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Sunday, 23 October 2011

A New Regulatory Model For Retail Finance

"It's time for reflection..."
Non-bank retail finance models have been gaining momentum worldwide over the past six years, in spite of our creaking financial regulatory framework. Finally, it seems that framework is about to become more directly supportive. 

The mid-noughties saw the launch of various innovative person-to-person finance platforms in the UK, US, Germany and elsewhere, which have been tracked here. These were launched by teams that spent considerable time and expense trying to accommodate existing regulation that favoured incumbents, with little or no regulatory assistance. Meanwhile, the regulatory authorities discovered that their framework, ironically designed to protect consumers, actually guaranteed the worst banking excesses and failed to contain the downside to complex "shadow banking" system in which the incumbent institutions were also involved. And although taxpayers have had to step in and effectively democratise the financial markets, we are still unable to extract badly needed funding from retail banks.

Against that background, it is perverse that the regulatory framework does not already directly facilitate simple, low cost, alternative financial services. And let's not forget that banks and other retail investment institutions continue to enjoy indirect tax subsidies through individuals' ability to off-set losses, as well as ISA and pension allowances for which unregulated alternative investments do not qualify.

While substantial innovation in consumer and small business lending has been possible, UK rules against marketing investments like bonds, shares and unregulated collective investment schemes, have made it much harder to offer alternative funding for SME start-ups, trade finance and even social projects. Given a more proportionate investment regime, the likes of Crowdcube, MarketInvoice, Buzzbnk, Social Impact Bonds and the Green Investment Bank, for example, might operate rather differently. They would no doubt also be joined by existing and new P2P platforms as a substantial alternative to banks and other fee-hungry investment institutions.

Oddly, given its reputation for fast-paced innovation, the US is even less supportive of alternative retail financial models. Zopa, for example, which led the growth of P2P platforms with its launch in the UK, was unable to launch its P2P model in the US despite lengthy consultation with securities regulators. And life has been unnecessarily complicated for the likes of Prosper and Lending Club ever since.

To help remedy the regulatory imbalance, as mentioned in August, three of the leading UK commercial P2P platforms launched the Peer-to-Peer Finance Association and an accompanying set of self-regulatory measures. Their focus is platforms on which the majority of lenders and borrowers are consumers or small businesses, rather than, say, ‘investment clubs’ or networks of sophisticated investors. 

And in September the New York Times reported that there are three proposals in the US to allow peer-to-peer financing without securities registration and disclosure requirements:
"One petition, prepared in 2010 by the Sustainable Economies Law Center and, fittingly, paid for by a grass-roots crowdfunding effort, asks the S.E.C. to permit entrepreneurs to raise up to $100 per individual and an aggregate of up to $100,000 without requiring expensive registration and disclosure.

President Obama, as part of his jobs act, advocates an exemption for sums totaling up to $1 million. Representative Patrick McHenry, a Republican from North Carolina, has drafted legislation that would allow companies to obtain up to $5 million from individuals through crowdfunded ventures, with a cap of $10,000 per investor, or 10 percent of their annual incomes, whichever is smaller."
How would this work in practice?

The challenge (and benefit) associated with such 'safe harbours' is that there is very little room for fee income. This in turn favours 'thin intermediaries', like the new electronic finance platforms, as a means of broad, open distribution. Proportionately regulated, these platforms can deliver greater efficiency, transparency and cost savings that benefit providers and consumers alike. 

Specifically, these platforms can be the focus of regulation designed to control operational risk; deliver transparency (through adequate product disclosure and ‘my account’ functionality); and centralise customer service and complaints handling, with ultimate referral to financial ombudsmen. Focusing those regulatory burdens on the platforms would shift significant compliance costs away from the product providers who rely on the platforms as a means of distribution. This would also mean specialist product regulators could focus their resources on 'vertical' issues related to specific products and their providers rather than 'horizontal' issues that are common to all. Such is the primary intent behind the P2PFA's Operating Principles, for example, which cover lending to both consumers and small businesses.

In addition, since social investments and P2P finance offerings both involve some credit risk and therefore the potential for losses, tax rules should allow off-setting against gains and income derived via these platforms. And there is no reason why instruments so distributed should not also qualify for ISA and pension allowances.

Consumers and small businesses should expect further developments in this space throughout 2012.