Factoring is an ancient function found as far back as Babylonian times. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi covered certain trade practices of merchants’ agents who guaranteed trade credits. This was the earliest recorded factoring.

A Factor in early European history was defined as a representative, who looked after someone else’s business affairs. A noble lord would not conduct business transactions directly with those considered beneath them and the Factor would act as go between. The Factor would convey contracts, collect and disburse funds and see to transporting goods.

Prior to the 20th century, a Factor was a business agent whose functions included warehousing and selling the goods that were consigned to him, accounting to his clients about money collected, guaranteeing the credit of customers and sometimes making cash advances to his clients before the actual sale of the goods took place. His services were of particular value in foreign trade and for this reason Factors became important figures during colonial exploration and development.

Factoring In North American Colonial Times

The development of North America, from the end of the 18th century, required the flow of capital and know-how, much of which came from Europe. European exports of capital and goods were arranged along the traditional pattern: commission trade on a “friends and relations” basis. This meant that European merchants and manufacturers sent over sons and trusted relatives to strategic locations on the American continent, where they purchased and sold goods on commission for their European clients, friends and relatives.

The rapid growth of International trade in American colonial times spurred a growth in factoring. The Factor moved from being a relative to being a businessman who might handle many goods from many merchants.

The early Factors combined trading, banking, accounting and shipping to facilitate trade and open up new commercial frontiers. Several commission companies (Factors) were formed in New York and were backed by European merchants and producers in Manchester, Liverpool, London, Paris, Lyons, Zurich, Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp and numerous other trading cities.
Dealing in such port towns as Savannah, Charleston, Boston and New York, the Factors acted as a trade conduit for tobacco, cotton and indigo to the main commercial centers in Europe. The factors took risks for high profits, while the growers received a reduced payment for their goods before the goods actually reached the final buyer.

U.S. Cotton Factoring

The role of Factors is well illustrated by the “Cotton-Factors” in the United States in the early 19th century. Cotton was exported from the South to New York and Europe. Eighty percent of the U.S. cotton crop was sent to Europe. Extended transportation and warehousing periods caused long delays from the harvest until the payment from the spinning mill. Thus, there was the need for the Factor to advance money against orders to the growers so the growers could continue operations, instead of waiting for the cotton to arrive at its destination and the funds to travel back to them.

The transportation and the sales were performed in stages: from plantation or farm to a trading town in the interior or on a navigable river; from there, directly or indirectly, to an export port on the seaboard like New Orleans or Savannah. (There is still a historic area in Savannah near the river called Factors Walk.) From the export port the cotton was shipped to New York for its ultimate destination, Europe.

Transportation of the cotton bales was directed and financed by a network of specialized cotton Factors. The cotton was sold on commission to Factors up the chain. Advances were granted and taken with the money coming from the export Factors. These advances were often financed by Factors that operated in importing countries or in another country rich in capital.

Post Civil War Factoring

After the Civil War, direct contacts between buyers and spinning mills and direct transport to the mills and consumer markets were increased. These changes were brought about by improved communication (railroads, mail services and telephones). As textile manufacturers became established in the United States, they no longer required the Factor to handle storage, selling and delivery. Consequently, these roles were gradually removed from the Factors, leaving them with the functions of assuming credit and collection responsibilities, as well as providing advances against receivables. Factoring moved out into other industries, but the old style Factor diminished in importance.

The Factor/Bank Connection

Factoring in the U.S. gradually adapted to specialized financial and administrative services. Although the First National Bank of Boston provided factoring to its clients for many years, the modern rush into factoring didn’t begin until 1965 when the First National City Bank in New York bought Hubschman Factors and the Factor/bank relationship was born. The financial strength and respectability provided by the bank gave the Factor an ability to be more competitive, expand their markets to more product lines and lent a level of respectability to the factoring of receivables. Today factoring is accepted as another financing alternative.

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“Calling SouthStar really saved my business. They were able to factor our invoices, so we could make payroll on time and were also able to continue taking on new customers.”

– Jim, Owner of a Commercial Landscaping Company