Tag Archives: Lending Club

Pimping the Peers (Part 2)

In the last post on this topic, I highlighted how new technologies, broadly under the fintech tag, had the potential to disrupt the banking sector, primarily by means of automating processes rather than any major reinventing of business models (although I did end that post with a bit of a rant about innovation and human behaviour). Blockchain is the hot topic that seems to be cropping up everywhere (I’ll leave that for another time). This post is about insurance and new technology, or in the jargon, insurtech.

The traditional business model in the insurance industry is not reacting well to a world of low or negative interest rates. For the life insurance sector, the duration mismatch between their liabilities and their assets is having a perverse impact as interest rates have fallen. Savings returns for aging populations have been sacrificed in Central Bank’s attempt to stimulate economic growth.

In addition, the traditional distribution channel for selling life insurer’s products, and the old adage is that these products are sold rather than bought, has relied too heavily on aging tied agents whose focus is on the wealthy client that can generate more fees than the middle class. The industry is generally at a loss on how to sell products in a low interest world to the mass market and to the new tech savvy generation. As a result, the industry and others are throwing money at a rash of new start-ups in insurance, as the exhibit on some of the current hyped firms focusing on life insurance below illustrates.

click to enlargelife-insurance-big-data

As the exhibit illustrates, the focus of these new start-ups is weighted towards technologies around product development, distribution, and underwriting. Some will likely succeed in trying to differentiate further the existing clientele of life insurers (e.g. real time health data). Many will be gobbled up or disappear. Differing attitudes between those aged under 34 and the older generation towards online distribution channels can be clearly seen in the survey results in the exhibit below.

click to enlargeattitudes-to-life-insurance-distribution-channels

With longevity and low interest rates the dominant challenges for life insurers today, automation of processes will assist in cutting expenses in the provision of products (mainly to the existing customer base) but will not likely meaningfully address the twin elephants in the room.  Citigroup reckons that in 20 of the largest OECD countries the unfunded government liability for pensions is around $78 trillion which compares to approximately $50 trillion in GDP for all OECD countries in 2015. I look forward to conversing with a robo-advisor in the near future on what products it recommends for that problem!

Insurance itself is hundreds of years old and although the wonderfully namely bottomry (the earliest form of marine hull insurance) or ancient burial societies are early examples, non-life insurance really took off with mass markets after the great fire of London in 1666.

The most hyped example of insurtech in the non-life sector is the impact of technologies on the motor business like drive-less cars and car telematics. This paper from Swiss Re shows that the impact over the next 20 years of such advances on motor premia could be dramatic.

Much of the focus from insurtech innovation is on reducing expenses, an item that the industry is not light on. The graph below shows examples of the level of acquisition and overhead expenses in the non-life sector across different jurisdictions.

click to enlargenonlife-expense-ratios

A recent report from Aon Benfield went further and looked at expenses across the value chain in the US P&C insurance sector, as below. Aon Benfield estimated overall expenses make up approximately half of gross risk premium, much of which represents juicy disruption targets for new technology in the insurtech world.

click to enlargeexpenses-across-the-value-chain

Insurance itself is based upon the law of large numbers and serves a socially useful function in reducing economic volatility by transferring risks from businesses and consumers. In 1906, Alfred Manes defined insurance as “an economic institution resting on the principle of mutuality, established for the purpose of supplying a fund, the need for which arises from a chance occurrence whose probability can be estimated”.

One of the issues identified with the current non-life insurance sector is the so-called protection gap. This is in effect where insurers’ risk management practises have got incredibly adapt at identifying and excluding those risks most likely to result in a claim. Although good for profits, it does bring the social usefulness of the transference of only the pristine risks into question (for everybody else). The graph below from Swiss Re illustrates the point by showing economic and insured losses from natural catastrophe events as a % of GDP.

click to enlargeinsurance-protection-gap-uninsured-vrs-insured-losses

It’s in the context of low investment returns and competitive underwriting markets (in themselves being driven by low risk premia across asset classes) that a new technology driven approach to the mutual insurance model is being used to attack expense and protection gap issues.

Mutuals represent the original business model for many insurers (back to burial schemes and the great fire of 1666) and still represent approximately a third of the sector in the US and Europe today. Peer to peer insurers are what some are calling the new technology driven mutuals. In fact, most of the successful P2P models to date, firms like Guevara, Friendsurance, and Inspeer are really intermediaries who pool consumers together for group discounts or self-financing of high deductibles.

Lemonade, which launched in New York this week, is a peer to peer platform which issues its own insurance policies and seeks to address the protection gap issue by offering broader coverage. The firm has been heavily reinsured by some big names in insurance like Berkshire Hathaway and Lloyd’s. It offers a fee based model, whereby the policyholders pay claims through mutualisation (assumingly by pools determined by pre-defined criteria). Daniel Schreiber, CEO and co-founder of Lemonade says that the firm will be ”the only insurer that doesn’t make money by denying claims”. Dan Ariely, a big deal in the world of Behavioral Economics, has been named as Chief Behavioral Officer, presumably in an effort to assist in constructing pools of well behaved policyholders.

The graphic below tries to illustrate how the business model is evolving (or should that be repeating?). Technology offers policyholders the opportunity to join with others to pool risk, hitherto a process that was confined to associations amongst professional groups or groups bound by location. Whether technology offers the same opportunity to underwrite risks profitably (or at least not at a loss) but with a larger reach remains to be seen.

click to enlargeinsurance-business-models

It does occur to me that it may be successful in addressing areas of dislocation in the industry, such as shortfalls in coverage for flood insurance, where a common risk and mitigant can be identified and addressed in the terms of the respective pool taking the risks on.

For specialty re/insurers, we have already seen a bifurcation between the capital providers/risk takers and the risk portfolio managers in the ILS arena. Newer technology driven mutual based insurers also offer the industry a separation of the management of risk pools and the risk capital provided to underwrite them. I wish them well in their attempts at updating this most ancient of businesses and I repeat what I said in part 1 of this post – don’t let the sweet scent of shiny new technology distract you from the smell of the risk…..

Pimping the Peers (Part 1)

Fintech is a much hyped term currently that covers an array of new financial technologies. It includes technology providers of financial services, new payment technologies, mobile money and currencies like bitcoin, robo-advisers, crowd funding and peer to peer (P2P) lending. Blockchain is another technology that is being hyped with multiple potential uses. I posted briefly on the growth in P2P lending and crowd-funding before (here and here) and it’s the former that is primarily the focus of this post.

Citigroup recently released an interesting report on the digital disruption impact of fintech on banking which covers many of the topics above. The report claims that $19 billion has been invested in fintech firms in 2015, with the majority focussed in the payments area. In terms of the new entrants into the provision of credit space, the report highlights that over 70% of fintech investments to date have being in the personal and SME business segments.

In the US, Lending Club and Prosper are two of the oldest and more established firms in the marketplace lending sector with a focus on consumer lending. Although each are growing rapidly and have originated loans in the multiple of billions in 2015, the firms have been having a rough time of late with rates being increased to counter poor credit trends. Public firms have suffered from the overall negative sentiment on banks in this low/negative interest rate environment. Lending Club, which went public in late 2014, is down about 70% since then whilst Prosper went for institutional investment instead of an IPO last year. In fact, the P2P element of the model has been usurped as most of the investors are now institutional yield seekers such as hedge funds, insurers and increasingly traditional banks. JP Morgan invested heavily in another US firm called OnDeck, an online lending platform for small businesses, late in 2015. As a result, marketplace lending is now the preferred term for the P2P lenders as the “peer” element has faded.

Just like other disruptive models in the technology age, eBay and Airbnb are examples, initially these models promised a future different from the past, the so called democratization of technology impact, but have now started to resemble new technology enabled distribution platforms with capital provided by already established players in their sectors. Time and time again, digital disruption has eroded distribution costs across many industries. The graphic from the Citi report below on digital disruption impact of different industries is interesting.

click to enlargeDigital Disruption

Marketplace lending is still small relative to traditional banking and only accounts for less than 1% of loans outstanding in the UK and the US (and even in China where its growth has been the most impressive at approx 3% of retail loans). Despite its tiny size, as with any new financial innovation, concerns are ever-present about the consequences of change for traditional markets.

Prosper had to radically change its underwriting process after a shaky start. One of their executives is recently quoted as saying that they “will soon be on our sixth risk model”. Marrying new technology with quality credit underwriting expertise (ignoring the differing cultures of each discipline) is a key challenge for these fledging upstarts. An executive in Kreditech, a German start-up, claimed that they are “a tech company who happens to be doing lending”. Critics point to the development of the sector in a benign default environment with low interest rates where borrowers can easily refinance and the churning of loans is prevalent. Adair Turner, the ex FSA regulator, recently stirred up the new industry with the widely reported comment that “the losses which will emerge from peer-to-peer lending over the next five to 10 years will make the bankers look like lending geniuses”. A split of the 2014 loan portfolio of Lending Club in the Citi report as below illustrates the concern.

click to enlargeLending Club Loan By Type

Another executive from the US firm SoFi, focused on student loans, claims that the industry is well aware of the limitations that credit underwriting solely driven by technology imbues with the comment that “my daughter could come up with an underwriting model based upon which band you like and it would work fine right now”.  Some of the newer technology firms make grand claims involving superior analytics which, combined with technologies like behavioural economics and machine learning, they contend will be able to sniff out superior credit risks.

The real disruptive impact that may occur is that these newer technology driven firms will, as Antony Jenkins the former CEO of Barclays commented, “compel banks to significantly automate their business”. The Citigroup report has interesting statistics on the traditional banking model, as per the graphs below. 60% to 70% of employees in retail banking, the largest profit segment for European and US banks, are supposedly doing manual processing which can be replaced by automation.

click to enlargeBanking Sector Forecasts Citi GPS

Another factor driving the need to automate the banks is the cyber security weaknesses in patching multiple legacy systems together. According to the Citigroup report, “the US banks on average appear to be about 5 years behind Europe who are in turn about a decade behind Nordic banks”. Within Europe, it is interesting to look at the trends in bank employee figures in the largest markets, as per the graph below. France in particular looks to be out of step with other countries.

click to enlargeEuropean Bank Employees

Regulators are also starting to pay attention. Just this week, after a number of scams involving online lenders, the Chinese central bank has instigated a crack down and constituted a multi-agency task force. In the US, there could be a case heard by the Supreme Court which may create significant issues for many online lenders. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency recently issued a white paper to solicit industry views on how such new business models should be regulated. John Williams of the San Francisco Federal Reserve recently gave a speech at a recent marketplace lending conference which included the lucid point that “as a matter of principle, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it should be regulated like a duck”.

In the UK, regulators have taken a gentler approach whereby the new lending business models apply for Financial Conduct Authority authorisation under the 36H regulations, which are less stringent than the regimes which apply to more established activities, such as collective investment schemes. The FCA also launched “Project Innovate” last year where new businesses work together with the FCA on their products in a sandbox environment.

Back in 2013, I asked the question whether financial innovation always ended in lower risk premia in this post. In the reinsurance sector, the answer to that question is yes in relation to insurance linked securities (ILS) as this recent post on current pricing shows. It has occurred to me that the new collateralised ILS structures are not dissimilar in methodology to the 100% reserve banks, under the so-called Chicago plan, which economists such as Irving Fisher, Henry Simons and Milton Friedman proposed in the 1930s and 1940s. I have previously posted on my difficulty in understanding how the fully collaterised insurance model can possibly accept lower risk premia than the traditional “fractional” business models of traditional insurers (as per this post). The reduced costs of the ILS model or the uncorrelated diversification for investors cannot fully compensate for the higher capital required, in my view. I suspect that the reason is hiding behind a dilution of underwriting standards and/or leverage being used by investors to juice their returns. ILS capital is now estimated to make up 12% of overall reinsurance capital and its influence on pricing across the sector has been considerable. In Part 2 of this post, I will look into some of the newer marketplace insurance models being developed (it also needs a slick acronym – InsurTech).

Marketplace lending is based upon the same fully capitalized idea as ILS and 100% reserve banks. As can be seen by the Citigroup exhibits, there is plenty of room to compete with the existing banks on costs although nobody, not yet anyway, is claiming that such models have a lower cost of capital than the fractional reserve banks. It is important not to over exaggerate the impact of new models like marketplace lending on the banking sector given its current immaterial size. The impact of technology on distribution channels and on credit underwriting is likely to be of greater significance.

The indirect impact of financial innovation on underwriting standards prior to the crisis is a lesson that we must learn. To paraphrase an old underwriting adage, we should not let the sweet smell of shiny new technology distract us from the stink of risk, particularly where such risk involves irrational human behaviour. The now infamous IMF report in 2006 which stated that financial innovation had “increased the resilience of the financial system” cannot be forgotten.

I am currently reading a book called “Between Debt and the Devil” by the aforementioned Adair Turner where he argues that private credit creation, if left solely to the free market under our existing frameworks, will overfund secured lending on existing real estate (which my its nature is finite), creating unproductive volatility and financial instability as oversupply meets physical constraints. Turner’s book covers many of the same topics and themes as Martin Wolf’s book (see this post). Turner concludes that we need to embrace policies which actively encourage a less credit intensive economy.

It is interesting to see that the contribution of the financial sector has not reduced significantly since the crisis, as the graph on US GDP mix below illustrates. The financialization of modern society does not seem to have abated much since the crisis. Indeed, the contribution to the value of the S&P500 from the financials has not decreased materially since the crisis either (as can be seen in the graph in this post).

click to enlargeUS GDP Breakdown 1947 to 2014

Innovation which makes business more efficient is a feature of the creative destruction capitalist system which has increased productivity and wealth across generations. However, financial innovation which results in changes to the structure of markets, particularly concerning banking and credit creation, has to be carefully considered and monitored. John Kay in a recent FT piece articulated the dangers of our interconnected financial world elegantly, as follow:

Vertical chains of intermediation, which channel funds directly from savers to the uses of capital, can break without inflicting much collateral damage. When intermediation is predominantly horizontal, with intermediaries mostly trading with each other, any failure cascades through the system.

When trying to understand the potential impacts of innovations like new technology driven underwriting, I like to go back to an exhibit I created a few years ago trying to illustrate how  financial systems have been impacted at times of supposed innovation in the past.

click to enlargeQuote Money Train

Change is inevitable and advances in technology cannot, nor should they, be restrained. Human behaviour, unfortunately, doesn’t change all that much and therefore how technological advances in the financial sector could impact stability needs to be ever present in our thoughts. That is particularly important today where global economies face such transformational questions over the future of the credit creation and money.