Saved by online lenders, businesses say they’ll borrow again

In this Jan. 21, 2020 file photo, dollar bills have been dropped into a tip jar at a carwash in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK — Some small businesses forced to turn to online lenders for pandemic relief are making those niche players a bigger part of their financial game plan, and are even considering dumping their traditional banks altogether. 

Loans from online lenders saved thousands of small business owners who were unable to get COVID-19 relief loans from big traditional lenders. Now, encouraged by getting applications processed within days rather than weeks, these owners are becoming repeat customers. 

Patrick Carver was loyal to his big national bank but became disillusioned after applying for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, not getting a response for over a month and then having his application denied. At the suggestion of a friend, Carver tried an online lender — his application was approved in four days and he had the money within a week. If he needs another loan, he’ll start with the internet.

“Anything related to my business that requires swift action, I’ll likely go with one of these companies that’s built for speed,” says Carver, owner of Atlanta-based Constellation Marketing.

The recently ended Paycheck Protection Program gave out more than 11 million loans worth over $788 billion. Banks were overwhelmed by more applications than they were used to handling, and many larger applicants got their loans processed ahead of smaller businesses. 

Some small companies with established banking relationships were rejected because they didn’t have the right mix of accounts. Others never heard back or were turned down without explanation. Many desperate for cash then turned to small banks or online lenders whose target customers are small businesses.

Online and other state-regulated lenders handled nearly 251,000 PPP loans totaling more than $6 billion in 2020, according to the Small Business Administration, which approved the loans. In the 2021 round of lending, which ended May 4, those companies made more than 1 million loans totaling nearly $21 billion. Those dollar amounts accounted for only about 1% of the program’s money, but it was cash many businesses couldn’t get elsewhere. 

Speed can be the difference maker for an owner in need of a loan. A traditional bank loan can take weeks between the application and the money arriving. Online lenders don’t have to comply with federal government regulations as banks do, so they can turn applications around faster, sometimes within hours.

A 2018 study by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland found owners want the relationship a traditional bank can offer — but they like the efficiency offered by online lenders. But there’s a downside to the ease and speed online lenders offer: cost. 

Some online loans carry interest rates that top the 20% business credit cards can carry. Traditional business loans are likely to have rates under 10%. (This wasn’t an issue with the PPP: Congress set the rate for all loans through the program at 1%.)

Paying a higher interest rate can make sense, Carver says.

“Money is important, but time is also a big part,” he says. 

There are varying estimates of the size of the online lending market for businesses, but it’s well into the dozens of billions of dollars and is expected to grow by double-digit percentages in the next few years. Investors and the financial services industry recognize the potential value of online lenders; PayPal, which went public in 2015, has nearly doubled in price since before the PPP began, compared to a 20% gain in the S&P 500 index over the same time frame. Last year, American Express bought Kabbage, which offers banking services in addition to loans. 

The PPP raised the profile of online lenders like PayPal and Square, says Karen Mills, who headed the SBA during the Obama administration and now is a research fellow at Harvard University. These companies based their lending on information in their own databases, payment histories being one example. 

“They were deeply committed to the success and future of the small business segment, so they leaned in,” Mills says.

When some small business clients of Kruze Consulting ran into roadblocks at their banks, the accounting firm recommended they try online lenders. All those clients got their loans and had good service.

“They would use those online services again,” says Healy Jones, a vice president at the firm that has offices in California, New York and Texas.

The PPP was a teachable moment for the accountants as they saw widely varying performances from all the lenders.

“We are really seeing it as a weighing mechanism to see which banks had the customer service and organizational chops to help clients during the crisis,” Jones says.