Online lenders were supposed to revolutionize the consumer loan industry. Instead, they are rapidly becoming yet another "the next subprime."
We first started writing about the P2P sector in early 2015 with cautionary pieces like and "Presenting The $77 Billion P2P Bubble" and "What Bubble? Wall Street To Turn P2P Loans Into CDOs." Things accelerated in February of this year when we first noted that substantial cracks were starting to show in the world of P2P lending, and more specifically, with LendingClub's inability to assess credit risk of its borrowers that were causing the company to experience higher write-off rates than forecast.
Below is a chart that was used in a LendingClub presentation showing just how far off the company was in predicting write-off rates - the bread and butter of its business. It was evident then that their algorithms weren't "working very well."
At the time we said that what the slide above shows is that LendingClub is terrible at assessing credit risk. A write-off rate of 7-8% may not sound that bad (well, actually it does, but because P2P is relatively new, we don't really have a benchmark), it's double the low-end internal estimate. That's bad. In other words, we said, the algorithms LendingClub uses to assess credit risk aren't working. Plain and simple.
Three months later, in May of 2016, our skepticism was proven right when the stock of LendingClub - at the time the largest online consumer lender - imploded when the CEO resigned following an internal loan review.
Since then, despite a foreboding sense of deterioration behind the scenes, there were few material development to suggest that the cracks in the surface of the online lending industry were getting bigger.
Until today, that is, when we learned that - as expected - there has been a spike in online loan defaults by US consumers, sending a shockwave through the online lending industry: a group of online loans that were packaged into bonds is going bad faster than lenders and bond underwriters had expected even after the recent volatility in the P2P market, in what Bloomberg dubbed was "the latest sign that some startups that aimed to revolutionize the banking industry underestimated the risk they were taking."
In a page taken right out of the CDO book of 2007, delinquencies and defaults on at least four different sets of bonds have reached the "triggers" points. Breaching those levels would force lenders or underwriters to start paying down the bonds early, redirecting cash from other uses such as lending and organic growth. According to Bloomberg, one company, Avant Inc. and its underwriters, will have to begin to repay three of its asset-backed notes, which have all breached trigger levels.
Two of Avant’s securities breached triggers this month for the first time, the person said, asking for anonymity because the data is not public. Another bond, tied to the subprime lender CircleBack Lending Inc., may also soon breach those levels, according to Morgan Stanley analysts. When the four offerings were originally sold last year, they totaled more than $500 million in size. Around $2.8 billion of bonds backed by online consumer loans were sold in 2015, according to research firm PeerIQ.
The breach of trigger points is merely the latest (d)evolutionary event attained by the online lending industry, whose fall promises to be far more turbulent than its impressive rise. Prior to the latest news, LendingClub last month raised interest rates and tightened its standards for at least the second time this year after seeing higher delinquencies among its customers, especially those with the most debt.
However, that was a linear deterioration which had no impact on mandatory cash covenants, at least not yet. With the breach of trigger points, online lenders have officially entered the world of binary outcomes, where the accumulation of enough bad loans will have implications on the underlying business and its use of cash.
Breaching triggers typically forces a company to divert cash flow from assets to paying off bonds instead of making new loans, which often means it has to find new, more expensive funding or to scale down its business. Avant, based in Chicago, cut its monthly target for lending this summer by about 50 percent, and decided to shrink its workforce in line with that, while CircleBack Lending, based in Boca Raton, Florida, stopped making new loans earlier this year.
Setting bond triggers is often up to the security’s underwriters. Some lenders have been working more closely with Wall Street firms to make sure the banks know how loans will probably perform and set triggers at reasonable levels, said Ram Ahluwalia, whose data and analytics firm PeerIQ tracks their loan data.
Indicatively, in the "old days" John Paulson would sit down with Goldman Sachs and determine the "triggers" on CDOs, also known as attachment and detachment points, so he could then be the counterparty on the trade, and short it while Goldman syndicated the long side to its clients, also known as muppets. It would be interesting if a similar transaction could take place with online loans as well.
Other industry participants aren't doing better: "There was a rush to grow," said Bryan Sullivan, chief financial officer of LoanDepot, a mortgage company that last year began making unsecured loans to consumers online. In the true definition of irony, while Sullivan was speaking about the industry in general, LoanDepot’s own loan losses on a bond in September broke through the ceilings that had been set by underwriters at Jefferies Group.
We are not the only ones to have warned early about the dangers of online lending: Recently Steve Eisman, a money manager who predicted the collapse of subprime mortgage securities, said some firms have been careless and that Silicon Valley is "clueless" about the work involved in making loans to consumers. Non-bank startups arranged more than $36 billion of loans in 2015, mainly for consumers, up from $11 billion the year before, according to a report from KPMG.
And while P2P may be the "next" subrpime, there is always the "old" subprime to fall back on to get a sense of the true state of the US consumer :as Bloomberg adds, the percentage of subprime car loan borrowers that were past due reached a six-year high in August according to S&P Global Ratings’ analysis of debts bundled into bonds.
Lenders themselves are talking about the heavy competition for customers. Jay Levine, the chief executive officer of OneMain Holdings Inc., one of America’s largest subprime lenders, said last week that "the availability of unsecured credit is currently the greatest that has been in recent years," although he said much of the most intense competition is coming from credit card lenders.
And in a surprising twist, OneMain, formerly part of Citigroup, is taking steps to curb potential losses by requiring the weakest borrowers to pledge collateral. In other words, what was until recently an unsecured online loan industry is quietly shifting to, well, secured. Alas, for most lenders it may be too late.
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For those curious, the deals that have or are expected to breach triggers include:
- MPLT 2015-AV1, a bond deal backed by Avant loans that Jefferies bought and securitized.
- AVNT 2015-A, a bond deal issued by Avant and underwritten by Jefferies.
- AMPLT 2015-A, a bond deal backed by Avant loans and underwritten by Morgan Stanley.
- MPLT 2015-CB2, backed by subprime loans made by CircleBack Lending Inc. and underwritten by Jefferies.