Positive Financial Innovation: Small Business Equity Investing

by: Steve Waldman

Felix Salmon has been on a tear lately. If you haven’t already, go read his fantastic post on the appalling double standard whereby human creditors are morally bound to repay all loans while business debtors have a duty to default whenever they find advantage in doing so.

In another great post, Felix quotes commenter Dan, who argues that rather than “lend to a nearly bankrupt and profligate entity” (he means the US Treasury), investors might “learn basics of business and investing and carefully loan out [funds] to local small businesses.”

I love the idea of small business investing, in theory. But I don’t do it, because, in practice, it is time consuming and fraught with economic, legal, and interpersonal risks. One of the sad ironies of our pseudo-capital markets is that it is easy for small investors to supply funds to firms that are large and distant, about which we have little unusual insight. But it is difficult to build a diverse portfolio out of local firms we know intimately and have a personal stake in. This is an area where regulation is more a part of the problem than part of the solution: it is prohibitively expensive for the brilliantly run café down the way to meet all the requirements of selling public equity via pink sheets, let alone getting listed on Nasdaq SmallCap and doing an IPO.

In any case, common stock is a poor vehicle for small business investing, because it is nearly impossible to value even with the most elaborate financial reporting, and offers minority investors so weak a claim that thieves and charlatans flock to provide. There is no easier business than selling empty promises for good money. So, in the world-as-it-is, only investors willing to actively participate in a small business (or at least to actively supervise) take equity stakes, while more distant third parties prefer debt, with its promise to pay on time, or else.

But those choices are too stark. Small entrepreneurs would like outside investors to share the risk of building and running a firm in this dangerously uncertain world. They’d like outside investors to make their enterprise more robust. But debt financing magnifies the risks of a living firm. Entrepreneurs share burdens with debt investors only via bankruptcy, or via painful negotiations to forestall bankruptcy.

Outside investors who are enthusiastic about a small business might well be willing to provide the flexibility that entrepreneurs would want, in exchange for a bit of upside. But again, common equity is a nonstarter for passive investors in very small firms. Conventional preferred equity doesn’t work either: preferred investors tend to view nonpayment of dividends as default, and the lack of a legal ability to enforce doesn’t make them happier. Entrepreneurs therefore find preferred equity expensive to raise (especially given the tax disadvantage! see here and here and here and here and here). Since investor expectations of payment don’t correlate with business success, it doesn’t really diminish entrepreneurs’ cash flow risk. Psychologically, since there is unlikely to be liquid secondary markets for microbiz preferred equity, investors won’t perceive much upside in small business preferred: the base case is that dividends are paid on time and as promised, the downside is dividends are skipped and/or the business fails, leaving them screwed. One could try to sell convertible preferred to create upside, but that’s complicated to value, especially given the deficiencies of small business common stock.

If someone devised an equity instrument that would offer stronger, easier-to-value promises than common equity; that would effectively disperse entrepreneurs’ risks while offering investors an upside; and that could be efficiently offered in modest chunks small investors could incorporate into diverse portfolios, I think that would be a fantastic financial innovation.

And it wouldn’t even be hard to do. For all the billions Wall Street poured into “financial innovation” over the last decade, investment bankers simply never bothered to try to solve this problem. Keep doing God’s work, Lloyd.

Here’s a sketch, one of many possible ways this circle might be squared. We’ll propose a kind of variable-maturity zero coupon bond. (Zero coupon preferred, really.) Imagine that every dollar of a small business’ operating cash inflow were indexed. That first dollar bill that gets framed and placed on the wall? That’s dollar number one. By the end of the first night of business at the new pub ‘n grub, maybe dollar number 2000 would have slid through the register.

Suppose businesses sold numbered dollars. Dollar number 420,167 has just been rung in. How much would you pay for dollar number 600,000? If you pay 91¢ for that dollar and it takes a year for the business to bring the next ~$180K, you’ve earned a 10% return. If business is great, and it only takes 6 months to reach that sales level, then you earn a 20% annualized return. ROI is dependent only on the briskness of sales, something that is tangible and observable, something that customers/investors can understand and estimate. These claims would confer no control rights upon their holders (except potentially when they are in arrears), so entrepreneurs, the residual claimants, would price their goods and services to maximize profits, not revenue. Holders of fixed income/variable term claims would be along for the ride. Assuming a non-wimpy business owner, investors’ best strategy for maximizing the value of their claims is to drum up business, which is a win/win for the entrepreneur and the investor. Investor repayments would naturally correlate with business success: when business is slow, few payments to investors would come due. When business is brisk, lots of claims would mature.

This is the sort of instrument a financial technology start-up could invent and popularize. There’d be lots to think about: you’d want to provide a standardized and trustworthy accounting system to count operating cash flow, you’d want entrepreneurs to state and the system to enforce limits on the “density” of claims that entrepreneurs could sell (to keep incentives intact), you might want to provide (opt-in or opt-out) automatic reinvestment of maturing claims. A firm might permit claims to be redeemed in services rather than in cash on favorable terms, at investors’ option, etc. At least initially, this kind of scheme would supplement, not replace, traditional forms of financing. Businesses would want backup credit lines in case redemptions exceed reinvestment, leaving the business starved of capital. But selling dollars of future revenue is simple enough for retail investors, for customers and clients, to understand. It could be implemented cheaply, in a standardized way, that would allow individuals to build diversified portfolios out of small exposures in the businesses they know and patronize. For entrepreneurs, it would offer a means both of raising risk-bearing capital and inspiring customer activism on behalf of the business.

Maybe this is a workable idea. Maybe not. But I am sure that the problem it tries to address is not intractable, or even that hard. If the brilliant minds behind the structured finance revolution would devote one or two percent of their synapses to inventing alternative forms of small business finance, we might find that the self-induced catastrophes of the legacy banking system needn’t translate into depressions for entrepreneurs and small businesses and all the people they employ.