On May 8, the FTC held a forum with members of the small business marketplace to discuss the recent uptick in online loans and alternative financing products, and to analyze the potential for unfair and deceptive marketing, sales, and collection practices in the industry. Opening “Strictly Business: An FTC Forum on Small Business Financing,” FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra expressed broad concerns about the state of entrepreneurship in the U.S. and the barriers small businesses face when negotiating contracts. Three panels discussed topics including (i) recent trends in the financing marketplace and small business financing products; (ii) the impact of fintech in online lending; (iii) an examination of the risks and benefits of the merchant cash advance industry; and (iv) consumer protection risks and legislative, self-regulatory, and educational efforts to help better protect borrowers.

During the first panel, several industry members discussed the importance of credit and financing products in meeting the capital needs of small businesses who often experience challenges with funding operations and cash management. While traditional bank lending and Small Business Administration (SBA) loans often require lengthy, costly underwriting standards, several panelists noted that new marketplace financing options have created opportunities for small businesses that previously did not exist. Among other things, panelists emphasized that there is a big difference between consumer credit and business credit, and that online lenders are leveraging underlying business data, credit card receivables data, and fundamental underlying business transaction data to make sure small businesses can sustain and service their debt. Funding time is also critical to small businesses with many choosing online lenders for faster access to funds. The panel discussed the benefits of online financing products, such as moving away from including consumer credit scores in the underwriting process and examining nontraditional data to look at cash flow, but also cautioned that there can be a lack of transparency around terms and pricing.

The second panel discussed the merchant cash-advance (MCA) industry, which they described as providing an unregulated form of financing for small businesses in the form of factoring future receivables. Recently, the industry has been scrutinized for alleged collection abuses and use of confessions of judgment (COJs). COJs, which allow lenders to legally seize borrowers’ bank accounts and other assets without a judge’s review, have led to a flood of questionable legal actions against small businesses, according to Commissioner Chopra. However, one of the panelists noted that the FTC limited the ban on COJs to consumers.

The third panel discussed consumer protection risks as well as products and information available for small business borrowers. A key concern amongst several of the panelists was whether business borrowers are sophisticated enough to understand the various options and if they are able to receive the necessary information to shop between products, such as APRs, total costs, and average monthly payments. The panel also discussed federal and state law, as well as self-regulatory efforts, that offer protections for small business borrowers. All agreed that there has been significant action taken at the state level to try to standardize and harmonize these types of lending practices, and while there was support for a national standard, they cautioned that a weaker national standard should not preempt a stronger state standard. Transparent disclosure standards, consumer protection oriented issues such as privacy and data security, as well as deceptive practices, were also discussed, with panelists agreeing that outreach and consumer education is vital in helping consumers make informed decisions.

Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, Andrew Smith, closed the forum by emphasizing that the FTC has broad authority under the FTC Act to tackle unfair and deceptive practices, and stating that the Commission is very concerned about reports of unfair and deceptive marketing, sales, and collection practices in the small-business finance market. He stressed that while financial technologies can evolve quickly, the underlying legal protections for small businesses remain the same.