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Thursday, 5 March 2015

EBA Sees #Payments Regulation As Best Model For #P2Plending - Updated

When the UK peer-to-peer lending industry began calling for proportionate regulation in 2011, we pointed to payments regulation as the ideal model. By the end of 2012, about 30 firms from across Europe signed an open letter calling for that approach to the regulation of crowdfunding generally. And that was the thrust of my response to the EC consultation on the topic. After all, these marketplaces are all basically payment platforms that enable the wallet-holders to agree to lend or invest money rather than just pay it. They have far more in common than there are differences.

Unfortunately, the UK authorities were determined to apply the existing investment rules to the P2P model, with consumer credit rules adapted to cover loans to individual borrowers and some small businesses. So instead of a dedicated set of regulations dealing with common operational risks among all platforms, with some extra rules to cover different types of instruments, we ended up with rules sprinkled all over the giant FCA Handbook.

Since then, however, the French have opted to apply payments regulation to P2P lending, and last week the European Banking Authority suggested a similar approach.

Of course, the additional attraction to payments regulation is that it is the subject of a 'maximum harmonisation' directive that allows for passporting throughout the EEA far more easily than under investment regulation.

If I were a betting man, I would put good money on the EBA's approach eventually winning out, with the real battle being fought over whether there should be any restriction on the amount that individuals should be able to lend [see update below]. The UK, France and Spain have each taken different approaches to this question. I'm glad to say that the UK has been the most pragmatic in recognising that platforms will struggle to generate enough liquidity without the possibility for some individual investors to lend significantly more than others to any one borrower, particularly in the SME lending markets. As I mentioned in the context of the recent European crowdfunding conference, my sense is that French and Spanish platform operators will realise this problem as they try to scale...

[updated as follows on 18 March 2015]

The battle over the restrictions around who should lend on P2P lending platforms, and how much, seems to flow from the mistaken belief by some authorities (the EBA included) that 'loans' are somehow 'debt securities'. Ironically, in its discussion of why investor type restrictions might be extended to simple loans, the EBA opinion underscores why that should not be the case - and indeed isn't the case in the UK.

For instance, in summarising the risks to lenders involved in P2P lending, the EBA, states (at para 28) that "the assessment of an investment opportunity requires a profound analysis as well as a thorough understanding of the project or business of a potential borrower." Yet making a loan does not equate to an 'investment' opportunity (and you would have thought that a banking regulator could fully elucidate the difference).

A loan is just a debt - which is a simple enough concept for anyone to grasp. It chiefly involves 'credit risk', not 'investment risk'; unlike bonds, for example, which are typically held for investment purposes rather than simply to earn interest (hence the focus on bond 'yields' rather than the interest rate or 'coupon').

The EBA later refers to the need for "explanations about a project, financing mechanisms and other investor education material", which also seems to misunderstand the straightforward nature of credit. Later still, the EBA states that P2P lending "usually means that lenders enter into loan agreements with a borrower which is, in many cases, a start-up enterprise." But that is certainly not the case in the UK, where such companies typically turn to equity investors who are looking for a share in the growth of a business, rather than simply the repayment of their capital plus interest. A subsequent discussion of "investment advice" and "investment recommendations" also highlights the EBA's mistaken assumptions about the essence of P2P lending. It's almost as if someone simply substituted "loan" for "equity" in a section about equity-based crowdfunding platforms.

This mistaken classification of lending as an investment is doubly ironic, given that the EBA is responsible for policy related to payments, banking, savings and loans and not securities (which is ESMA's territory). In fact, were it not for the EBA's view that payments regulation is the best fit for regulating the common operational risks of P2P lending, I would suspect the it of trying to limit competition with the banking sector by pushing P2P lending into the investment world. Yet, somewhat weirdly, when it comes to the section on credit risk the EBA suggests that platforms might be "required to cooperate with a bank, either in the way that the bank processes the assessments [of creditworthiness] on a professional basis or takes over any credit risk by contracting with each borrower directly." Which also ignores the fact, of course, that banks are busy walking away from the markets now served by the P2P lending platforms!

The EBA is also being somewhat disingenuous in suggesting that P2P lending platforms should carry out criminal records checks on borrowers - an extremely time-consuming, personally intrusive and costly process that not even banks are required to undergo when making loans. Compliance with anti-money laundering regulations, PEP/sanctions screening and membership of industry anti-fraud databases are adequate and proportionate controls for screening borrowers. Likewise, P2P lending platforms do not represent any greater source of risk to a lender's personal data than many other types of business, and data protection law should govern this type of risk, as it already requires appropriate IT and information security controls.

Overall, one is left with a nagging concern that, while it has made the best choice of regulatory frameworks for controlling the common risks associated with P2P lending, the EBA has not really engaged properly with the concept or the sector. Let's hope that changes soon.