M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 94

The Evolution of the Online Marketplace, and its Viability as an Institutional Asset Class

Christopher Jan



Peer-to-peer lending has evolved rapidly in recent decades, in both form and function. The latest iteration, online crowdfunding platforms, is a novel method for funding a variety of ventures. It allows individual founders of for-profit, cultural, or social projects to request funding from many individuals. Capital is distributed with varying conditions. Some capital is philanthropic, and assigned towards specific causes. Other capital is only drawn under certain conditions, such as the development and delivery of a product. Funding can be provided in these online financial marketplaces in exchange for an equity stake in the venture or as a line of credit to be paid back with interest, reflecting traditional forms of equity and debt financing. As the online marketplace has evolved, so too have the actors operating within it. Initially a space for retail and recreational investors to provide capital, recently we have seen professional and institutional investors begin to enter the space.

This paper will first review the circumstances that have contributed to the rise of the online marketplace as the primary platform for peer-to-peer lending, and how it has expanded to encompass other areas of financing as well. It defines the diverse set of funding products that are currently offered, and provides a present-day view of the allocation of funding and volume of campaigns financed across those funding types. We will narrow our focus to debt and equity financing within the online marketplace, and review the regulatory environment of the online marketplace from a United Kingdom perspective.

The research conducted aims to answer the following question, at the request of Thomson Reuters and TAB: Under what conditions would the online marketplace be an asset class for institutional investors to fully engage with? We begin by reviewing the set of supply-side characteristics (low interest rate environment, strong risk models, credit assessment technologies) and demand-side factors (regulatory pressures, heavy cost structures, industry consolidation) that has made debt financing so attractive to institutional investor capital, and enabled it to grow so quickly relative to other forms of financing.

This paper then uncovers aspects of online marketplace that are areas of concern, and proposes several product-level and market-level solutions that would create a friendlier environment for institutional investors to engage with. At the product-level, it suggests the creation of certain financial instruments that will provide exposure across a number of individual campaigns, addressing concerns of ticket size and mitigating risk via asset diversification. Market-level proposals establish an institutional structure that provides reliable and objective data, information, and feedback to investors. These proposals aim to resolve concerns around information asymmetry, investment quality, and data transparency. Additionally, the paper offers suggestions for policy-makers to consider as they think about how to regulate this growing industry.

Finally, the paper concludes with a present-day analysis of the engagement of institutional investors with the online marketplace, and reviews the trends and structural factors that will influence its growth going forward.

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