Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Further on Alignment of Interests

In my last post I suggested that TRE modify its fee structure to eliminate distortions caused by the fixed component of the Buy-side Exchange fees. Those distortions are magnified in auctions with relatively short durations.

One auction in this week’s market activity caused me to look back at the question of distortions from a different point of view.

On Monday afternoon, a fairly seasoned TRE Seller posted an auction with pricing parameters that set a new record. The buy-out advance requested was higher than any in my memory and the buy-out monthly fee offered was the lowest in my memory.

The Seller is solid, but not gold-plated. The Debtor has an unquestioned capacity to pay and its performance in prior auctions appears to have been fine. I have bought an auction from this Seller, involving invoices due from this Debtor, and was quite satisfied with the result.

So the deal deserved a good price.

But the pricing requested in this transaction would have returned to the Buyer something closer to a CD rate than a return typically associated with receivables financing.

My first reaction was: What are they thinking?

My second was: Let’s try to actually understand what they’re thinking.

I have to admit that I have a Buy-side bias when it comes to analyzing auctions. I spend a lot of time on the subject of return to the Buyers. I really haven’t spent much time working on the cost of funds from the Seller’s point of view.

But the only way to answer the question: “What are they thinking?” is to look at the transaction from the “other side”.

I’m not going to say much about the TRE sell-side fee structure except to say that the basis of the fee is essentially the size of the auction and that the rate charged is variable depending on certain Seller characteristics. For my purposes I’m going to assume that the Seller in this case enjoys a rate at the low end of the range.

The auction under study has a probable duration that can be readily estimated. There has been a reasonable amount of past activity and actual payment experience has been quite consistent.

If we know the auction size and its pricing parameters, the duration is really the only remaining variable in the return calculation. So this particular example is a good one to use from that perspective.

It really is quite surprising how the view of the transaction changes, depending on one’s perspective!

I looked at two cases:

1) the initial buy-out pricing parameters, and

2) the actual final sale pricing parameters.

And I looked at the projected return to the Buyer in both cases and then the projected cost of money to the Seller in both cases.

Case 1: Using the initial buy-out pricing parameters, the net annualized yield to the Buyer would have been in the very low single digit range. But the net annualized cost of funds to the Seller would have been about 5 times that level!

The cost of funds would still have presented an extraordinarily attractive deal for the Seller, however --in the mid single-digits on a net annualized basis -- so there’s no mystery why the Buyers weren’t willing to play.

The point is that the gap between the return to Buyer and the cost to Seller, which is clearly a function of the fees earned by the Exchange, is a hugely distorting factor when pricing is extremely aggressive and duration is relatively short.

Case #2: Using the actual sale parameters, the distortion is much lower but it is still substantial. The return to the Buyer is just into the double-digit range while the cost to the Seller is in the high teens.

Now I don’t know how many Sellers look at their cost of funds in the same way that I have looked at it. But in this instance, while I would have been unwilling as a Buyer to accept the return generated by the deal; if I were in the Seller’s shoes I would probably have thought I was paying a pretty fair price for the money.

There’s the rub.

At this stage in its life TRE has a fairly small transaction base on which to generate fees. It’s clear that fees alone can’t cover its current expenses. It will need to grow by a significant amount to reach that point, I suspect.

On the other hand, given the need to grow substantially, the question of the impact of fee structure on growth potential is a fair one to ask.

Having gone through this exercise I have a greater sensitivity to the position of the Seller.

But my sensitivity doesn’t change my estimation of appropriate return to Buyers’ capital one bit. And it won’t change my actions at all.

[Except that the language I use when I see what appears to be an irrational Seller pricing structure might be somewhat more moderate.]

Only TRE needs to be sensitive to BOTH sides of the auction transaction. Buyers are going to look to their own interests and Sellers to theirs. That's the nature of the market. But TRE has to understand and act to ensure that both sides find the net benefits fair.

Otherwise, the growth that we all need and want is at risk of failing to materialize.

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