The Death of Factoring Will Be Highly Exaggerated

Last Friday, Spend Matters published a great Friday rant by the prophet aptly titled Die Factoring, Die! because Factoring can be the death of many an uninformed supplier who, like desperate individuals, take out payday loans to pay off payday loans at insanely compounding interest rates until they go bankrupt.

Factoring should die. It is no longer needed, but the doctor fears just like the pulp industry has survived for over a century when it should have died out long ago, it will still be around a century later. Just like the pulp industry had the perfect environment to grow until it was big and powerful enough to effectively outlaw the competition, the factoring industry has the same perfect environment to grow and crush the better options.

Before we explain, we’ll point out that just like there is a better alternative to factoring, as the prophet pointed out in his post, there is a better alternative to wood-based paper. In particular, the alternative that was around before the wood-based paper craze: hemp. Whereas hardwood trees take decades to mature, hemp can be grown and harvested in a single growing season. It’s the number one biomass producer on the planet (10 tons per acre in 4 months) and contains 77% cellulose (needed for paper) compared to the average tree at 30%. It’s stronger, the paper lasts centuries longer, does not require any bleaching, and the production requires significantly less water and energy than paper production from trees. (The pulp and paper industry uses more water to produce one ton of product than any other industry and is the fifth largest consumer of energy on the planet.) Hemp for paper is many order of magnitudes better, but since hemp (which contains, on average, 1/5 to 1/10th the THC of cannabis) was made illegal with the delegalization of THC in North America, it’s not an option.

This was possible because the pulp and paper industry was rich and powerful enough to lobby for the delegalization across the board, vs. just the delegalization of cannabis. They got that way because, during the start of the industrial revolution, when paper was needed en-masse to “power” back offices, North America was filled with old hardwood forests and there was not much hemp, as hemp was native to Central and South America. The population was much smaller than it is now, the possibility of deforestation was not even considered (as manual logging could only go so fast), and the technology to produce paper from pulp was understood and easy (at the time). And it could meet demand fast — logging could happen year round whereas hemp could only be harvested once a year in many of the central and northern parts of the US. So it became the defacto paper producing industry, and since everyone needed paper, it obtained a monopoly. And since no one knew better, or was even allowed to learn of a better way, the monopoly persists until this day.

Similarly, the factoring industry has obtained a monopoly on what is effectively “payday lending” to suppliers that need money now, can’t get it from the bank, and don’t want to beg the local “godfather” for a loan (at interest rates that put even North American credit card companies to shame, with default penalties much worse than repossession). How did it get like this? First of all, there have been no other viable options for many of these suppliers (as not all suppliers are lucky enough to get buyers that will offer the [slightly] better alternative of early payment discounting, as not all buyers can afford that). Secondly, growth demands working capital, and the capital has to come from wherever it can, and if you are a supplier in an emerging or tight market, it’s often factoring or death. Thirdly, the banks stayed out of it for too long, allowing the industry to grow and cement on its own, and now that it is “proven”, the banks have been drawn to it like moths to a flame, and they control the global cash flow.

So as long as it is effectively a cash cow, which it is as it is a slow cash drain (death) for most suppliers (meaning that you’ll acquire and keep more customers in a year than you bankrupt), more suppliers need it everyday (as they try to stay in business when times become troubled or they try to grow faster than they can afford), and it’s relatively low risk compared to other types of lending, it’s going to continue to gain support and traction from the lenders, who are going to do their best to present it as the only option available. And some suppliers will believe, lock-in, and get trapped in the factor cycle, factoring more and more invoices over time until every invoice needs to be factored as soon as it is issued just so the supplier can make payroll.

So even though modern platforms, backed by “big data” (even though the data doesn’t have to be all that “big” to adequately calculate risk and buyer payment time-frames), and enabled by networks (that give the supplier dozens or hundreds of options including half a dozen or dozens of better ones), could provide better options, the doctor just doesn’t see it happening any time soon. We’ve known since 2000 that multi-line item optimization can save an organization 10% or more on just about every sourcing event (and since Aberdeen’s advanced sourcing study in 2005 that it will save an organization an average of 12% across all categories) and still less than 10% of organizations using strategic sourcing platforms are effectively employing it — even though modern optimization-backed sourcing platforms make it easy enough for even junior buyers to use it self-serve and run basic models and identify considerable savings without expert support. (Not always the full 10% to 12%, but enough savings to justify its use on each and every event!) Factoring is finance, and banks have made finance unnecessarily complicated to maintain the monopoly. So it’s here to stay. And when big data and networks enter the picture, you can bet it will be the factorers, and not the factorees, that gain.

It’s sad, but for now — and the foreseeable future, it’s true.

One thought on “The Death of Factoring Will Be Highly Exaggerated

  1. Craig Knowles

    Great article and one that I totally agree with. Factoring should, but won’t die. I previously worked at a company that was stuck in the factoring cycle. To stay afloat the company constantly required invoices to be factored on a weekly basis. Interesting the company was in such poor financial health that the money was used immediately to pay outstanding salaries and ‘some’ outstanding bills with suppliers. Therefore the factoring cycle was leading to a further cycle of outstanding balances with suppliers. Which meant that the suppliers who weren’t desperate for our business (typically those who knew they were supplying high quality for market price) often wouldn’t work with ourselves. Therefore by factoring invoices (which effectively bought the company time) was costing us more from having to purchase products at higher rates from suppliers. But by this point the company didn’t have the capabilities (manpower, expertise etc) to not factor invoices. Therefore the factoring cycle has continued for 5+ years.

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