It’s Time to End the Phrase ‘Marketplace Lending’ – Because it’s Insane

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Nobody knows what “marketplace lending” means, including me. That’s kind of ironic considering deBanked is for the most part a publication dedicated to it. In fact, the cover of the March/April issue featured a big yellow robot sporting a name tag that actually said, “Hello, my name is Marketplace Lending.” Even the letter I penned that introduced readers to the issue used the phrase not once, not twice, but FIVE TIMES.

The FDIC basically defined it as encompassing all types of financing that include the practice of pairing borrowers over an online platform. Eager to be hip to the industry’s newest lingo, I got on board, and unfortunately perpetuated something that makes almost no sense.

Many companies operating under the marketplace lending umbrella don’t even know that they’ve been lumped into it. It’s become a media buzzword, something to help the simple masses understand so that they will click on a news headline without worrying if the content will only be geared toward the financially savvy.

Imagine shopping for a loan at a supermarket, but ONLINE, and voilà, marketplace lending!

But there are virtually no online platforms that work like that. The simplest explanation to describe a dizzyingly diverse industry is the most incorrect one. Lenders set rates and terms, borrowers don’t choose exactly what they want from a virtual shelf and put them in an imaginary shopping cart. There are however, portals where prospective borrowers can review different offers from different lenders in an Expedia-like environment, but this is really just Online Lead Aggregation 2.0, not a new-age system of lending.

Of course, some adopters of the phrase will point out that the marketplace was supposed to refer to the investor side, not the borrower side. It is investors that can shop for loans or notes that they want to invest in. Indeed, on platforms like Lending Club and Prosper, investors can select individual notes with terms befitting their desires and place them in an online shopping cart for purchase. Behold, the marketplace!

But what if you didn’t deal with retail investors hand-selecting $25 notes at a time? Notably, some online platforms that sell their loans to institutions in giant pools by the thousands or millions believe that such activity constitutes a marketplace because somebody is buying what they’re selling. And so long as somebody is selling something to somebody else at some point, the whole thing might as well be a marketplace. And even if it’s not, referring to it as such anyway will garner more press, attract more investors, and boost valuations.

deBanked Marketplace Lending Cover

I mean, would a site like TechCrunch be more likely to write about a FinTech Marketplace Lender or a generic financial company that sold a batch of loans to a bank?

I can tell you firsthand that if a press release submitted to us used the term “marketplace lender” instead of “finance company,” we’d at least check it out, or at least we used to. These days, we are becoming numb to its overuse.

Loan ApplicationPeer-to-Peer lending was an awesome term and it was descriptive too. Everybody could understand it. But then those platforms had to go and start selling their loans to Wall Street instead of peers and come up with something else to still sound trendy, techie, and disruptive. There’s nothing trendy of course about selling loans to financial institutions. It is a quintessential boring business activity of Wall Street. It is the opposite of disruptive, except in the events where all the loans go bad and the entire economy collapses like in 2008.

The FDIC specifically said that marketplace lending can encompass unsecured consumer loans, debt consolidation loans, auto loans, purchase financing, real estate loans, merchant cash advance, medical patient financing, and small business loans. This wildly diverse list, which even includes a non-loan product, will obviously have platforms in every category where people or businesses can get paired with a source of funds via the Internet. It’s 2016. It’d be weird if you couldn’t search for financing online. You can do everything else on the Internet. Just because a search happens online shouldn’t mean that the resulting options should be thrown together in some special broad category of lending and then be judged according to what all the other sectors do.

None of this is said to diminish the technological feats that many platforms have achieved. People and businesses can access capital in much faster and more convenient ways than ever before. Their growth and success is America’s economic gain. Jobs have been created and borrowing costs reduced. Hooray, perhaps, for marketplace lending.

The problem is merely the characterization that anyone lending to anyone else these days must also be a marketplace. That makes no sense.

Who will be the first to stop the madness?

Last modified: May 19, 2016
Sean Murray

Category: Marketplace Lending

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