Lending 2.0

Peer-to-peer lending has skyrocketed since 2012 – so much so, that some see a new subprime-type bubble brewing.

Is peer-to-peer lending out of control? That’s the question Bloomberg asks in a recent article.

P2P — the business of matching lenders with borrowers online — still represents only 0.08% of the US$96 trillion in global corporate and household outstanding debt. But some are wondering whether it could become a bubble.

"We operate at a lower cost than traditional bank lending programs and pass the savings on to borrowers in the form of lower rates and to investors in the form of solid returns," claims LendingClub, the foremost P2P lender worldwide. Consumers can borrow up to US$35,000 to help with finances, like consolidate credit card debt, and companies can borrow up to US$300,000.

Total P2P loan volume is expected to reach US$77 billion in 2015, 15 times more than it was three years ago.

Between 2006, when it was founded, and May 20, 2015, LendingClub had funded just over US$9.25 in loans. Its market value currently stands at about US$7 billion, even though it lost US$33 million last year.

Money managers are flocking to companies such as LendingClub with millions in hand. For example, Social Finance, which refinances student loans, received US$200 million from hedge fund Third Point and other investment firms. The deal is too sweet to resist: in an era of near-zero interest rates, P2P loans generate 5% to 12% annual returns.

Critics claim that P2P lending could lead to a remake of the subprime mortgage disaster of 2007-’08. But players in the booming market deny it. For example, many US and UK sites post their loan books, allowing investors to analyze the quality and performance of individual loans.

"But loans take time to season and go bad," said Tania Modic, head of Western Investments Capital, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in the Bloomberg article. "And Wall Street loves to package and pass along risk. The music will stop—it always does—and this will not end well."