A new peer-to-peer bank, Prosper.com, is launching in the US, attracting articles in both the New York Times and BusinessWeek, with the latter titling the story “The eBay of Loans”. The principle is simple – you lend to individuals at interest rates based on their credit rating, and since you’re cutting out the bank as middleman, both lender and depositer get more attractive interest rates than they can get commercially. This is not a new idea – UK-based Zopa has been running for almost a year with essentially the same business model. Anecdotally Zopa is doing well, and intends to set up in the US soon. One of the differences is that Prosper.com focuses on groups that know each other or have common interests. It also has a more evolved bidding model so lenders bid to have the lowest (and thus winning) interest rate for a particular lender.
Banks are the archetypical intermediary, in this case between depositers and lenders. They get a very hefty spread for lending to individuals, however they do some things to create that value, including insurance (by pooling loans), risk assessment (making independent and accurate assessment of creditworthiness), and convenience (at their best!). Prosper.com allows lenders to split their loans across many borrowers, giving some loan pooling and security against default. Certainly, an online marketplace cuts out the middleman and the spread it charges – all part of e-commerce 101. However rhe really interesting part of this model is the risk assessment. In the first instance, people can find out about someone as an individual and make a personal assessment on their default risk. The next phase is when more sophisticated models are used to assess credit risk, aggregating a wide range of perspectives. This is not possible by a financial institution. However, with a borrower willing to disclose information, arguably more accurate credit assessment is possible. If some kind of effective deposit insurance through pooling or other mechanisms is put in place, in addition to superior credit assessment (not difficult given the paucity of the bank’s data and models), then there is no reason peer-to-peer banking will not over time become a competitive issue for mainstream banks.