Have you ever been through a breakup you didn’t see coming? Judging by the stories small businesses share about their banks — and the stories that banks tell themselves about those same relationships — it seems the industry is on the verge of needing a pint of ice cream and a good cry.
It might be over between small businesses and banks.
I talk to a lot of bankers, and many tout their banks’ focus on small businesses — the restaurants, hairdressers and other staples that fuel local economies. These bankers pride themselves and their teams on knowing their clients well. If a hard rain floods the local lake, they pick up the phone to call their marina clients to make sure they’re doing OK. It’s special — but in a springtime pockmarked by pandemic, it might not be enough.
The relationships between banks and their small business customers are more strained than banks might realize, according to a January research report sponsored by Autobooks and conducted by Aite Group.
“Less than half (47%) of U.S.-based small businesses believe their primary institution understands their needs,” stated Autobooks, a Detroit-based fintech that provides small business accounting tools, in a release about the research. Aite also found that more than 60% of small businesses have turned to a nonbank provider to meet at least one financial need that their bank can’t fill.
These shortfalls have been ongoing, but changing market conditions caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 could be the final straw for underserved small businesses.
It boils down to this: Banks that haven’t invested in technology are behind the curve when it comes to helping their small business clients weather crises. At the same time, technology companies that are already providing small business customers with products they love now have clear paths to offering financial services that only banks used to be able to provide. Cash management, payments and fast loans will be crucial to the survival of small businesses; technology is going to be the key to saving them.
Nowhere is the importance of technology more crystallized than in the current debate over emergency small business loans. Banks are struggling to keep up with rising loan demand. Complicated applications, slow underwriting and a lack of payment options may convince small business customers to turn to nonbank lenders for fast funding, even if they pay a higher interest rate.
The same scenario is unfolding in the realm of government-backed loans from the Small Business Administration. Until recently, banks were the only institutions that could serve as conduits for the Economic Injury Disaster Loans that help troubled businesses in times of crisis. But big, national fintech lenders were quick to lobby for an expansion of that rule, and they got it. Congressional coronavirus relief gave the U.S. Treasury Department the authority to allow “additional lenders” to make these loans. Congress acquiesced to the change because timing is everything when it comes to small business loans in a crisis.
Half of small businesses only have enough cash on hand to operate for 27 days, and an additional 25% only have enough cash reserves to operate for 13 days without new revenue, according to an oft-cited 2016 survey from JPMorgan Chase & Co. SBA loans made through partner banks typically take several months before the cash is available to borrowers — an untenable timeline for companies with mounting expenses and no revenue. Fintech lenders say they could push emergency loans out in days, potentially saving many businesses from failure but funneling significant volume away from banks.
The loans businesses need to survive today could easily morph into larger relationships with nonbanks tomorrow, as fintechs cross old regulatory moats by securing their own charters and deposit insurance.
So far, 2020 has seen significant fintech advances into banking from Varo Money and LendingClub Corp. But the move that seems to have caused the most hand-wringing among traditional banks is Square’s approval for deposit insurance as part of its Utah industrial loan charter. The payments heavyweight has an established national brand among small businesses, and could divert large amounts of small business clients away from brick-and-mortar banks when it starts offering loans and deposit products in 2021.
Square has provided mission-critical financial services for small businesses since its inception. Many businesses trust their payment products for every transaction they make. Square may have the loyalty it needs to earn the entire banking relationship.
Technology companies like Square aren’t going to pick up the phone to check in on a marina client after the local lake floods. But they are going to provide timely, tuned-in products. In a crisis, that may matter more.