The Federal Reserve Board on Thursday released Uncertain Terms: What Small Business Borrowers Find When Browsing Online Lender Websites, a report that examines the information that prospective small business borrowers encounter when researching and comparing credit products offered by online lenders.
Nonbank online lenders are becoming more mainstream alternative providers of financing to small businesses. In 2018, nearly one-third of small business owners seeking credit reported having applied at a nonbank online lender. The industry’s growing reach has the potential to expand access to credit for small firms, but also raises concerns about how product costs and features are disclosed. The report’s analysis of a sampling of online content finds significant variation in the amount of upfront information provided, especially on costs. On some sites, descriptions feature little or no information about the actual products or about rates, fees, and repayment terms. Lenders that offer term loans are likely to show costs as an annual rate, while others convey costs using terminology that may be unfamiliar to prospective borrowers. Details on interest rates, if shown, are most often found in footnotes, fine print, or frequently asked questions.
The report’s findings build on prior work, including two rounds of focus groups with small business owners who reported challenges with the lack of standardization in product descriptions and with understanding product terms and costs.
In addition, the report finds that a number of websites require prospective borrowers to furnish information about themselves and their businesses in order to obtain details about product costs and terms. Lenders’ policies permit any data provided by the small business owner to be used by the lender and other third parties to contact business owners, often leading to bothersome sales calls. Moreover, online lenders make frequent use of trackers to monitor visitors on their websites. Even when visitors do not share identifying information with the lender, embedded trackers may collect data on how they navigate the website as well as other sites visited.