Other Fish

Alternative sources of capital can help when traditional funding disappears.

Money’s too tight to mention. The credit crunch has slowed the flow of funds from banks, the IPO market is moribund and shareholders are shunning all but the most worthy rights issues. What’s a cash-strapped CFO to do?

The answer could be to turn to lesser-known funding channels. “Six months before the credit crunch, there was a tremendous amount of liquidity and people were able to raise money in traditional formats,” says Martin Cooper, head of the large and major corporates division at Lloyds TSB Commercial Finance, a UK asset-based lender. “Post-credit crunch, that liquidity has gone away, and as a consequence people are looking for alternatives.”

As the following examples show, CFOs searching for different ways of raising funds have a range of choices, some more exotic than others.

Asset-Based Lending: Taking Stock

Asset-based lending (ABL) isn’t considered alternative by everyone. In the US, secured lending against the value of assets — such as plant or stock or raising money against outstanding invoices with a factoring firm — is a common source of financing. The industry in America is now worth more than $500 billion (€322 billion). In Europe, it is far less mature. Even in the UK, the most active market outside the US, the perception of factoring as a desperate last resort has dogged the industry.

This seems to be changing. Last summer, 16 asset-based lenders in the UK, ranging from arms of big banks to independent players, formed a committee to demonstrate that as a group of lenders, “we were able to support bigger-ticket [M&A] deals,” says Paul Hancock, head of ABL at JPMorgan and co-chairman of the UK’s Asset-Based Finance Association (ABFA). Given the slowdown in M&A, Hancock now foresees a rise in companies using ABL to refinance instead. In the first quarter of 2008, in fact, the ABFA estimates that British ABL firms lent a record £16 billion (€20 billion), and anecdotal evidence from industry practitioners indicates that ABL use in Germany, the Netherlands and other parts of Europe has been rising.

While it can be pricier for companies to raise cash using their assets instead of conventional borrowing, CFOs may like the idea of tapping a single funding package from one source that leverages against myriad assets. A recent ABL user is Borders UK, a private equity-backed UK bookshop chain spun off from its American parent. In February it set up a £23m funding line with Landsbanki Commercial Finance, secured against its inventory.

As for CFOs of other companies who are thinking about ABL, Cooper reckons, “they’d probably be surprised at how easy it is to put in place and how easy it is to operate an ABL facility.” What’s more, he says, “once they’ve actually got the facility in place — so long as they look after the assets — they’re freed up to get on and manage their business.”

144A: Thanks but No Thanks, SOX

Asset-based lending has been around for years, even if many CFOs have never had reason to consider it. Other funding channels have been more widely used, but are only now really coming to the fore. Take the 144A market, which offers companies a relatively painless way to tap certain American investors. The SEC introduced it through rule 144A in the early 1990s to allow qualified institutional buyers (QIBs) to invest in debt and equity from companies not registered with the SEC. The issuing companies experience lighter regulation and less disclosure, making it cheaper and faster than raising funds through an IPO.

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