Ponzi Scheme Threat Hangs Over Marketplace Lending

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ponzi schemesWhat if all the notes you bought on a peer-to-peer or marketplace lending platform were tied to loans that didn’t exist?

Such a scenario has not only happened but is a recurring theme over in China. The recent $7.6 billion fraud that was allegedly perpetrated by the management of Ezubao (a Chinese-based P2P lender) affected more investors than Bernie Madoff. Approximately 900,000 investors were impacted, according to CNBC.

But it gets worse, way worse. If you can believe this, the bosses of 266 other Chinese peer-to-peer lenders have fled and are in hiding. And that’s just in the last six months. Ratings agency Moody’s has said that 800 platforms have already failed or were recently facing liquidity issues.

In the case of Ezubao, there’s little doubt about what happened. Company executive Zhang Min told Xinhua news agency, “Ezubao is a Ponzi scheme.”

Lend Academy’s Peter Renton, who has witnessed the peer-to-peer lending industry in China firsthand wrote in his blog today that it’s too easy to start a platform there. “You need just US$1,000 to create a smartphone app, then obtain a very inexpensive business telephone license and you can be up and running,” he wrote.

Unsurprisingly, another Chinese peer-to-peer lender that just recently joined the New York Stock exchange, Yirendai (NYSE: YRD), was collateral damage to the Ezubao bombshell. Shares of the company dropped nearly 21% Tuesday to $4.88, down more than 50% from their IPO price.

Does the threat exist in the US?

Here at home, industry insiders are hardly worrying about China. “Could this level of fraud happen in the US?” Renton asked in his blog. “I think it is highly unlikely. There is a well-developed ecosystem in the US for both consumer and small business credit and appropriate lending licenses need to be obtained in most states before a company can begin operations.”

Renton is partially right. Most of the well-known platforms in the US are operating under watchful eyes. But there is a surging over-the-counter (OTC) marketplace that most outside investors don’t even know exists. Enter the syndication market where commercial finance brokers and investors can co-invest in loans or merchant cash advances through private marketplaces that may or may not have a website. With alluring yields of up to 100% a year or even more, it’s the perfect environment to pull off a scam if one maliciously intended to do so. [note: most are not scams at all]

The OTC market for these investments rely almost entirely on trust. There is little to no transparency into how investor funds are actually used. deBanked has received tips over the last twelve months that some companies have co-mingled investor funds with operational cash flow, with the result sometimes being a total loss of investment. Several lawsuits have been filed against these alleged fraudsters, deBanked has discovered, but none compare to the scope of damages taking place in China.

ponzi schemeThe last major Ponzi scheme to grip the commercial side of the industry for instance, involved Agape Merchant Advance (AMA), a Long Island based company that was part of a wider fraud conducted by sister company Agape World Inc. According to the 2012 complaint, “the defendants actually ran a Ponzi scheme, paying returns to Agape and AMA investors not from any profits earned on investments, but rather from existing investors’ deposits or money paid by new investors.”

In a report published by the FBI that explained how it worked, they wrote, “the defendants received an e-mail from Agape’s loan underwriter informing them that the interest rate that a bridge loan borrower had agreed to pay Agape was only 16 percent for one year, at the same time the defendants had promised to pay their investors 12 percent for 60 days for this investment, or 73 percent for the year. The defendants raised approximately $32.5 million for this bridge loan, although the loan was never made.”

The fraud, carried out mainly by its chief executive Nicholas Cosmo, was captivating enough to earn it a spot on CNBC’s American Greed series.

At the time Agape was operating, such yields should’ve raised an immediate red flag for investors, at least that’s the moral the TV show tried to communicate to viewers. In the real world today, those yields could be considered too low since actual commercial bridge financing transactions can pay out up to 40% over 90 days. And therein lies the danger. When legitimate deals are transacting for incredible premiums, how do you resist considering an investment?

It’s easy to chalk up China’s peer-to-peer lending fraud woes to China being China. But the pervasiveness and ease with which such scams have been carried out should send a strong message to marketplaces in the US.

Do you trust where your money is going? Are they using it exactly how they said they will?

Next on American Greed…

Last modified: February 3, 2016
Sean Murray

Category: Marketplace Lending, p2p lending

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