Alternative Funders Bid Adieu to 2016, Show Renewed Optimism for 2017December 12, 2016 | By: Cheryl Winokur Munk
After getting pummeled in 2016, many alternative funders have licked their wounds and are flexing their muscles to go another round in 2017.
“The industry didn’t implode or go away after some fairly negative headlines earlier in the year,” says Bill Ullman, chief commercial officer of Orchard Platform, a New York-based provider of technology and data to the online lending industry. “While there were definitely some industry and company-specific challenges in the first half of the year, I believe the online lending industry as a whole is wiser and stronger as a result,” he says.
Certainly, 2016 saw a slowdown in the rapid rate of growth of online lenders. The year began with slight upticks in delinquency rates at some of the larger consumer originators. This was followed by the highly publicized Lending Club scandal over questionable lending practices and the ouster of its CEO. Consumers got spooked as share prices of industry bellwethers tumbled and institutional investors such as VCs, private equity firms and hedge funds curbed their enthusiasm. Originations slowed and job cuts at several prominent firms followed.
Despite the turmoil, most players managed to stay afloat, with limited exceptions, and brighter times seemed on the horizon toward the end of 2016. Institutional investors began to dip their toes back into the market with a handful of publicly announced capital-raising ventures. Loan volumes also began to tick up, giving rise to renewed optimism for 2017.
Notably, in the year ahead, market watchers say they anticipate modest growth, a shift in business models, consolidation, possible regulation and additional consumer-focused initiatives, among other things.
MARKETPLACE LENDERS REDEFINING THEMSELVES
Several industry participants expect to see marketplace lenders continue to refocus after a particularly rough 2016. Some had gone into other businesses, geographies and products that they thought would be profitable but didn’t turn out as expected. They got overextended and began getting back to their core in 2016. Others realized, the hard way, that having only one source of funding was a recipe for disaster.
“Business models are going to evolve quite substantially,” says Sam Graziano, chief executive officer and co-founder of Fundation Group, a New York-based company that makes online business loans through banks and other partners.
For instance, he predicts that marketplace lenders will move toward using their balance sheet or some kind of permanent capital to fund their loan originations. “I think that there will be a lot fewer pure play marketplace lenders,” he says.
Indeed, some marketplace lenders are starting to take note that it’s a bad idea to rely on a single source of financing and are shifting course. Some companies have set up 1940-Act funds for an ongoing capital source. Others have considered taking assets on balance sheet or securitizing assets.
“The trend will accelerate in 2017 as platforms and investors realize that it’s absolutely necessary for long-term viability,” says Glenn Goldman, chief executive of Credibly, an online lender that caters to small-and medium-sized businesses and is based in Troy, Michigan and New York.
BJ Lackland, chief executive of Lighter Capital, a Seattle-based alternative lender that provides revenue-based start-up funding for tech companies, believes that more online lenders will start to specialize in 2017. This will allow them to better understand and serve their customers, and it means they won’t have to rely so heavily on speed and volume—a combination that can lead to shady deals. “I don’t think that the big generalist online lenders will go away, just like payday lending is not going to go away. There’s still going to be a need, therefore there will be providers. But I think we’ll see the rise of online lending 2.0,” he says.
Despite the hiccups in 2016, Peter Renton, an avid P2P investor who founded Lend Academy to teach others about the sector, says he is expecting to see steady and predictable growth patterns from the major players in 2017. It won’t be the triple-digit growth of years past, but he predicts investors will set aside their concerns from 2016 and re-enter the market with renewed vigor. “I think 2017 we’ll go back to seeing more sustainable growth,” he says.
THE CONSOLIDATION EQUATION
Ron Suber, president of Prosper Marketplace, a privately held online lender in San Francisco, says victory will go to the platforms that were able to pivot in 2016 and make hard decisions about their businesses.
Prosper, for example, had a challenging year and has now started to refocus on hiring and growth in core areas. This rebound comes after the company said in May that it was trimming about a third of its workforce, and in October it closed down its secondary market for retail investors. Suber says business started to pick up again after a low point in July. “Business has grown in each of the subsequent months, so we are back to focused growth and quality loan production,” he says.
Not long after he said this, Prosper’s CEO, Aaron Vermut, stepped down. His father, Stephan Vermut, also relinquished his executive chairman post, a sign that attempts to recover have come at a cost.
Other platforms, meanwhile, that haven’t made necessary adjustments are likely to find that they don’t have enough equity and debt capital to support themselves, industry watchers say. This could lead to more firms consolidating or going out of business.
The industry has already seen some evidence of trouble brewing. For instance, online marketplace lender Vouch, a three-year-old company, said in June that it was permanently shuttering operations. In October, CircleBack Lending, a marketplace lending platform, disclosed that they were no longer originating loans and would transfer existing loans to another company if they couldn’t promptly find funding. And just before this story went to print, Peerform announced that they had been acquired by Versara Lending, a sign that consolidation in the industry has come.
“I think you will see the real start of consolidation in the space in 2017,” says Stephen Sheinbaum, founder of New York-based Bizfi, an online marketplace. While some deals will be able to breathe life into troubled companies, others will merge to produce stronger, more nimble industry players, he says. “With good operations, one plus one should at least equal three because of the benefits of the economies of scale,” he says.
Market participants will also be paying close attention in 2017 to new online lending entrants such as Goldman Sachs’ with its lending platform Marcus. Ullman of Orchard Platform says he also expects to see more partnerships and licensing deals. “For smaller, regional and community banks and credit unions—organizations that tend not to have large IT or development budgets—these kinds of arrangements can make a lot of sense,” he says.
A BLEAKER MCA OUTLOOK
Meanwhile, MCA funders are ripe for a pullback, industry participants say. MCA companies are now a dime a dozen, according to industry veteran Chad Otar, managing partner of Excel Capital Management in New York, who believes new entrants won’t be able to make as much money as they think they will.
Paul A. Rianda, whose Irvine, California-based law firm focuses on MCA companies, likens the situation to the Internet boom and subsequent bust. “There’s a lot of money flying around and fin-tech is the hot thing this time around. Sooner or later it always ends.”
In particular, Rianda is concerned about rising levels of stacking in the industry. According to TransUnion data, stacked loans are four times more likely to be the result of fraudulent activity. Moreover, a 2015 study of fintech lenders found that stacked loans represented $39 million of $497 million in charge-offs.
Although Rianda does not see the situation having far-reaching implications as say the Internet bubble or the mortgage crisis, he does predict a gradual drop off in business among MCA players and a wave of consolidation for these companies.
“I do not believe that the current state of some MCA companies taking stacked positions where there are multiple cash advances on a single merchant is sustainable. Sooner or later the losses will catch up with them,” he says.
Rianda also predicts that the decrease of outside funding to related industries could have a spillover effect on MCA companies, causing some to cut back operations or go out of business. “Some companies have already seen decreased funding in the lending space and subsequent lay off of employees that likely will also occur in the merchant cash advance industry,” he says.
THE REGULATORY QUESTION MARK
One major unknown for the broader funding industry is what regulation will come down the pike and from which entity. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency that regulates and supervises banks has raised the issue of fintech companies possibly getting a limited purpose charter for non-banks. The OCC also recently announced plans to set up a dedicated “fintech innovation office” early in 2017, with branches in New York, San Francisco and Washington.
There’s also a question of the CFPB’s future role in the alternative funding space. Some industry participants expect the regulator to continue bringing enforcement actions against companies. In September, for instance, it ordered San Francisco-based LendUp to pay $3.63 million for failing to deliver the promised benefits of its loan products. Ullman of Orchard Platform says he expects the agency to continue to play a role in the future of online lending, particularly for lenders targeting sub-prime borrowers.
Meanwhile, some states like California and New York are focusing more efforts on reining in online small business lenders, and it remains to be seen where this trend takes us in 2017.
MORE CONSUMER-FOCUSED INITIATIVES ON HORIZON
As the question of increased regulation looms, some industry watchers expect to see more industry led consumer-focused initiatives, an effort which gained momentum in 2016. A prime example of this is the agreement between OnDeck Capital Inc., Kabbage Inc. and CAN Capital Inc. on a new disclosure box that will display a small-business loan’s pricing in terms of total cost of capital, annual percentage rates, average monthly payment and other metrics. The initiative marked the first collaborative effort of the Innovative Lending Platform Association, a trade group the three firms formed to increase the transparency of the online lending process for small business owners.
Katherine C. Fisher, a partner with Hudson Cook LLP, a law firm based in Hanover, Maryland, that focuses on alternative funding, predicts that more financers will focus on transparency in 2017 for competitive and anticipated regulatory reasons. Particularly with MCA, many merchants don’t understand what it means, yet they are still interested in the product, resulting in a great deal of confusion. Clearing this up will benefit merchants and the providers themselves, Fisher notes. “It can be a competitive advantage to do a better job explaining what the product is,” she says.
CAPITAL-RAISING WILL CONTINUE TO POSE CHALLENGES
Although there have been notable examples of funders getting the financing they need to operate and expand, it’s decidedly harder than it once was. Renton of Lend Academy says that some institutional investors will remain hesitant to fund the industry, given its recent troubles. “It’s a valuation story. While valuations were increasing, it was relatively easy to get funding,” he says. However, industry bellwethers Lending Club and OnDeck are both down dramatically from their highs and concerns about their long-term viability remain.
“Until you get sustained increases in the valuation of those two companies, I think it’s going to be hard for others to raise money,” Renton says.
Several years ago, alternative funders were new to the game and gained a lot of traction, but it remains to be seen whether they can continue to grow profits amid greater competition and the high cost of obtaining capital to fund receivables, according to William Keenan, chief executive of Pango Financial LLC, an alternative funding company for entrepreneurs and small businesses in Wilmington, Delaware.
These companies continue to need investors or retained earnings and for some companies this is going to be increasingly difficult. “How they sustain growth going forward could be a challenge,” he says. Even so, Renton remains bullish on the industry—P2P players especially. “The industry’s confidence has been shaken. There have been a lot of challenges this year. I think many people in the industry are going to be glad to put 2016 to bed and will look with renewed optimism on 2017,” he says.
Prior to this story going to print, small business lender Dealstruck was reportedly not funding new loans and CAN Capital announced that three of the company’s most senior executives had stepped down.Last modified: December 18, 2016