It’s time for an update on peer-to-peer lending and social finance.
Years ago, clipping coupons from bonds was the province and passion of people in retirement. Today, a tidal wave of aging boomers want income, but traditional sources basically suck. Ten-year Treasury’s yield 1.6%. Safe-money bank CDs? 0.5%. Investment-grade corporate bonds are delivering 3.2%.
So retiring boomers are seeking alternatives. That’s why dividend stocks and annuities are very popular. But, there’s another cool source of high yield investments that are rapidly growing in popularity. Peer-to-peer lending, or making personal loans via the Internet, using websites like LendingClub.com and Prosper.com, have proven to represent a new and attractive asset class for a broad range of investors.
They have been around for 6 years and have had some bumps, including weathering a financial crisis and the current recession, peer-to-peer (P2P) lending has earned its place on an income investor’s menu.
The basic premise of these bank disintermediaries is that they harness the networking power of the Web to match people who have excess cash, with people in need of it, or those who simply want to do things like refinance credit card debt.
The key to its success has been how the sites have managed the inherent riskiness of unsecured personal loans. Believe it or not, it is now possible to earn yields of 6% or more, making relatively safe loans to complete strangers.
Los Angeles financial advisor Brendan Ross committed $300,000 of his own money to Lending Club in early 2011. Based on his quarterly interest payments he claims he has accrued about $40,000 in income to date. Annual yield: 10.2%.
“I’d been tracking the P2P space pretty much since the inception,” Ross says. “I was waiting to feel like its loan underwriting model had matured.”
San Francisco’s Lending Club is the largest P2P lender, followed by its crosstown rival Prosper. And, there are several other, specialized sites (like iPeopleFINANCE) who offer a lending model that is different than the securitized model of Lending Club and Prosper. These offer a direct lending model where an investor chooses one individual borrower based on an affinity profile and makes a small, short term loan where the investor can earn higher interest rates, yet still be able to enjoy mitigated risk. Lending Club and Prosper have loaned a total of more than $1 billion since inception, in 112,000 loans.
Lending Club currently issues about $45 million in loans a month versus Prosper’s $13 million per month. Prosper ran afoul of the SEC in 2008 and temporarily shut down to “revamp its risk-assessment model” which is corporate code for getting into SEC compliance.
At Lending Club, after a quick registration you can sort through hundreds of potential loans. Each loan has its own risk rating, term (either 36 or 60 months) and rate of return.
Loans with the highest rating—based on the borrower’s FICO score and some additional analysis—pay in the 5% to 9% range—about the same as junk bonds. Interest rates on riskier loans range as high as 31%. Both companies also offer diversified funds of aggregated loans and IRA options.
Lending Club and Prosper vet thousands of loan applications, whittling down the pool to only those borrowers the company deems least likely to default. Renaud Laplanche, cofounder and CEO of Lending Club says his firm declines about 90% of all borrower applications, focusing on the 10% of borrowers with the best credit. Which makes them essentially, banks.
Of course, defaults do happen. Lending Club’s top-rated three-year loans expect a default rate of around 1.4%, and the riskiest loans, offering rates as high as 25%, have a 9.8% default rate. By contrast junk bonds have an average default rate of 1.9%.
It’s prudent to opt for the pools of hundreds of P2P loans both sites offer. That’s how advisor Ross is earning 10%, despite a handful of defaults on direct loans he made, because his defaults were offset by his performing loans. With the emerging market lenders like iPeopleFINANCE, the investor cannot hedge his risk in the same way, but due to iPeople’s proprietary credit scoring algorithm, an additional 20% of applicants get funded, and get a higher credit rating than their FICO scores would yield from the big-3 credit bureaus.
Additionally, iPeople insures that each borrower has in place a free, pre-paid, re-loadable debit card that receives a direct deposit with each paycheck that guarantees the loan payment, so the risk of default is very low. iPeople is targeted to young Gen-Yers and to returning Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these groups have had little opportunity to establish credit, prefer a more cash-oriented lifestyle, and seek relationships with non-traditional banks. iPeople offers a suite of mobile cash applications tied to the debit card, that can be downloaded to smart phones, and can efficiently deliver banking services to customers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, wherever they may be.
John Mack, former chairman of Morgan Stanley, is a convert to P2P lending. After committing several million of his own capital to such loans, he joined Lending Club’s board in April, lending a strong measure of credibility to the space.
Of course, a couple of former Wells Fargo executives have joined iPeople’s board as well, sending strong messages to the markets that peer-to-peer lending is here to stay.