Crowdfunding – A Promising Innovation for Improving Access to Financial Services

Crowdsourcing is reshaping the way we think about the marketplace. Why? Because it simulates an open market environment very well. It allows providers to swarm into a market space and sell products and services to consumers, tailoring what they offer to consumer preferences. The swarm of consumers and providers grows, and affordability and quality improve as competition increases. All it takes is a well-designed technology platform which provides the necessary tools for products and services to be traded with reliable and sufficient information.

Peer-to-peer (p2p) solutions, enabled by web 2.0 and mobile technologies, are applying the crowdsourcing paradigm and setting the stage for a more efficient method for customer acquisition, service delivery and sourcing of funds. Some see crowdsourcing as a process of ‘disintermediation’, which is limiting reliance on sales agents, middlemen, brokers etc. and reducing transaction costs.

In the consumer lending sphere, ‘crowdfunding’ has emerged and has brought a fresh perspective on how we think about addressing some persistent issues of accessibility and affordability of financial services.

Two Bay Area based companies – Lending Club and Prosper – are the early birds. Both companies are offering crowdfunding services to borrowers and lenders, through which any individual or institution can lend to or borrow from each other, based on the borrower’s pre-assigned credit-risk rating and the lender’s preferences and risk tolerance. The uptake for the service has been strong – the two companies have reported that in 2011, monthly loan originations doubled to $30 million and tripled to $11 million through Lending Club and Prosper respectively. 24,000 new customers signed up on Lending Club and the platform originated a quarter billion dollars worth of new loans in 2011, more than doubling the previous four years combined. These loans were priced with net annualized interest rates ranging between 5.82% and 12.15%.

It is important to note that these two companies are not focusing on providing services which cater directly to the needs of underbanked consumers, who typically borrow in small amounts and have limited or no credit histories. Lending Club originates loans with an average size of $10,945 and rejects 90% of the loan applications it receives. The reason underbanked consumers are not a priority for these two companies is because of regulatory bottlenecks. The Securities and Exchange Commission regulates p2p loans like securities, with pricing based on assigned risk categories using borrower credit reports. This automatically creates a selection bias for consumers with established credit histories and eliminates most underbanked consumers from the pool of potential borrowers.

Structuring p2p lending platforms like auction markets, which allow market players to transact freely based on their preferences and risk tolerance, will help open-up the p2p lending market to underbanked consumers. As a first step, a regulatory framework for a true auction based loan products market needs to be developed and introduced.

Crowdfunding is a frontier market space, which has immense potential to be scaled to improve the availability of high-quality, low-cost credit options for underbanked consumers. Considering the high level of connectivity, visibility and traceability that p2p platforms offer, p2p lending could prove to be a promising solution, particularly for consumers with weak credit histories and limited access to affordable loans.

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