Regulators are considering making peer-to-peer lending and crowdfunding less accessible to investors who aren’t professional or very rich, says David Stevenson.
Can you be trusted to be a sensible investor? The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has been pondering whether investors looking to put some money to work in alternative finance are capable of making sensible and informed decisions about the range of products on offer. If they can’t, should their cash be channelled into more open, transparent, mass-market products, such as unit or investment trusts or exchange-traded funds?
I realise this all sounds a bit policy-wonkish, but when it comes to the world of alternative finance, especially peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, this regulatory attitude may be about to have a direct impact on your investments. A few weeks ago, the FCA produced a consultation paper entitled “Loan-based (‘peer-to-peer’) and investment-based crowdfunding platforms: feedback on our post-implementation review and proposed changes to the regulatory framework”.
These fussy new rules…
Most of the suggestions in the paper are good old-fashioned common sense, designed to make P2P lending more mainstream and less risky. But one key proposal stands out like a sore thumb. The regulators suggest that future P2P investment “promotions” should only be able to target the following groups: those certified or self-certified as sophisticated investors, those certified as high net worth investors, those under advisement from an authorised person, and those who certify they will not invest more than 10% of their net investable portfolio in P2P agreements.
So, to be clear, in the future, if you are a new customer at, say, Zopa, Ratesetter or Funding Circle looking to bolster your income, you’ll have to prove you are independently wealthy or a finance professional, or certify that you only have 10% of your portfolio in online lending.
The reaction of many experienced private investors has been negative, to put it mildly. The industry website www.altfi.com, of which I am an executive director, asked for views. M. Thomas said the FCA “has once again demonstrated its antipathy towards individual… investors and the original spirit of P2P (to cut out the middleman)… these FCA proposals demonstrate a nanny-state mentality – people must be protected against themselves”.
Another unnamed pensioner added that “as a former company director, I’m well able to decide for myself what investments I make, and have no plans to reduce my current level of P2P lending (30% of my total). The FCA may wish to reflect on the fact that had its predecessor been rather better at monitoring the activities of Equitable Life, many of us would now have less need to consider some higher-risk investments in our retirement.”
Many investors I’ve talked to with an interest in alternative finance are deeply troubled. Most simply intend to ignore the changes, even if they come in. And that, of course, is the real problem with any form of regulatory overreach. The intended beneficiaries simply ignore the good intentions and just fib and say whatever the regulator wants to hear. Witness the world of stockbroking, where investors already have to self-certify if they want to deal in securitised options such as covered warrants. Most retail stockbrokers send out pointless forms asking all the right questions about attitudes to risk. Most of them know full well that investors who sign the forms aren’t entirely truthful but connive in the charade.
But even if these changes were easy to apply, I’m not convinced they are fair. Is P2P really that risky? In effect, the regulators are saying online lending is as risky as, say, crowdfunding. With all due respect to successful crowdfunding platforms such as Seedrs and Crowdcube, the risk from investing in start-ups is immeasurably higher than that from lending to consumers or even established small companies with clear credit track records. With the former, most experienced investors are used to the idea that a large proportion of their investee companies won’t make it. With online lending, most credit investors (institutions are active in this space) don’t expect losses to exceed 5%-10%, even in the worst years.
Even if policymakers are worried about risk, there is a better way of managing this downside – sharper, smarter regulation. Or as Rhydian Lewis of P2P lending platform Ratesetter puts it, rather than block access, why not “eliminate the high-risk elements of P2P lending and… keep it accessible”? Wouldn’t it be better to close down rubbish platforms, force through far greater transparency about risks and impose heavy penalties for rule-breakers? Why should the wealthy or financial professionals be the only ones to benefit from an alternative to the lacklustre yields on offer at high-street savings institutions – most of which haven’t even passed on the recent increase in the Bank of England base interest rate?