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Technology Levels the Playing Field for Self-Directed Investors

December 4, 2014

Guest article by Matt Lutz:

Anyone with a self-directed retirement account will tell you adding alternative investments to the portfolio can supercharge investment returns and enables investors to participate in asset classes where they are most skilled and knowledgeable. After one learns about self-directed investing, he or she will typically make the same types of investments utilizing the self directed account that he or she would make outside of the account. A real estate investor who owns single family rental properties will use self-directed IRA (SDIRA) funds to buy single family rental properties or a tax lien investor will participate in tax lien auctions using his or her SDIRA. Assets like single family housing and tax liens are great allocations of SD funds. Individual investors with knowledge of the local real estate market have the same advantage as institutional investors. The barriers to entry are very low. Anyone with money can buy a mobile home, a single family home or attend a tax lien auction. The only restriction is the amount of money the investor has. With knowledge and capital the individual investor can continue to participate in the asset classes.

Self-directed investors it seems by nature are an inquisitive bunch and want to learn about other asset classes. Most have looked at businesses and thought “I wish I could get returns like that” or “how do I invest in something like that?” Many of those businesses or investments are often controlled by institutional investors or specialty finance companies who don’t want anyone entering their markets. One thing we know about competition is that it reduces profits. The institutions want to protect the superior yields they are able to achieve. Prior to a few years ago, if an individual investor could break into those markets, it required a tremendous amount of the investor’s time and energy to find deals and then additional time and effort to conduct due diligence. Technology has changed that.

The most recent credit crisis is a great example of how technology has affected different asset classes. Everyone knows the banks were overrun with non-performing subprime single-family mortgages. A very similar thing happened in the late 1980’s to the Savings and Loans Industry with commercial real estate mortgages. The S & L crisis had the highest number of bank failures since the Great Depression with 797 thrifts shuttered and total assets of $394 billion. The problem was so large the United States government created the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) to liquidate the non-performing loans and collateralized assets. The RTC became a massive government institution that existed until 1995 when its duties were transferred to the FDIC. The most recent crisis although much larger (and scarier at the time) was much different. Technology enabled non-performing loans and properties to be sold via online auctions. Not only did technology help liquidate the non-performing loans much faster than the previous crisis but investors, large and small, could participate. Mortgages and REO’s (Real Estate Owned) were sold individually or in pools. An investor with a self-directed IRA could participate in the same auction as a Greenwich hedge fund. The Greenwich hedge fund might have a capital advantage but the individual investor knows his or her local real estate market much better.

So what other asset classes are are now available to individuals because of technology?

Consumer and small business lending are experiencing tremendous changes. Peer to peer lending companies like Prosper and Lending Club allow individuals to apply for unsecured personal loans up to $35,000. Individual investors can participate by investing as little as $25. The peer to peer lenders underwrite and service the loans. The investor’s decision is whether to invest and if so, how much? An individual investor has the same opportunity and the same information as a bank or specialty finance company.

Small business funding 

A very profitable business controlled by specialty finance companies is buying trade receivables or factoring. Factoring is a $3 trillion dollar industry run by companies like CIT. What is it? Factoring is the sale of accounts receivable (invoices) to finance companies (factors). The finance company discounts what it pays the seller of the invoice. Example. Let’s say Joe’s Hammer Company sells hammers to Home Depot. Home Depot is Joe’s biggest customer but it’s slow to pay which is normal practice for large companies. Home Depot might not pay Joe for 120 days. That doesn’t help Joe pay his employees or electric bill so Joe will sell Home Depot’s invoice (the legal obligation to pay him) to a factor. Joe receives a discounted amount of the the invoice immediately and the finance company will receive the entire amount in 120 days. The factor determines the discount amount and Joe has to decide to “take it or leave it.” Sometimes the discount can be as much as 30%. It is a very profitable business for the factor because businesses will continually sell receivables to meet their cash flow needs. It’s also a great business because a company like Home Depot (the obligor) has very good credit and is legally responsible to pay the invoice. The odds of not receiving payment from Home Depot are very slim.

Technology has disrupted the factoring business as well. Recently an online marketplace has launched that allows companies to sell their trade receivables to self-directed investors. Allegheny Exchange operates an auction format exchange that allows companies like Joe’s Hammer Company to sell its invoices at a discount to individual investors. The exchange provides credit ratings of the invoice sellers and invoice obligors, validates the invoices being sold and facilitates the payment process between the invoice sellers, buyers and obligors. The sales of the invoices are full recourse to the sellers which means the sellers and obligors are legally responsible for paying the invoice buyers. The exchange is a turn-key solution for investors to participate in a market previously controlled by specialty finance companies. Technology not only allows individuals to participate in the asset class but greatly reduces the time and effort normally required to make investments. The investors only responsibilities are deciding which invoices to buy and how much they will pay for them. The appeal of trade receivable investing is apparent; short-term, high yielding assets with an invoice obligor legally responsible for payment and full recourse to the invoice seller. Because most trade receivables are paid within 60-120 days, they are a superior alternative to money markets and commercial paper to park cash between longer duration investments.

Matt Lutz, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur, has been utilizing a self-directed IRA for the past ten years. He was featured in the June 6, 2012 Forbes Magazine article, ‘Go Rogue With Your IRA.’ He has used his IRA to buy real estate, trade receivables, tax liens, performing and non-performing mortgages, and floor plan loans for car dealerships. He is currently the Managing Partner of Allegheny Exchange. Matt can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 412-841-5009.