Being a peer-to-peer lender been a bumpy ride. Prosper Marketplace was first, but if you were an early investor/lender you’d have been lucky to have gotten back what you put in as most people had negative returns. Then came LendingClub with stricter credit standards and preset interest rates. Both companies operate with similar structures now and appear to have created a viable business model. In fact, LendingClub is planning an IPO with their last funding valuation at $3.8 billion. That’s pretty rosy considering they made just $7 million of profit in 2013, their first year of profitability in 7 years.
I’m not a big lender but I have invested over $15,000 of my own money into P2P loans. In the beginning, I would read every single loan listing as it usually included a story about what the borrower was going to do with the money (pay down debt, start a new business, buy a 200 sf tiny house). After a while, I started using automated software to match with loans, but it still felt like individuals lending money to other individuals. Today, a significant portion of loans are sold to institutional investors like hedge funds, pension funds, and even banks according to the New York Times article “Loans That Avoid Banks? Maybe Not“:
At Prosper, which has been courting institutional lenders over the past year, more than 80 percent of the loans issued in March went to those firms. More than a dozen investment funds have been formed with the sole purpose of investing in peer-to-peer loans. [...] Santander Consumer USA, the United States arm of the Spanish bank, has an agreement to buy up to 25 percent of Lending Club’s loans.
I spoke to a LendingClub representative, and they stated that their investor base is currently “about 1/3 direct retail investors, 1/3 high-net-worth investors, and 1/3 institutional investors.”
Here’s a thought experiment: If somebody like Chase Bank goes to a P2P lender and buys a bunch of unsecured loans made to individuals, is that really much different than that same person just carrying a balance on a Chase credit card?
It used to be individuals who took the risk of lending and reaped any rewards of higher interest. The P2P company just cares about volume as it takes a fee from every loan. But if that volume comes from big financial firms that want first dibs, does that mean the individual investors will only get left with the scraps?
The loans not taken by these sophisticated investors go back to a fractional lending pool that is open to both individual investors and institutions. That doesn’t sit well with some. “The institutional investors are snapping up all the worthwhile loans,” one investor wrote on Prosper’s blog, echoing many comments. [...] “By cherry-picking, almost by definition what they leave behind is not as good,” says Giles Andrews, founder and chief executive of Zopa, a British peer-to-peer lender that so far has dealt only with individual lenders.
Perhaps the best sign that P2P lending sites have become a legitimately good investment is that Wall Street and other professional investors are now crowding us out?