NAFA member, David Mayer, Partner at Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton, LLP, shares his perspective of business aviation amid the pandemic.
Shifting markets are creating new opportunities in a world altered by COVID-19. Here are some to consider.
WITH EVERY NEW YEAR COME HOPES FOR A BETTER WORLD, and 2021 is fairly bristling with them. Of particular relevance to equipment finance companies is the Equipment Leasing & Finance Foundation’s 2021 Equipment Leasing & Finance U.S. Economic Outlook, which forecasts 7.8% growth in equipment and software investment this year, and 4.7% growth in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Heartened by plans for widely distributed vaccines against COVID-19, industries and the companies within them are re-tooling to apply permanently many of the technologies and efficiencies necessitated by the pandemic. Equipment Leasing & Finance spoke to leaders in several equipment sectors experiencing changes that are leading to growth.Here’s what we learned:
There’s a Window in Trucking
Howard Shiebler is President of Crossroads Equipment & Finance LLC and Chairman of Velocity SBA, both in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Financing commercial trucks for transportation companies gives him a strategic view of one of the largest and most dynamic sectors in equipment finance. “We’re in an abnormally strong market now, both with values and the demand for tractors and trailers,” he says. “For those financing in this space, new business volume is up and repossessed inventory is selling quickly, and at good prices.”
The big question is how long current conditions will last. Increased consumer spending, much of it done online, helped freight markets recover quickly from initial pandemic shock. If economic recovery continues, Shiebler expects the strong transportation market to last well into 2021.
“Additionally, manufacturers of trucks and trailers have had their supply chains and work forces impacted by the pandemic, and the corresponding shortage of new equipment has driven demand and prices for used equipment to unusually high levels,” Shiebler notes. He adds, “I think some e-commerce-driven demand will become permanent, and manufacturers will eventually catch up with market demand, leading to a more typically cyclical transportation finance market.”
Nonetheless, Shiebler says equipment finance companies must still do a thorough job of underwriting in the space or risk getting into trouble. “When the economy slows, we’ll see freight rates drop, defaults increase and used truck prices drop fairly quickly,” he warns. “Lenders that understand this cycle underwrite to it, and they also properly staff collections and remarketing operations to deal with increased defaults.”
Healthcare Providers Want More Options
Jon Biorkman is President of Healthcare Financial Services at GE Healthcare. As the dynamics of the medical equipment market change, he sees healthcare providers revisiting budgeting, capital structure and other fundamentals of corporate finance to re-evaluate strategy and develop multiple scenarios for use in times of economic uncertainty.
“To account for variability, leadership teams are examining operating and non-operating cashflows, liquidity sources and cash on the balance sheet,” says Biorkman. “And as market dynamics continue to change, we’re bringing optionality to the table. This can be in terms of structure that allows for the deferment of a more permanent position, or increased liquidity to protect against unpredictable variability in patient volumes, payors and reimbursement trends.”
One such option is an escrow agreement that pre-funds capital for future equipment acquisitions. “The benefit is to lock in interest rates today, and secure capital for upcoming needs,” says Biorkman. Another option shortens the lease term, enabling equipment usage without full capital outlay.
“Creativity is something that matters to customers, and if we look at the market we’ve been operating in, it’s been incredibly dynamic,” Biorkman observes. “We view our role as providing customers with options for a future that may not be certain. We’re having candid conversations with them, being very grounded as it relates to financial projections—where they were before, where they are now, where they’re going. Liquidity and cash on the balance sheet have always been important, but today, customers are placing a premium on both—and alternative financial structures can really provide more tools.”
Aircraft Has Pockets of Promise
David Mayer, Partner at Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton, LLP, in Dallas, says the COVID crisis created a potential cash crunch for some owners of aircraft, and that a significant number of these are refinancing or entering into sale-leasebacks to cash out their equity in the equipment. “This is a global phenomenon, also driven in part by lower interest rates,” says Mayer. The upshot: opportunities exist in sale-leasebacks for those able to take residual risk, not just in tax leases, but in true or operating leases.
Mayer says there are also leases in which the credit advanced is fully paid out and the asset is sold for a purchase price at the end, which can be as low as $1 or another agreed price. “These deals have been active since the emergence of the pandemic and since rates have dropped,” he says. “I expect this trend to continue into 2021.”
Mayer has handled a number of such transactions and sees a particular market for the refinancing of larger jets with a value of $7 million or more. “One challenge for equipment finance companies will be to persuade customers that they won’t suffer ‘brain damage’ from engaging in a financing transaction,” says Mayer, tongue in cheek. “I say that because, compared to purchasing or borrowing, leasing is a more complex transaction.” Another deterrent among high-net-worth individuals and companies is pride of ownership and reluctance to use a financing product or allow a lessor or lender to control use of their aircraft.
“Make no mistake, the market is under stress and the pandemic is not helping,” Mayer cautions. “Companies that buy, lease or charter aircraft are leaving the business. But financiers are ready, able and willing to finance, and are doing more secured loans than true leases because they’re unable or unwilling to take the risk on the value of these assets.”
The aircraft market was on a downslope that started in 2019, and prices dropped another 10 to 15% at the start of COVID-19 before showing later indications of stabilizing. “But owners didn’t panic and sell; they were smart enough to stand by and wait—unlike what happened in 2008,” says Mayer. “Now equipment finance companies can provide these owners with smart and viable solutions in the form of true leases, tax leases, loans and sale-leasebacks.”
Small Businesses Need Your Capital
Marlin Capital Solutions provides equipment financing, working-capital loans, vendor financing and franchise financing to approximately 100,000 small businesses throughout the U.S. Thus, the company’s portfolio is a small-business index for sentiment and economic health, and CEO Jeff Hilzinger says the pandemic put the company “right at the center” of the 2020 economic storm.
“After ensuring the safety of our employees and the stability of our financial portfolio, we transferred people from our front office to our servicing team and immediately began reaching out to customers,” says Hilzinger. “We processed almost 6,000 requests for payment relief, most of them during April and May. And because we own a bank, we have an SBA license and were able to lend under the PPP program. We quickly created a platform to do that. Along with the payment relief we were providing, our goal was to preserve as much liquidity for our borrowers and in our own portfolio as possible.”
As Marlin helped its customers, the company also saw an opportunity to help itself. “The PPP platform we obtained was digital, and we’d always known we needed to become more digital,” says Hilzinger. “Once we took care of our employees, partners and customers and saw that the pandemic would last a while, we realized it could be a crisis of opportunity for us. We decided to dramatically accelerate our digitization and have been focused on it since June.”
In 2015, the New Jersey-based, small-ticket Independent had introduced a working-capital loan product to compete against fin techs. “We were always careful with it, because it hadn’t gone through a complete business cycle,” says Hilzinger. “But it turns out that the product performed much better than we expected, so now we’re redoubling our efforts
Because the small-business market resides next to the consumer market, Hilzinger says much of what consumers do with their personal credit can be projected for use in small business. “Once customers can access us digitally, we’ll be able to offer lines of credit and other micro-ticket products that were too much work to provide when our processes were manual,” he says. “Now we can offer these in ways that will be exciting to small businesses, and of economic benefit to us. Going digital definitely opens up new opportunities.”
Schools Urgently Need IT
Insight Financial Services (IFS) in Costa Mesa, California began studying the nuances of the k-12 school market about six years ago with the goal of doing business there. Through networking, they were introduced to OETC, an Oregon-based consortium that offers contracts for products supplied to K-12 schools and universities throughout the Pacific Northwest. “Needs were starting to change for schools at the time, and one of our customers suggested we talk to OETC about the consortium developing an RFP for school districts to lease IT,” says Andy Hashimoto, Vice President.
Over the next year, Hashimoto and Colleen O’Donnell, IFS Senior Vice President of State, Local and Education Business, explained to OETC the benefits municipalities and schools could leverage through leasing. A contract with IFS would allow OETC-member schools to acquire equipment without requesting proposals.
“What we found with many schools is that their previous plan had been to put equipment in the classroom with teachers and keep it until it didn’t work anymore,” says O’Donnell. “But the idea was evolving that schools need a sustainable strategy for IT and a budget to support it. They need technology that matches the curriculum, technology for both students and teachers that brings digital learning to life.”
COVID-19 greatly accelerated the need, and this past October, IFS was awarded a three-year contract as an approved IT equipment leasing services vendor in California. The contract is in addition to a nationwide agreement IFS already has with OETC, and expands the services the company can provide in California.
“This is a growing market for us, and we’ve experienced significant growth over the last couple of years,” says Hashimoto. “Today, school districts need large numbers of devices, and these can be acquired through a leasing contract that manages the entire life cycle.”
To that point, Hashimoto says much of IFS’s growth in the school market is attributable to asset management services included in the company’s contracts. “The asset management is geared to specific devices and allows school districts to be in control of what happens to the equipment,” he says. And because IFS tailors its leases to individual school-district budgets and needs, IFS is able to serve every customer. “We invest the time with each school district to customize the solution so that it works specifically for them,” says O’Donnell. “We structure from beginning to end to help them have the technology they need to support learning in the classroom and from home.”
Asked for suggestions for other equipment finance companies considering the school market, Hashimoto and O’Donnell have several thoughts. “Colleen and I have joked that we are evangelists for leasing, but it’s true that customers need to be educated about how leasing can help them,” says Hashimoto. “Our message about this has been the same since we started with the education market, but with COVID-19 driving and accelerating the need for IT equipment, what we had to say became that much more important and understandable. Communicate often with your customers, and explain clearly how leasing can be a solution for budgets, for obtaining the equipment they need, and for controlling what happens to that equipment at the end of the lease.”
Adds O’Donnell, “I’d say the willingness to be nimble, to explore the market deeply and invest time communicating with prospects and building relationships, is extremely important. Working this way is a cornerstone of our business, and by doing it, we’re in a position to respond immediately when needs change or a crisis arises. It’s how we provide solutions our customers are looking for.”
This article originally appeared in Equipment Leasing & Finance Magazine's Jan/Feb 2021 Issue.