Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Brief Digression

I had intended by now to post at least two additional pieces on the issue of appropriate compensation for risk in TRE transactions. But it’s been a busy month and I’m still in the process of gathering data and thinking through the analysis. I’ll get back to that important topic soon.

However, I had a conversation a couple of weeks ago that brings up an unrelated but, I think, interesting subject. So if you’ll permit me a brief digression…..

The conversation was with a prominent member of the traditional factoring community. He said that it was his opinion that a company whose only business was buying receivables via TRE was not in the factoring business. Rather, in his view, it was in the investment business.

Now, as I’ve written, my associates and I formed a new company last year whose sole occupation is buying receivables via TRE. So this is an issue of more than a little interest to me.

Having spent my entire business career in various investment businesses I could hardly take offense at being termed an investor. On the other hand, the implication in this case was negative: that there is something important lacking in the TRE Buyer that excludes him from being recognized as a part of the factoring community.

Putting aside for the moment the question of what that says about the relationship between the traditional factoring community and TRE, the topic is, in itself, an interesting one to consider.

Is a TRE Buyer in the factoring business?

A standard dictionary of business law provides the following definition of factoring (with a useful reference to a ‘factor company’):

“Factoring is a form of financing in which a business sells its receivables to a third party or ‘factor company’ at a discounted price. Under this arrangement, a factor company agrees to provide financing and other services to the selling business in return for interest and fees on the money that they advanced against the seller's accounts receivables.”

It is clear that a TRE Buyer DOES: a) buy the receivables of a business, b) at a discounted price, c) in return for fees on the money advanced.

That much of the definition cannot be argued. What, then, is lacking or could be said to be lacking?

The only thing that appears to me to be open to question is PROCESS.

The standard definition cites “other services” and it is (at least arguably) implied that the connection between the selling business and the ‘factor company’ is direct.

In the case of the TRE Buyer the provision of “other services”, such as collection of payments, accounting for and distribution of funds etc. is performed by a paid intermediary i.e. the Exchange.

It is also true that the Exchange, not the Buyer, establishes and maintains the direct relationship with the Seller and that it provides the Buyer with certain due diligence materials that the Buyer may use in its decision making.

I think that it is beyond question that a factoring transaction occurs when a business that is a TRE Seller sells invoices via the Exchange to a TRE Buyer. (Certainly the law of the State of Louisiana recognizes such a transaction as factoring.) It is the structure and process of the TRE factoring transaction that is unique.

But the uniqueness of the structure doesn’t, in my view, change the character of the transaction.

The person with whom I spoke on this subject actually argued that neither TRE nor the TRE Buyer was in the factoring business. But if a factoring transaction is taking place, surely SOMEONE has to be playing the role of “factor”.

Now, it might be argued that the sum of the parts equals “factoring” but none of the parts equals “factor”. I think that argument is hard to support.

Let’s walk through the functions and responsibilities.

TRE does the marketing. It finds the Sellers. TRE qualifies the Sellers in accordance with criteria agreed upon with the Buyers and it provides the Buyers a set of due diligence materials that the Buyers can analyze in their decision making.

TRE manages the process of packaging the Sellers’ invoices for sale, offering the packages to the Buyers, determining when sale criteria have been met, “closing” and funding the sale. It provides the accounting of the sale to both parties. It receives payments from account debtors, accounts for them and distributes them. It is responsible for the process of verifying invoices, for following up on payments and for certain defined matters in the event of payment defaults.

All of these are clearly important parts of the process.

What does the Buyer do?

First, the Buyer must decide to invest money in the purchase of accounts receivable. I don’t hesitate to use the term “invest”. Every factoring company is investing in the purchase of accounts receivable regardless of any fine distinction of language one might desire to make.

Having made the decision to invest in purchasing accounts receivable it is the Buyer’s responsibility to decide on certain portfolio-level matters, for instance: how much to invest, what concentration and diversification rules should be used, how will the due diligence materials provided by TRE be analyzed and evaluated, what due diligence activities and materials should be considered in addition to those provided by TRE, what Seller-experience criteria must be met prior to considering a purchase from that Seller and what account debtor experience criteria must be met before considering a purchase of that debtor’s invoices.

On the basis of those considerations, the Buyer must decide which Sellers to buy from, which account debtors’ invoices to buy and what pricing level is acceptable.

The unique additional responsibility of the TRE Buyer is that it must act in the arena of real-time competitive auction, which requires a discipline, an approach to decision making and a flexibility and sensitivity to changing real-time conditions that are not required of the traditional factoring company.

So, given that factoring transactions ARE unquestionably taking place, what can we say about the separation of functions in the TRE process: the division of responsibilities between the Exchange and the Buyers?

Well, I’ll tell you what I’d say.

In a nutshell, the TRE Buyer exercises the executive functions in the process while the Exchange is responsible for the technical functions.

Portfolio-level decisions are the Buyer’s. Risk management decisions are the Buyer’s. Seller acceptance and account debtor acceptance decisions are the Buyer’s. Pricing decisions are the Buyer’s.

If we were looking at a hypothetical factoring company office, the Buyer would occupy the CEO’s office on the top floor. The Buyer performs the CEO function.

The marketing, research, accounting and treasury offices are all down further in the building. They support and report to the CEO and any one of them can be outsourced and purchased on a pay-for-service basis.

And that’s precisely what TRE is: a multi-function, outsourced back-office combined with a unique transaction facilitation process.

Where is the ‘factoring company'?

I’d suggest that both the Buyer and TRE are in the factoring business but if I had to identify one ‘factoring company’ I think the typical analysis of a business structure suggests that the executive function, the locus of ultimate decision making, defines the business.

I spent many years in the real estate investment business. It frequently happened that a deal was brought to us by a broker. The broker typically provided a substantial amount of analytic material, had the direct relationship with the seller and acted as intermediary in the negotiation. After a property was purchased, its day-to-day operations were outsourced to independent property management and leasing companies.

Was I in the “real estate business”? None would argue.

With respect to those holding differing opinions in this case I would say: OF COURSE a company that buys receivables via TRE is in the factoring business. It’s disingenuous to argue otherwise.

That doesn’t mean that all TRE Buyers are GOOD at it. And it doesn’t mean that they actually DO perform all of the functions I’ve cited above.

I didn’t say that every TRE Buyer actually DOES all of those things. I said they were RESPONSIBLE for them.

If they avoid their responsibilities, make bad decisions, lose money, get mad, take their marbles and go home…..well they will have done what many in the traditional factoring business have done.

They will have failed.

But neither their failure nor their success will change the character of the business they were in.