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Les sociétés entrepreneuriales et les mondes anglophones

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Jacques-Henri Coste

Première partie. L'entrepreneuriat, émanation du capitalisme anglo-saxon et projet d'économie politique

Peer-to-peer Lending in the USA: An Entrepreneurial Approach to Credit through Social Networks

Marie-Christine Pauwels

Résumé

Le peer-to-peer lending est un nouveau système de crédit entre particuliers qui se prêtent de petits montants en ligne. Les plates-formes internet que sont Lending Club et Prosper.com se partagent l’essentiel du marché américain aujourd’hui et connaissent des taux de croissance spectaculaires. Que penser de ces sites qui se présentent comme une alternative vertueuse à d’autres formes de crédit plus prédateur ? Sont-ils réellement aussi solidaires qu’on le pense ?

Texte intégral

Introduction

1Entrepreneurship, which can be defined conjointly as innovation (Schumpeter, 1942), value creation, profit-seeking (Baumol, 1990), as well as organizational creation (Gartner, 1989) has long been documented as a major driver of economic growth and of wealth creation (Audretsch, 2007). Regarding the least developed countries, recent research among development economists and management scholars now strongly advocate entrepreneurship and market-based solutions alongside the top-down, planning-oriented strategies often adopted in these parts of the world to fight poverty (Sachs, 2005). In particular, a combination of social, institutional and business entrepreneurship is highlighted as a much promising path (McMullen, 2011).

2Meanwhile, in a highly developed country such as the United States, entrepreneurship theory is also being enriched and transformed by the current research on social networks, which analyses how the fast technological developments which are currently taking place have aggregated and empowered individuals with different purposes who have become “minipreneurs” on the Web (Hulme & Wright, 2006). Peer-to-peer trading on the Internet has thus given rise to innovative forms of entrepreneurship, involving autonomous agents who engage in a collaborative form of exchange via distributed networks instead of centrally or business controlled communications and relationships.

3This chapter will focus more specifically on the American peer-to-peer lending movement which illustrates the growing phenomenon of banking disintermediation. Via platforms that connect borrowers and investors and allow individuals to loan one another small amounts of money online, these networks seek to bring an answer to the market failure of banks as well as alternatives to the credit crunch. Our goal will be to determine how these networks that harness the free-market forces and the community spirit typical of the American culture are redefining the idea of social capital (Bourdieu, 1980; Portes, 1998; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1995) and what kind of economic and social value is created by these online credit options which are praised as a virtuous alternative to predatory credit markets yet are nonetheless fraught with many ambiguities.

4Historically, lending money to one’s peers without the involvement of a financial institution is not new. Among other legacies, the roots of P2P lending can be traced in Britain’s 18th and 19th century friendly societies which provided collective self-help, mutual support and financial assistance. Peer-to-peer lending also bears similarities with the micro-credit movement founded by Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank has over the years loaned several billion dollars to millions of borrowers in poor countries and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Yet P2P lending differs from micro-credit in that it is first and foremost a for-profit transaction and ensures lenders an interest rate on the money they lend. In this sense, it is more suited to the American capitalist and free-market spirit. Even though the practice sometimes calls itself “social lending”, we shall see that its main goal is neither philanthropic nor altruistic. It is mostly a for-profit system bringing together borrowers and investors looking for ways to make a good deal online.

5In 2009, the Harvard Business Review praised P2P lending as one of the breakthrough ideas of the year (Sviokla, 2009). The rate of growth of these sites is absolutely stellar, due to the global financial crisis as well as to the paradigm shift exemplified by Chris Anderson’s long tail theory (2006). According to research firm Celent (2007), the P2P market leapt from $ 282 million in loans in 2006 to $ 5.8 billion by the end of 2010, an 800% increase.

6In 2011, Lending Club and Prosper. com were the two largest P2P lending sites on the American market. Smaller platforms targeting niche markets can also be found, such as sites matching alumni lenders and students looking for help with school tuition (People2Capital, GreenNote, TuitionU, Unithrive). Two British sites, Zopa, the pioneer in the peer-to-peer lending market (the acronym stands for Zone of Possible Agreement, a negotiating term identifying the bounds within which agreement can be reached between two parties) and Virgin Money both opened American branches for a while, but closed them respectively in 2007 and 2010 because of the delinquency rates of new borrowers and the general deterioration of the economic situation in the United States.

7Lending Club, the American leader, was founded by Renaud Laplanche, a French HEC graduate (the leading French management school). It started as a Facebook application in May 2007 and opened up its services to all consumers in September of the same year. Based in California yet incorporated in Delaware, it holds nearly 80% of the market and sets up more than $ 8 million in loans monthly. The platform had processed $ 350 million worth of loans by the end of 2010.

  • 1 The FICO score is a three-digit figure between 300 and 850 which measures borrowers’ creditworthine (...)

8Borrowers are pre-screened, are required to have a credit score (FICO1) of at least 660 (the average score is 714) and a debt-to-income ratio of no more than 25% to ensure lenders protection from subprime borrowers. Depending on their creditworthiness, borrowers are rated on a 35-grade scale from “A1” (FICO score of 760 or higher) to “G5”. A1 borrowers are of course more likely to be financed, and they get better interest rates (7.05% vs. 21.21% for the highest-risk borrowers). The maximum amount that can be borrowed is $ 25,000. Borrowers pay LC a small fee between 2 and 3% of the loan balance, depending on their credit grade. No fees are due if the loan does not get funded. Since May 2010, loans have been expanded from 3 to 5 years. All the loans are unsecured, and come with a fixed repayment schedule.

9Most importantly, the borrower can also provide voluntary (and unverified) information, a picture for example, or a small text explaining why he/she needs the loan and what he/she plans to do with it. The transaction is thus highly personalized, unlike a regular and anonymous bank loan.

  • 2 Technically, the loan is issued by WebBank, an FDIC-insured Utah-chartered industrial bank in Salt (...)

10LC then connects borrowers with potential lenders. Each lender’s loan is spread across many different borrowers so as to minimize the default risk2. Investors/lenders are also screened: they must either have an annual gross income of at least $70,000 and a net worth (exclusive of home, home furnishings and car) of at least $70,000; or have a net worth (determined with the same exclusions) of at least $250,000. They pay LC 1% in servicing fees. In 2010, 400,000 members were registered at Lending Club, the average loan was of $9,500, and the average interest rate (fixed) was of 12.36%.

  • 3 Obtained via Experian, then grades are given: AA (760 and up), A (720-759), B (680-719), C (640-679 (...)

11Prosper. com, the second American peer-to-peer lending platform, opened up in 2006. It requires a minimum credit score of 640 from prospective borrowers3. Until December 2010, Prosper operated as an auction site like eBay. Individuals would bid on or list personal loans, and did so in a reverse auction process. Someone who wished to borrow money created a listing that was posted on the site for a period of 7 to 14 days. This listing included the amount of money requested by the borrower (maximum $25,000), the maximum interest rate he would be willing to pay, and credit information obtained by Prosper via a credit check. But this model proved complicated for many users, and given the sharp competition with Lending Club, which regularly outperformed Prosper, the company decided to abandon the auction process and to follow the fixed interest rate system. The site charges fees of 1% of the loan amount to lenders and 0.5-4.5% to borrowers depending on their rating. It has also created subgroups, organized around some sort of theme (ex: alumni of a particular university, US marines, etc.).

I. The creation of new value

12For Baumol (1990), entrepreneurship occurs because of expected economic return—the profit motive. And the first reason which motivates individuals to resort to P2P lending is indeed largely financial. Sixty percent of the borrowers ask for peers to help them consolidate existing loans or refinance high-interest credit card debt which has been spinning out of control since the beginning of the credit crisis. Cutting out banks reduces the overhead, hence the more attractive interest rates offered on these sites. One borrower in three uses P2P to finance one-time events (a wedding, home improvements, a dream vacation, medical expenses, etc.), and thirteen percent ask for P2P loans to finance their small business, because bank loans are increasingly harder to get. For investors, P2P lending is also seen as a profitable alternative investment strategy, with the (admittedly risky, as loans are unsecured) potential for higher short-term rates of return than a traditional savings account or even the stock market. At Lending Club for example, the average rate of return is of 9%, which is considered a good rate when compared with stock market returns (average 6%) or real estate (3%). And the default rate is small: less than 2% for Lending Club, 5% for Prosper, which is similar to that of small community banks, and much lower than for credit cards or subprime loans whose default rates are in the double digits. For investors, P2P is overall a good operation, and with the stock market insecurities of the past few years, the number of individuals looking for a different way of making money has soared, so much so that potential investors are now outnumbering credit-worthy borrowers.

13But P2P lending is also booming because it exploits the distrust customers feel toward banks and credit institutions and positions itself as “credit with a human face”, in stark contrast to large financial organizations and credit-card companies which have fallen into disrepute for their abusive practices. Distancing themselves from traditional banks is something the websites clearly advertise. Zopa, for example, promises “loans from people, not banks”. Proximity and friendliness are important and the tone is deliberately chummy and colloquial. At Virgin Money, loans are advertised as “social loans” made between “friends”: “we provide a simple way to structure a social loan to help keep friendships exactly as they should be—friendly”.

14Lending Club’s motto is “Better Rates. Together” and its home page is a variation on the countryside theme: a view of hills with a rainbow in the corner, a small cottage in the background, or a freshly harvested field with big balls of hay lying around. The site thus appears as a friendly, relaxed and soothing place, and succeeds in creating a sharp contrast with the usual sleek and aggressive cityscape iconography associated with banking and finance. Its quiet country scenes convey images of peace and harmony, a sense of homeliness and wholesomeness, and a general feeling of nostalgia for a simpler community life where solidarity prevailed.

15These sites also focus on being simple, transparent and easy to use, almost like a game one plays: “lenders put money in, borrowers borrow money and everyone is happy” (Zopa).

16A 2006 report by the Social Futures Observatory (Hulme and Wright, 2006), a British sociological think tank from the University of Lancaster, concluded P2P was highly successful because it relies on personalized deals (as opposed to the anonymousness of bank transactions), and on trust between both parties. In P2P lending, if a borrower defaults, it negatively affects the lenders’ expected return, and members feel morally pressured to act responsibly: “belonging to a good group puts some pressure on you, too. If you stop making your loan payments, you’ll not only tarnish your own reputation, but the group’s as well. I am autonomous, yet I have obligations to this community” (Prosper, 2006). P2P lending is thus structured to encourage moral behavior, responsibility, and loyalty to the group. It illustrates the “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973).

  • 4 “Moral hazard” refers to an individual’s risky behavior when he/she believes the risk will not cost (...)

17In this sense, the P2P lending model is virtuous as it reduces moral hazard4, unlike mainstream financial services which derive profits out of charging additional interest and pushing people into debt. Networks mitigate informational asymmetry and adverse selection problems between the individuals in the network and outsiders. In a survey of general bankers carried out by the Observatory, 76% ‘strongly agreed’ that high street banks were greedy, 81% felt they were self-interested and 49% felt mainstream banks did not have the customers’ best interests at heart.

18P2P lending platforms can be seen as specifically 21st century communities of financial interest based on an intersection of individualism and community. They are founded on a horizontal structure of power, contrary to the vertical, hierarchical nature of traditional banking. Most of these P2P sites have blogs or forums on which borrowers and lenders can ask questions. This emphasizes the feeling of belonging to a community. The return of the one-to-one transaction, away from the big anonymous structures also resonates with the “do-it-yourself” mentality at the heart of American culture which considers individuals as responsible for their actions and masters of their destiny.

19Another noteworthy feature of these sites is to foster affinities between both parties, in order for transactions to be invested with emotional content. Even if the deal remains anonymous and privacy is ensured, borrowers and investors who share some sort of connection, for example geographic location or educational and professional background will tend to feel closer and more naturally drawn to one another. Peer-to-peer lending sites dwell on this “Facebook” effect, creating ties or “pipes” that transfer information or resources between both parties in the network (Podolny, 2001). Thus, a writer applying to LC for a $5,000 loan to refinance his credit card debt explains his strategy to lure investors (Smith, 2010):

[…] from this point on [after having entered all the basic information] you have to make your case to potential lenders. Just as you would write an enticing description of yourself on an online dating site, you need to sell yourself to lenders. On Lending Club, you have the opportunity to describe why you need the loan and you can provide explanations for any black marks on your credit report. You can also enter any affiliations you might have with organizations like your alma mater or the Boy Scouts (Who knows? You just may attract lenders who are also affiliated with these groups.) Unlike going into the bank, and having one shot with one person, here you have dozens of potential lenders checking out your profile.

20An individual’s network acts as a prism and serves as an informational cue that outsiders use to judge his/her quality. The roles and identities of the members populating the network matter, and individuals are judged by the nature of the company they keep (Lin & Prabhala & Viswanathan, 2009), as the following quote from a P2P lender, a major in the US Marines talking to Business Week (2009), exemplifies:

[…] if I see a person who doesn’t have a high credit rating, and who served in the military and is just getting started and maybe made some mistakes in the past—maybe they have three credit cards maxed out and they’re trying to consolidate them—I’m more apt to invest in someone like that and give them a chance to get back on their feet.

21We shall now analyse the limits of this personalization of the loan process as well as the ambiguities of P2P lending in the buildup of social capital.

II. The ambivalence of P2P lending

22P2P platforms benefit from a strong positive image which contrasts with the negative image of banks. They offer their members a greater level of perceived transparency than mainstream financial services and enable a form of direct involvement which mainstream banking does not. Perception of authenticity is what matters here, hence people’s tendency to trust P2P platforms, as the Social Futures Observatory (Hulme & Wright, 2006: 60) aptly notes:

Just as we believe that the potatoes from the farmers market are more ‘real’ because they are covered in the mud directly from the farmer’s field; without the processes of sanitization and packaging involved in buying from a supermarket, P2P members are encouraged to think that their experience is more authentic because they are borrowing and lending ‘real’ money to ‘real’ people.

23Borrowers are advised about how to be as truthful and personal as possible so as to trigger a positive response from potential lenders. In one chapter of their book on P2P lending, Arnold and Harzog (2009) deftly advise potential borrowers about the best ways to pitch their story, which is to refrain from being witty, and to formulate their query in serious-sounding words, without spelling mistakes or poor grammar: “I will use the $5,000 to pay off my credit card debt. With the money I’ll save on interest, I’ll also be able to put away a little money and get back on my feet financially”.

24Yet several studies have shown that decisions to lend can be irrational, based on prejudice and idiosyncrasies. A beauty premium exists (pretty women get cheaper loans), as does racial discrimination against blacks (Ravina, 2008). Scholars from the University of Pennsylvania working on Prosper. com discovered that loan listings with a black person in the attached picture were 25% to 35% less likely to receive funding than those of whites with similar credit profiles. Likewise for listings with older individuals, or people who appear unhappy. Conversely, listings with pictures of nice-looking women or those that show signs of military involvement were favored (Pope & Sydnor, 2008). And the personalization of deals cuts both ways. Browsing on these sites clearly shows that borrowers trade on emotion (pictures of cute-looking kids, good-looking girls, kittens, puppies, etc.).

25In terms of group type, university alumni groups and geography-based groups have also been found to increase chances of funding, probably because membership in these groups is based on verifiable antecedents rather than self-reported identification. Research has also found that borrowers with religious affiliation are more likely to be funded, which raises the question of whether individuals with religious affiliation default less (Lin, Prabhala, Viswanathan, 2009).

26There is thus a danger of disparate treatment when people post such personal information online, something they would never do in a traditional credit transaction which is protected by anti-discrimination laws:

Unlike typical credit applications, borrowers may include optional and unverified personal information in their listings in the form of pictures and text descriptions. These pictures and descriptions often provide potential lenders with data about race, age, and gender, that anti-discrimination laws typically prevent traditional lending institutions from using. (Pope & Sydnor, 2008, p. 1)

27Another more worrisome issue is that of financial exclusion. And here again, P2P is found to be wanting. These lending sites present themselves as bringing micro-solutions to the macro-social problem of credit denial by empowering those who are not accepted in the traditional model. Yet they are clearly geared toward lenders/investors, and exclude the risky borrowers to retain only the most credit-worthy: minimum credit scores are required and the bar to entry has increased in the past 2 years. Lending Club for example declines around 90% of the loan applications it receives in order to reduce default risks for lenders and Renaud Laplanche himself admits that if a borrower is refused by a bank, the likelihood of his being accepted by LC is also slim.

28At Prosper. com, although its website explains that its purpose is to bring ‘people together for the common goal of borrowing at better rates’, borrowers rated ‘High Risk’ are considerably less likely (6% vs. 32% of AA borrowers) to have their loans funded.

29P2P can be seen as a manifestation of what sociologists refer to as “social capital” (Bourdieu 1985, Coleman 1988, Putnam 1995, Portes 1998), a concept whereby social networks create value, and benefit both society at large and each member taken individually. The community profits from the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual finds in such associations the help and understanding of his fellow users.

  • 5 “Bonding” SC refers to social networks that bring together homogeneous groups of people, which is n (...)

30Bourdieu was the first to define the concept as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition” (1985: 248). Yet, if we bear in mind Putnam’s distinction between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital (SC)5 which shows that social capital may not always be beneficial for society as a whole (though it is always an asset for those individuals and groups involved), we can say that P2P lending leans more toward the first variety. Bonding social capital can be exclusive and negative in that it perpetuates an exclusive system. And while social networks such as Facebook and Myspace tend to create bridging social capital, P2P lending is more difficult to pin down as totally positive since these platforms are very selective and exclusive, with less solidarity than they would like us to believe. Their so-called altruism is more strategic than selfless and yet, as these sites appear to be built on ethical principles, there is an innate tendency to trust them:

Whilst mainstream banks are equated with ‘bad faith’ because they portray themselves to be philanthropic when their motivations are intrinsically self-motivated, Social Lending schemes can be perceived not to be partaking in the strategic gains of lenders. […] It is the authenticity and transparency of the Social Lending model that enables members to perceive it to be based on ‘good faith’ rather than a ‘bad faith’ that portrays itself as philanthropic when its motivations are strategic. (Hulme & Wright, 2006: 45).

Conclusion

31P2P lending is not a social engineering experiment to eradicate poverty, but a for-profit business model which offers both alternative credit options to those borrowers who can prove their credit-worthiness and good investment opportunities for Internet-savvy lenders. Those who use P2P platforms are not those who are excluded from mainstream credit markets. For this category, the only alternative to get a loan is often to turn to the fringe banking market (check cashing outlets, payday lenders, pawnshops, etc.) which has also been developing and consolidating extremely fast over the past fifteen years.

32This raises a wider questioning around this practice which both illustrates the quest for new social meaning, and the instrumentalization of a new sort of online relationship between individuals by “niche entrepreneurs” who come up with new credit offers that are not always disinterested. In other words, we are not witnessing the advent of a form of Yunus-type of social entrepreneurship, based on solidarity, help for the poorest by pooling resources, but a new model of profitability based on capturing these new energies, this open source innovation and channeling it for purposes that are not devoid of ulterior motives. There is a commodification of the online link.

33On the other hand, for those borrowers who are successfully selected by these sites, P2P is more empowering on at least three grounds: first, there are no penalties for early repayment; second, it is a means to improve credit ratings for people who have poor credit histories; and finally, P2P does not rely on making profit from peoples’ failure to repay. Borrowers are thus able to build a healthier asset-building debt and to improve their credit score, instead of being caught up in the downward spiral of increasing penalties and rising interest rates linked to defaulting on their payments.

Bibliographie

Bibliography

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Notes

1 The FICO score is a three-digit figure between 300 and 850 which measures borrowers’ creditworthiness. To be a prime borrower, one needs at least a 680 score. FICO is the acronym of Fair Isaac Corporation, the company which processes this information obtained from three consumer credit bureaus (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian).

2 Technically, the loan is issued by WebBank, an FDIC-insured Utah-chartered industrial bank in Salt Lake City.

3 Obtained via Experian, then grades are given: AA (760 and up), A (720-759), B (680-719), C (640-679), D (600-639), E (560-599), and HR (520-559). Individuals with a credit score below 520 are not allowed to create a loan listing.

4 “Moral hazard” refers to an individual’s risky behavior when he/she believes the risk will not cost him/her anything because it is covered by insurance, for instance.

5 “Bonding” SC refers to social networks that bring together homogeneous groups of people, which is not necessarily a good idea as they remain quite exclusive (ex: criminal gangs) while “bridging” SC refers to social networks that bring together heterogeneous groups and open up to diversity (ex: choirs or bowling clubs).

Auteur

Maître de conférences à l’Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense, où elle enseigne la civilisation américaine. Elle est membre associée du CERVEPAS (Université Sorbonne nouvelle – Paris 3) et ses travaux portent essentiellement sur les questions d’identité ethno-raciale et sur l’intégration des minorités ethniques.

© Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2013

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540