The founding idea of both Lending Club and Prosper was Peer To Peer (P2P) Lending. Along the way, professional intermediaries aka Institutions got into the act and we started referring to Market Place Lending or Altfi. P2P Lending means no other intermediaries – just Lender + Borrower + Platform. The imperative to scale fast, to keep equity investors happy, forced the platforms to get capital from professional intermediaries. Something was lost in this transition. Professional intermediaries add fees and also tend to be less loyal as they see their job as moving money around fast to protect their investors.
Hector Nunez is a good example of those original P2P retail investors. He has been investing in notes on Prosper since the early days. In an ironic twist that tells a lot about Fintech in the capital markets, Hector also has a job as a doorman at 75 Wall Street in New York City, which used to house trading rooms and now has been turned into apartments (in the new FiDi or Financial District of Manhattan). Hector was one of the early investors in Prosper loan notes and turned his $5k original stake into $138k over 10 years. This is a track record that most professionals would envy. See later for how this translates to IRR.
So it made sense to get Hector’s take on some of the big shifts in this market.
What is the difference between retail and institutional investors?
Our thesis is that three things separate the retail investor from the institutional/professional investor:
- Access to tools, techniques and data. Fintech is democratizing the tools, techniques and data that used to only be available to professional intermediaries. This is a work in process. Some tools are still only available to professional intermediaries, simply due to how they are priced, but this will change as new players come into the market. Techniques can come from books, blogs, forums and online courses. Platforms give access to data to encourage investors. So it is only tools that are lacking and entrepreneurs who build these tools know that this is primarily a pricing decision and that selling to 100 retail investors at 1c is the same as selling to one Institution for $1 and may be easier. We asked Hector about some of these tools.
- OPM (Other People’s Money). Institutions invest OPM. Retail investors invest their own money. To invest well you have to be a) contrarian and b) right. It is hard to be contrarian when you invest OPM – you have explanation risk. Retail investors have no explanation risk. When they are contrarian and wrong, they only have to explain it to the mirror and learn from why they lost.
- Concentration. One Institution can lend a lot of money and that is a quicker way to scale a platform than persuading lots of retail investors to use the platform. One retail investor might be able to deploy $300k while an Institution can easily do 100x that i.e $30m (but that $30m can also disappear equally fast as Institutions tend to be more trigger-happy). Getting 100 retail investors to deploy $300k or 1,000 to deploy $30k certainly takes longer, but it gives the platforms more long-term capital. One way to think about the retail investor is like a bank depositor who takes more risk and does more work for a much higher return.
Hector explains how he invests
I asked Hector to explain his investing approach:
Prosper gives borrowers credit grades (“AA,” “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” “E” and “HR”) in which the investor sees and gets to invest in the loan the way she/he sees fit. In my case, I’m investing in only 2 grades (“B” and “E”). I have other grades but those are the ones that are in beta mode or that I ceased to invest in. Because there are only 3 or 5 years terms, it takes that long to purge the grades that I’m no longer interested in investing. Now one can argue that this is the disadvantage in retail P2P lending in that once something goes wrong, there’s no essential bail out. I would argue that this is actually beneficial because it teaches me to stay away from certain kind of loans with certain kind of attributes. As opposed to “jumping ship” early and probably not learning exactly why the loan went south. So I set a fixed amount of notes in 3 credit grades that I’m going to invest in and that number is 200. diversification is key and that by having 100 loans (notes), the investor is almost guaranteed to have a gain.
Agile Investing and IRR
Institutional/professional investors focus on IRR (Internal Rate of Return). It is a metric that shows performance. Hector, like most retail investors, does not obsess about IRR because he is not selling to investors.
What Hector is doing – and other retail investors work in a similar way – is what I call agile investing. Like agile programming, you start small and add more and refine the approach as you get market feedback (what you win and what you lose).
In Hector’s words:
Here’s what I started with: 5K which 10 years later (this upcoming March) is currently @ ~$138K. Please note that this includes both my trial and error loans as well as my lower interest loans. I started with 5K, then I put in an additional 10K, then 15K, another 30K and then another $20K. Throughout this process I’ve taken out then put some funds back in so overall, my principle is ~$80K and the rest is in excess of principle.
If Hector was running a Fund and pitching OPM for money, he would track all of those inputs and outputs to calculate IRR. That is how intermediaries work and IRR is a useful tool. However, what Hector is describing is how individual investors work which is to experiment and put more into what works. This is what I call “agile investing”. Note that “individual investors” could mean people with a lot of money to invest – think of Family Offices and Prop Traders. So this maybe the new mode of investing that the micro asset managers use (see later for follow/copy/mirror model investing).
I asked Hector what kind of “ceiling” he sees for this way of investing.
I cap off 200 loans for each grade that I’m investing, because I believe there is a point where too much diversity negates gains and losses. Also, years ago, Prosper imposed a percentage limit on both retail and institutional investors which affects the monetary amount that I could invest in. Currently it is @ 10% for the 1st 24 hours. In other words, when a borrower posts his/her loan on Prosper, any investor could only contribute (invest) to 10% of the borrower’s total loan within the 1st 24 hours of the borrower’s loan. After that, the cap is lifted and the investor could invest any monetary amount. I only invest to the 10% limit so monetary wise I’m also capped. So my overall monetary ceiling is currently @ ~$400K and my overall note ceiling is currently @ a little over 500 which includes my beta loans. Once, I reach those goals, I will then have to branch out into other platforms i.e Folio and apply my tried tested and proven strategy on that platform.
Hold to maturity or trade on secondary market?
Prosper announced in September 2016 that they were Closing Down Their Secondary Market for Retail Investors. Prosper had been running a secondary market via FOLIOfn since 2009.
This is the sort of tool that Institutions have taken for granted for a long time.
The old fashioned idea of a bond was to hold it to maturity, collecting interest along the way and many Institutions still like to work this way.
I asked Hector for his take on this:
“Personally I’m not affected by this move as I never had plans on selling my notes on Folio. Remember, we had Folio as an option to sell and I knew it and I never bothered to look at Folio to sell my notes. And in that aspect, I believe I was a typical investor and part of the reason why I think Prosper and Folio parted ways. Remember, if loans default, there’s still a chance we can recoup our losses via the collection agency which work on our behalf (as opposed to losses in the stock where there is no chance of recouping). With Prosper there’s a chance that the collection agency can recoup some if not all your principal with the interest (all for a small fee of course which the agency automatically takes from the funds recovered). I did create a Folio account but that was as a security blanket which I would have put in use had the majority of my investment soured. As the story went, it never did.”
Cross platform investing
Institutional investors are strong on diversification. Hector agrees, but has a slightly different take:
“I believe in that old cliche that you should not put too many eggs in one basket. I am all about cross platform investing. Should one platform go south, you have another to pick you right up; however I only believe that to a point. My belief is that too many investments would cancel themselves out leaving the investor with little financial movement either way (gain or loss).”
Hector is referring is what Institutional Investors call “closet indexing”, when investors diversify so much that the end result is very close to an index (which you can buy for very little from somebody like Vanguard).
One way to diversify is to go global. I asked Hector whether he would consider investing outside America, via platforms in those countries. Hector was clear on this front and his logic was interesting:
No and as of now I don’t have any plans on doing so. There are a couple of reasons why. First, I must complete my investment goal on Prosper before I step on to a new Market. I will make an exception with Folio because I already have an account and I’ve been doing my research with them for quite some time. Second, I trust the American market more than international markets because I feel that I have a better pulse on the US market than that of another country. Probably this is because I live in the US. My strategy relies much on understanding their personal financial background in the context of some event that makes them need a loan. Example: A person could be asking for a loan because he/she may have psychological issues and need their medical expenses paid off and the borrower has a pretty decent financial history while another person may be asking for a loan for a vacation and have a questionable financial history. I would lend to the person in medical need not because of what the borrower is going to use my funds for but rather because of their proven financial track history.
Hector ends with what all good investors have – humility and a learn it all attitude rather than a know it all attitude:
Believe it or not I’m still learning on Prosper and still letting my “beta” notes play.
Can I follow/copy/mirror Hector?
One theme that we have been exploring on Daily Fintech is the emergence of Micro Asset Managers enabled by the follow/copy/mirror model:
- Copy and mirror trading platforms like eToro, Zulu Trade, Darwinex.
- Thematic investing marketplaces that allow new micro-managers to emerge by creating their own financial product (equity based), and actively manage it; like Motif Investing, and Wikifolios.
- Even social research platforms like StockTwits are stepping into this space by offering Follow functions and rankings of the subscriber micro-managers.
This is an alternative to either passive low cost index tracking or high cost active hedge funds. The idea is simply to follow/copy/mirror an investor who is investing their own money. This allows a passive investor (who does not want to work hard at the investing game) to follow/copy/mirror the active investor (somebody like Hector) who gets some share of the upside. That active investor does not need to gather or manage investor’s assets, so they do not need to charge an AUM fee. This is a game-changer in the massive asset management business.
Hector was eloquent that IRR % was more important than total funds under management:
I believe that the amount of money one has in investment is not the sign or bar of performance rather it is the rate of return. A person can have a million dollars in stocks and come out at years end with 1.1 million and another investor could have 100K and turn a profit of $20k and it is the latter investor that I would be most impressed with and try to emulate.
The follow/copy/mirror model is working today in VC (Angel List) and in Public Equities and in FX, but I am not aware of anybody doing it in Fixed Income/Lending. Hector is the sort of investor I would like to follow/copy/mirror. I asked Hector for his take on this:
I welcome you and any potential retail Prosper investor to follow my lead. I could give you or anyone nice fundamental tips in getting started as well as giving you warnings and recommendations. If you or anyone wishes to get started, please let me know.
It will be interesting to see if the Lending platforms start to offer this or if some other platform specific to the follow/copy/mirror model offer a cross-platform capability.
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