‘Salvador Dalí seduced many ladies, particularly American ladies, but these seductions usually consisted of stripping them naked in his apartment, frying a couple of eggs, putting the eggs on the woman’s shoulders and, without a word, showing them the door.’ –Luis Buñuel

New York usury law makes it illegal to charge very high interest rates on loans. If you charge more than 16% on a loan in New York, the borrower might not have to pay you back; if you charge more than 25%, you might be committing a crime. Some people want to charge higher rates on loans, and so they want to structure loans that don’t look like loans to avoid usury rules.

The classic general way to do this is to structure the loan as a purchase. If the borrower — sorry, let’s use a more neutral word, maybe “customer” — has an asset that will pay $100 in cash in a year, you can buy that asset today for $80. You’ll get the $100 in a year, for a 25% return on your money; the customer gets $80 today instead of $100 in a year. That’s a lot like the customer borrowing $80 today at 25% interest, but you have called it a purchase and sale rather than a loan. Legally, this might or might not work, depending on the details (if the asset turns out to be worthless, does the customer still have to pay you?).

Lots of quite normal high-finance lending works this way — “structuring a loan as a sale” roughly characterizes things like the repo market, asset-backed securities or receivables factoring — but, also, lots of shady usurious low-finance lending works this way. […]

Yellowstone Capital, a pioneer in a form of high-risk lending called merchant cash advance, was sued by New York’s attorney general for $1.4 billion for allegedly making illegal loans to small businesses.

For years, Yellowstone lent money at rates that exceeded usury limits – sometimes more than 800% annualized, according to the lawsuit filed in New York state court in Manhattan Tuesday.

{ Bloomberg | Continue reading }