Some call it "frothy." Some call it "contagious enthusiasm." Some call it "immature." The funding of fintech companies continues to proliferate.
Almost $14 billion has been invested in fintech startups in the past year, a nearly 46% year-over-year growth rate, according to CB Insights. The company's data shows a steady rise in fintech funding since 2010. The top categories include online lending, payments, cryptocurrency and personal financial management. All told, venture capital and private equity firms have invested about $50 billion in fintech companies in the last five or so years, according to the London consulting firm William Garrity Associates.
"It's a lot of money going to fintech these days," said Mariano Belinky, managing partner at Santander InnoVentures, Santander Bank's venture capital arm. "Fintech has become one of the hottest sectors in venture capital. We face valuations that are completely insane in some cases."
Bankers, investors and analysts stop short of calling the situation a bubble. Many companies in the fintech space, such as online lenders and payments firms, have proven their worth and made their early investors happy — Lending Club's $1 billion IPO being the leading example. But the fintech startup and investor fields are getting crowded, and there's bound to be a culling of the herd.
ORIGINS OF THE FINTECH BOOM
As Matt Harris, managing director of Bain Capital Ventures, sees it, the first drivers of the fintech craze were a handful of talented entrepreneurs, including Jack Dorsey at Square, Renaud Laplanche at Lending Club, Noah Breslow at OnDeck and Bill Ready at Braintree, who started companies with innovative approaches to retail financial services.
"That got people's attention," he said. "Then the financial crisis created this idea that banks and regulated institutions of all types were vulnerable. So you had this early validation from the likes of Jack Dorsey, plus a newly widespread feeling that there was opportunity in the landscape and all the incumbents were in their foxholes. That brought entrepreneurs who historically had not been drawn to these kinds of projects, and got them thinking about payments, lending, capital markets, finance, insurance and all these historically uninteresting parts of the economy."
Venture capitalists quickly followed the entrepreneurs into this market.
"What we've all learned is if the best people are doing fintech, then by gum, we're going to do fintech," Harris said. "Investors are prone to a contagious form of enthusiasm that feeds on itself and concentrates entrepreneurs' minds on what's fundable, because things that are fundable are more fun to work on than things that are not fundable. It's an ecosystem of excited people getting more excited."
Some say the interest in fintech companies stems at least in part from investors' struggle to generate acceptable returns in a low-interest-rate environment.
"Venture capital right now is hot in fintech but also overall," said Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America. "We have the perfect macroeconomic storm: We have a bull market, so people are optimistic. We've got a low-interest-rate environment, so people are highly motivated to find returns that are outsized; and generally speaking a highly liquid market. I see it across more than fintech, but there's no question that there's multiples year-over-year in VC money in fintech companies."
A SHORTAGE OF EXITS
To some, pouring money into fintech firms is starting to look like a fad.
"When you see the top tier of funds almost blindly investing in every fintech company out there, the not-so-smart money tends to follow," Belinky said. "You see deals and syndicates, and you look at the partners in the syndicates and you ask yourselves, who out of all these guys really understands fintech?"
Harris, who has been investing in the fintech industry since 2002, said it has gone from being underserved to being appropriately served and now, potentially, overserved by investors. This year about 20% of the venture industry will be in financial services, by Harris' reckoning.
"That feels like overshoot to me," he said.
Technology investment has not, however, matched the excesses of the late 1990s, when a company name with a dot-com suffix conferred instant mystique and capital.
"Today what you're seeing is more sustainable businesses," said Robert Sureck, senior market manager for the southwest region at Silicon Valley Bank, speaking of the tech sector in general. "While valuations are certainly extremely high, there's substance, more than there was back in the dot-com bubble."
Bessant had a similarly measured take.
"I think as in any hot sector, there will be people who do extremely well and there will be failures," she said. "We haven't seen every company go to market and be successful, but I don't think it's a tech sector bubble. It feels like a liquid capital environment chasing good investments, but not desperately chasing them."
One concern is that there have been few exits for fintech startups. Except for a few online lending companies, IPOs and acquisitions have been rare. Yet there are dozens of fintech startups that have earned the label "unicorn" by being valued at more than $1 billion.