Monday, August 30, 2010

In the Way of St. Augustine

St. Augustine of Hippo is famously known for pleading: “Lord, grant me chastity-- but not yet!”

Augustine clearly viewed chastity as a good thing but he wasn’t quite ready to enjoy its benefits.

In the receivables purchasing business, getting paid is a good thing. But getting paid much more quickly than expected – not so much.

The “good” in a payment pattern is more a function of predictability than absolute timing.

Regular readers might now anticipate my returning to a pet peeve. But hear me out.

An auction that I purchased recently was closed out last week: paid as agreed; which, in itself, is certainly a good thing.

But it wasn’t paid either “as expected”, or “as advertised”. And that’s not such a good thing.

When I first started buying receivables in my spot factoring business I made the mistake of telling a couple of prospective clients that I was looking for invoices that would pay in the range of 45 days, give or take. It’s been my good fortune to have gotten many of my clients via referral from other clients. And it’s amazing how often I’m told that a referred prospect’s payment expectation is about 45 days!

Word spread from those initial clients, of course, that that’s what I wanted to hear—so that’s what I’m invariably told. But those prospective sellers are most often saying “45 days” when the truth is that payments will take LONGER. They know it and I know it.

The phenomenon I’ve griped about in prior posts with respect to TRE auctions is having invoices presumably due in 45 or 60 days that get paid in 7 or 9 days.

Why do I gripe about that? Not because it happens once in a while -- that can be just the luck of the draw.

But recently the number of instances of significant disparity between the posted payment expectation and the actual payment experience has been increasing. This is the case both in auctions that I’ve bought and in those I’ve just been monitoring.

The trigger for this post is that the auction I referred to above, which was paid last week, was “due” to pay out in about 30 days. In fact, the actual weighted average duration was 3.7 days!

The result was that my actual net earnings on that auction were roughly zero. That was a “successful” but still unsatisfying transaction.

I had bought several auctions from that Seller prior to the one I’m describing and all had performed as expected. I have actually been quite happy with the experience.

And as annoyed as I was with the result of that one auction, I was prepared to assume it was just bad luck. That for some unknown and unusual reason the Account Debtor just paid very early.

And so I bought another auction from the same Seller even before this one had closed-out.

The first payment on the NEW auction was made ONE DAY after the auction closed. The invoices that were paid were not “due” until mid September.

With that additional experience, as much as I have been pleased with the initial auctions bought from this Seller, I’m now going to have to stay away from those auctions until there is evidence that these are anomalous situations and that a predictable relationship between the posted due dates and the actual payment expectations can be anticipated.

The reason, of course, is that acceptable pricing changes significantly as the duration of auctions changes. This is particularly true in cases of very rapid payment.

The marginal impact on return of payments expected in 45 days but received in 30 is actually pretty minimal. But the impact of a payment expected in 45 but received in 10 is quite significant.

I am not suggesting that the Seller in this case deliberately misstated the payment expectation. I don’t believe that is the case. Actually, I suspect that this transaction will have been as unsatisfactory for the Seller as for the Buyer.

Because of the TRE fee structure, the costs to the Seller on this auction will have been as high on a relative basis as the return to the Buyer was low.

But there is a small number of Sellers whose actual payment experience appears to be consistently more rapid than “expected”. That creates a credibility problem—-for me, at least. And I’m no longer willing to bid on those auctions.

Ultimately it is to everyone’s benefit for there to be a rational relationship between the posted “due date”, the Seller’s posted “expected payment date”, and the actual payment experience.

I’m not suggesting that there won’t always be outliers in payment patterns, in both directions. Of course there will.

But when the pattern itself is of “outlier” events – it has to be the posted due date or posted payment expectation that is called into question.

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