for more frequent paychecks (hourly or weekly).

The verdict?

More research is needed to determine the effects of the growing trend to offer instant access to your paycheck. These apps can bridge critical gaps for people living paycheck to paycheck, but they may also have some detrimental effects if Baugh and Olafsson’s findings hold. If apps help people make everyday payday, and each payday results in higher spending, the end of the month may be much harder to get to.

Key insights for companies trying to improve people’s financial lives

  1. Help move people off a monthly pay cycle. Our study suggests that lower income individuals don’t prefer monthly and other research suggests it has costly implications for their financial lives.
  2. Help people match up their income and their bills. Lenders can do this upon loan origination or fintech apps (like EarnUp) can help people automate timing.
  3. Provide (thoughtful) access to the paycheck. Apps could ask people up front to precommit to when they want to take money from their paycheck. This would still allow people to have access, but could possibly slow down an urge to withdraw too frequently.

The dramatic rise and fall of online P2P lending in China

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on TechNode, an editorial partner of TechCrunch based in China.

When Emily Zhang was interning with a peer-to-peer (P2P) lending firm in the Summer of 2016, her main task was to carry out research on other P2P lending firms. She found the rates of return tempting and some underlying assets reliable, so she decided to invest in the market herself. Until now, none of her investments have matured, but she worries about whether she can actually withdraw her profits, much less get back the principal.

Even so, Zhang considers herself lucky that the companies that sold her the assets are still in business while many other P2P companies have collapsed, leaving their investors in despair.

Stories have been circulating across Chinese social networks about desperate investors who have lost their life savings. Zhang Xue, for instance, a 47-year old single mother with a 13-year-old son, was reported to have lost the 3.8 million RMB her husband left her with when he died of a heart attack. “I am totally desperate. 3.8 million RMB. It’s finished, all finished,”” she told local media.

Some of those affected protested in front of police stations and chanted the Chinese national anthem, March of the Volunteers, in an effort to pressure authorities. Others organized online investor rights groups, making a collective effort to get the money back. Together, the protesters made headlines in domestic media and sparked intense online debates on who is responsible for the losses and where the industry is heading.

P2P lending, or online lending, is generally considered as a method of debt financing that directly connects borrowers, whether they are individuals or companies, with lenders. The world’s first online lending platform, Zopa, was founded in the UK in 2005. China’s online lending industry has seen rapid growth since 2007 without significant regulation.

Default rates have been soaring since June. In May, only 10 platforms were considered in trouble. But by June, that number had increased to 63. By the end of July, 163 platforms were on the concern list. The Home of Online Lending (网贷之家), a platform that compiles the data, defines ‘troubled’ as companies that have difficulty paying off investors, have been investigated by national economic crime investigation department, or whose owners have run away with investors’ money.

One of the key factors contributing to the sudden surge is the national P2P rectification campaign that was supposed to have been finished by June. “The due date of rectification has passed, but many P2P platforms have not met the requirements. Strict regulations have propelled a break-out of the compliance issues,” Shen Wei, Dean and Professor of Law at Shangdong University Law School, told TechNode.

In late 2017, the platforms were asked to register with local authorities by June 2018, according to China Banking Regulatory Commission, which has now merged with China’s insurance regulator to become China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission.

Shen said the main purpose of the regulations is to restrict P2P lending platforms to be information intermediaries only, matching borrowers and investors. Under such regulations, the platforms are not allowed to pool funds from investors or grant loans to any client or provide any credit services, which most of the platforms were doing when they first started.

The rise of P2P lending in China

China’s first online lending platform, PPDAI Group (拍拍货), launched in 2007 and went public on the New York Stock Exchange in late 2017. The industry has gone through rapid growth since then. In January 2016, there were 3,383 platforms in business with combined monthly transactions reaching 130 billion RMB, according to Home of Online Lending.
In a recent research paper, Robin Hui Huang, professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, attributed the increase of P2P in China to three factors: a high 56 percent rate of internet penetration by 2018, a large supply of available funds from investors, and financial demands of small-to-medium-sized companies that cannot be satisfied by the existing banking system.

P2P lending is a tempting and easy investment option because the loans usually promise 8-12 percent interest rates, according to Home of Online Lending, of which many mature within a year, much higher than the 2.75 percent rate for three-year fixed deposits found at most banks.

P2P lending is also friendlier to smaller businesses since major banks in China generally prefer state-owned enterprises or large companies. Huang cited a joint 2016 report by the Development Bank of Singapore and Ernst & Young, that only 20-25 percent of bank loans went to small to medium-size enterprises, even though they accounted for 60 percent of China’s gross domestic product.

China’s financial system is still dominated by banks, especially the established ‘Big Four’ — the Bank of China, China Construction Bank, the Agricultural Bank of China, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Ryan Roberts, a research analyst at MCM Partners, told TechNode that about 70 percent of the banks’ loans are commercial loans, with just 30 percent for individuals.

Unresolved regulations

Before the government first signaled regulations in 2016, the P2P lending industry aggressively expanded. Compared with the current defaulting scandals, the situation back then wasn’t any better.

By the end of 2015, there were 1,031 total troubled platforms out of 3,448 platforms still in operation. So, on average, one out of four was problematic. Chinese media reported on a number of Ponzi scheme stories concerning dubious platforms that tempted would-be investors with fat bonuses for referring family and friends, too.

Despite the fact that there was no established regulatory framework, the government was watching. Since mid-2015, a series of announcements set the stage for China’s first regulatory instrument for online lending in August 2016. Called Interim Measures on Administration of Business Activities of Online Lending Information Intermediaries, violations of its articles can lead to administrative or even criminal penalties.

The interim measures set the business scope of the platforms to be mere information intermediaries. It also asked all platforms to set up custody accounts with commercial banks for investor and borrower funds held by the platforms in order to reduce the risks that platform owners abscond with funds. The measures require online lending platforms to register with their local financial regulatory authority.

Later, a specific timeline was set for the implementation. Provincial government agencies were told to complete general investigations into local P2P platforms by July 2016 and formulate regulatory policies based on regional conditions. Overall rectification and registration should have been completed by June 2018, the latest.

It’s August now and, obviously, the work still isn’t finished. Huang said the measures, in general, have covered all the factors of the industry that should be regulated, but when it came to implementation, all we really saw was a delay.

“It’s good that the measures are carried out locally, which means that local government can develop policies in line with local conditions,” Huang explained to us. However, in order to attract more capital locally, local authorities have engaged in a race to the bottom, competing with one and another to have the loosest regulations, and therefore, have been hesitant to finalize them.

Moreover, the general public has a different understanding of the registration process. “Registering with local authorities doesn’t mean that local governments have recognized or will guarantee the legitimacy and quality of platforms. However, in reality, the public seems to perceive registration as official assurance,” Huang said. This has lead to very cautious approaches from government agencies towards the whole registration project since they don’t intend to be held responsible for the fallout or future wrongdoings of the P2P firms.

The concern is quite reasonable. Huoq.com—a P2P lending platform launched in December 2016 and backed by state-owned enterprises—announced on July 11, 2018, that it went into liquidation. The platform is owned by Dingxi Zhuoyue Online Lending Information Intermediary. One-third of Dingxi is owned by Xinjiang Tianfu Lanyu Optoelectronics Technology while Tianfu Lanyu itself is partly owned by a state-owned company in Xinjiang. On July 10, however, owners of the platform disappeared. Neither the company nor investors were able to locate them.

Their still-functioning official site doesn’t show the slightest sign of liquidation, displaying various certificates and recognition from government agencies and industry associations. A banner at the bottom of their mobile app icon still says “Central enterprises are our majority shareholders.”

The unresolved regulations are also affecting P2P lending companies listed overseas. Shares of PPDAI plummeted to $4.77 as of July 30 from $13.08 when it was first traded in late 2017. The stock price of Yirendai (宜人贷), the first Chinese online lending company to go public overseas, dropped to $19.33 compared with $38.26 the same period last year.

That the shares of these companies don’t trade well indicates that investors are skeptical towards the business, said Roberts. With the ongoing regulations, it’s still possible that regulators can outlaw and ban their businesses, he explained. Some borrowers even take advantage of the unsettled regulation and stop paying back their loans, in the hopes that the platform they have borrowed from would fail, Roberts added.

Buyer beware

In June 2018, 17.8 billion RMB worth of transactions took place on China’s P2P lending platforms and outstanding loan balance reached 1.3 trillion RMB. The number looks insignificant if compared with 1.8 trillion RMB in net new bank loans in June alone.

However, they have made quite a splash. Victims of the troubled online lending platforms gathered in Hangzhou in early July, filling two of the largest local sports stadiums, which the local government had set up as temporary complaint centers.

“One of the reasons why the current wave of defaults has drawn so much attention is that many troubled platforms were pretty big,” Huang said. Some of the platforms violated the rules, pooling funds illegally, and some were suffering from China’s slowing economic growth and the ongoing deleveraging campaigns.

P2P lending has helped fund small-to-medium-sized enterprises in some way, but in general, the role it plays in the financial system is limited, said Shen. Most of the P2P investors are speculative and they themselves should be responsible for their losses, he added.

“If the rate of return exceeds 6 percent, investors should be alert; if it is more than 8 percent, the investment is very risky, and if it’s more than 10 percent, investors should prepare themselves for losing all their capital,” said Guo Shuqing, chairmen of China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission at a finance forum in June in Shanghai, referring to financial scams that lure investors in with high returns.

Although P2P lending is only a relatively small piece in China’s financial industry, there are still concerns that the collapse of these platforms should trigger systematic risks, Shen said. This also implied that Chinese investors have very limited investment options.

According to research by China International Capital Corporation, experts predicted only 10 percent of the current P2P lending companies, less than 200, could still be in business after three years.

Zhang said P2P lending needs regulations because many platforms are not innocent. “P2P platforms have high moral hazards and it’s really easy to fake borrowers’ information. However, I believe the government is supportive towards the industry and some platforms will survive till the end,” said Zhang. “I just wish I can be lucky enough to pick the right one.”