The author of the article in Cuffelinks, Investor questions for marketplace lenders, draws attention to the perpetual need for responsible investors to be shrewd and judicious when deciding where to place their hard-earned money. This, of course, is sensible advice.
However, it’s also true that today’s investors face a risk environment of unprecedented complexity. In 2018, the S&P/ASX200 declined by 6.8%. Residential property values are falling and bank deposit rates fail to match inflation. In the last year, the Australian media landscape was dominated by the findings of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, with its revelations of duplicitous lending practices, improper fees, and general misconduct that, by the banks’ own admission, fell far short of community expectations.
The ground between equities and low deposit yields
Needless to say, today’s investors are eager for services that allow them to navigate a relatively safe path between the high-risk allure of equity investments and the lower yields offered by traditional financial institutions, which, for all their perceived stability, too often function as a costly and unduly complex intermediary between lenders and borrowers.
This then is the intersection at which peer-to-peer lending, or marketplace lending, has been able to thrive. At its best, marketplace lending appeals to investors who seek transparency and stability, but still wish for higher returns than would be available to them if they invested in traditional products like bank deposits.
Indeed, the author of Investor Questions for Marketplace Lenders concedes that, on this score, marketplace lending has succeeded. Marketplace lending demonstrates that, when the middleman is willing (or able) to tighten his belt — that is, when he narrows the spread between the lending and funding rates offered by traditional financial institutions — borrowers and lenders both benefit from competitive rates. For example, RateSetter lenders have averaged a return of over 7.5% since launch in Australia in 2014.
But what about risk? Readers of Investor Questions for Marketplace Lenders may conclude that marketplace lending involves an unacceptable degree of exposure. Let’s examine this in more detail.
Three ways the lending exposure is addressed
First, many P2P platforms are structured such that investors don’t need take ‘all of the risk’ upon themselves. For example, several platforms require borrowers to contribute to a provision fund, which exists to protect lenders against the consequences of defaults and missed payments. For this reason, the P2P company RateSetter was able to pay its investors $11 million in interest in 2018 without one of them losing a single cent of capital or interest. Moreover, its Provision Fund has grown to represent over 6.1% of its loan book, which is substantially more than the losses it has experienced to date (approximately 1.4%), and its expected future losses. It gives investors a higher degree of confidence in their future returns.
Second, the risk involved in marketplace lending is further mitigated by the historical resilience of consumer credit itself as an asset class. Interestingly, even during a severe economic depression, the annualised loss experienced in consumer credit rates has tended to be less pronounced than with other forms of credit, such as commercial loans and investment property loans.
Automotive finance, for example, performs particularly well. Borrowers tend to prioritise paying off a secured car loan over other debts, which is unsurprising given that they need their car to get to work, attend interviews, and maybe even take the kids to soccer practice.
Finally, it’s misleading to imply that loans financed by marketplace lending bear any inherent resemblance to the type of subprime loans that gained widespread notoriety following the financial collapse of 2008. This false equivalence overlooks the crucial role played by marketplace lending platform operators when it comes to assessing the creditworthiness of prospective borrowers. Responsible operators subject loan applicants to a screening process that takes into account the very same factors any traditional financial institution would scrutinise, from credit histories to monthly income versus expenses.
Growing role in intermediation
In short, marketplace lending offers a simple way for investors to access consumer credit. As they continue to offer strong returns, Australian marketplace lenders are growing rapidly into the ~$140 billion consumer credit market. Ultimately, we expect that marketplace lending models will come to represent a significant and structurally important part of our financial system. This will likely involve marketplace lenders acting as a conduit between superannuation funds (both SMSFs and larger industry funds) and consumers seeking credit.
The evidence for this imminent transformation can be seen in specific examples of institutional participation. For example, RateSetter attracted $100 million in support from the Government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which sought assistance with its expansion into consumer finance. As a result, RateSetter is now the largest funder of consumer loans for the purchase of renewable energy equipment, such as solar panels and home batteries.
We expect to see similar developments over the coming decades as marketplace lending moves into the mainstream. Its growth will now depend on the rate at which new investors and borrowers learn of the benefits that marketplace lending can offer them.
Daniel Foggo is CEO of RateSetter, Australia’s largest peer-to-peer lender, and a sponsor of Cuffelinks. This article is for general information purposes only and does not consider the circumstances of any investor. Investors should make their own independent enquiries and consult with a financial adviser.