Peer-to-Fear

Peer-to-Fear

In January of this year I resurfaced some of my older reporting on the peer-to-peer, or marketplace, lending industry and wrote this line in the first article about Lending Club raising interest rates for the riskiest borrowers on its platform:

It’s worth recalling the words of some investors at the time who criticized LendingClub’s lofty $8.9 billion valuation—reached partly because of overwhelming enthusiasm for all things tech-related.  “These companies are really specialty finance companies, but look at where specialty finance companies trade in the public markets,” said one major marketplace lending investor at the time [of LendingClub’s late 2014 IPO].

It’s a point that, like much of my coverage, has been oft-repeated since – especially in the wake of recent news that Renaud Laplanche, LendingClub’s CEO, resigned following allegations of internal control issues and a rather sloppy ABS deal with Jefferies. My interest in marketplace lending has always been its overlap with traditional finance and the degree to which – as I’ve often written – the disruptive sector has been  co-opted by the very thing it sought to disrupt. In fact, one of the earliest enterprise pieces I wrote on the nascent industry, from January 2013, included the following gems:

“The one thing about peer-to-peer lending is it’s still a relatively manual process. This business needs a lot of scale to be profitable,” said a P2P analyst.

“In order to grow this business one must really have made relationships on the institutional side,” said a P2P CEO.

“On the surface it really almost comes across as too good to be true,” said a P2P institutional investor.

More than three years later and the pressures of scaling a ‘technology’ business that still relies on direct mail for advertising, and which derives much of its value from avoiding the legacy costs (including regulation) of traditional banks, seems to have come to a head viz LendingClub’s apparently lax internal controls, funding and securitization processes.

For those interested, here’s my more recent coverage of the industry’s travails.

When credit market concerns arrive at the marketplace lenders, January 2016 – Recall that the bear case for marketplace lenders was always a turning of the credit cycle that would either produce a rise in borrower defaults or result in a dearth of funding as skittish investors cut their lending on the platform. At the beginning of this year, credit markets spasmed,and LendingClub raised rates on lower-quality loans on its platform by about 67bps as it sought to better compensate nervous investors.

More trouble in bonds backed by peer-to-peer loans, March 2016 – A rating agency slapping a credit rating on a securitization only to downgrade it eight weeks later because of faster-than-expected-delinquencies seems … reminiscent of something.

A new class action suit wants to treat peer-to-peer lenders like mobsters, April 2016 – A scoop about a class action suit that strikes at the heart of the marketplace lending model and came on top of the already troublesome Madden vs Midland Funding decision, completed the ‘doomsday duo’ of funding concerns and regulatory scrutiny for the industry.

LendingClub is turning out to be anything but a direct lender, May 2016 – The resignation of Laplanche sent LendingClub shares plunging and, more significantly, exposed one of the biggest oddities at the center of the company’s business model. While promising to democratize finance by using new technology to directly match borrowers with lenders, LendingClub has turned to a complicated network of middlemen and professional investors to fund its rapid expansion and disintermediate traditional banks.

And the latest edition of our Odd Lots podcast, which sums up some of my thoughts on the matter:

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