The head of what is arguably private equity's most successful technology investment firm -- Vista Equity Partners -- made a rare appearance on Meet The Press to discuss the steps that the country needs to take to help minority-owned businesses recover from the economic collapse caused by the COVID-19 epidemic.
Robert F. Smith is one of the worlds wealthiest private equity investors, a noted philanthropist, and the richest African American in the U.S. Days after announcing a $1.5 billion investment into the Indian telecommunications technology developer Jio Platforms, Smith turned his attention to the U.S. and the growing economic crisis that's devastating minority businesses and financial institutions even as the COVID-19 epidemic ravages the health of minority communities.
Calling the COVID-19 "a pandemic on top of a series of epidemics", Smith said that the next round of stimulus needs to support the small businesses that still remain underserved by traditional financial institutions -- and that new financial technology software and services can help.
"We need to continue to rally as Americans to come with real, lasting, scalable solutions to enable the communities that are getting hit first, hardest, and probably will take the longest to recover with solutions that will help these communities thrive again," Smith told NBC's Chuck Todd.
Smith called for an infusion of cash into community development financial institutions and for a new wave of technology tools to support transparency and facilitate operations among these urban rural communities that aren't served by large banking institutions.
In all, the first round of the Congressional stimulus package poured $6 trillion into the U.S. economy through authorizations for the Treasury to issue $4 trillion in credit and $2 billion in cash payouts to various industries. The average size of those initial loans was just under $240,000, according to a post-mortem assessment of the Payroll Protection Program written by Lendio chief executive Brock Blake for Forbes.
Blake's assessment of the shortcomings of the PPP echoes Smith's own criticism of the program. "Many of these small communities -- urban, rural -- aren't being banked by the large institutions," Smith said. Instead they're working with community development financial institutions that in many instances weren't approved lenders under the Small Business Administration and so were not able to distribute PPP money and make loans to their customers.
"We have to take this opportunity to reinvest in our business infrastructure in these small to medium businesses. In our banking infrastructure so that we can actually emerge out of this even stronger," Smith said. "We have to invest in technology and software so that these 'capillary banking systems' are more efficient and they have more access to capital so they can engage with these businesses that are underbanked."
In many instances this would amount to the construction of an entirely new financial infrastructure to support the small businesses that were only just beginning to emerge in minority communities after the 2008 recession.
"We need to get this average loan size to $25,000 and $15,000," said Smith. To do that, community banks and development finance institutions are going to need to be able to access new fintech solutions that accelerate their ability to assess the creditworthiness of their customers and think differently about how to allocate capital and make loans.
In some ways, Smith is echoing the call that fintech executives have been making since the PPP stimulus first started making its way through the financial system and banks began issuing loans.
"We would be remiss if we didn’t take a significant portion of capital to reinvest in the infrastructure of delivering capital back into those businesses and frankly reinvest in those businesses and give them technology and capability so there’s more transparency and visibility so there’s an opportunity to grow [and] scale," said Smith. "I don’t want to see us go back to the same position where we were so we have these banking deserts."
The head of Vista Equity Partners has even tasked his own portfolio companies to come up with solutions. As Barron's reported last week, Smith told the Vista Equity portfolio company Finastra to develop technology that could help small lenders process Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses in underserved communities.
“In the process, it became apparent how unbanked these most vulnerable communities are, and we felt it was imperative to help build out permanent infrastructure in those banks so that they can build long-term relationships with the U.S. Small Business Administration beyond PPP,” Smith told Barrons.
As of last week, 800 lenders had processed 75,000 loans using the software that London-based Finastra developed for U.S. small lenders. Those loans generated $2.2 million in processing fees for the fintech company, proving that there's money to be made in the small ticket lending market. And even as Finastra is reaping the rewards of its push into small business lending services, Vista Equity and Smith are donating the same amount to local food banks, according to a spokeswoman for the private equity firm, Barron's reported.