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With a Little Help: Friends Vouch for Borrowers in New Loan Model

Imagine offering a borrower a better rate or a bigger loan because a handful of his buddies say he is an upstanding guy who they are so confident will pay back his loan that they are willing to cover a portion of it if he doesn't.

It is a concept at least as old as the printing press, but it is finding new life as the business model for a score of fintech startups looking to solve one of the financial industry's persistent issues — how to properly lend to those often left out of the system because of their income, their location or their age. The firms are turning to social relationships as a matter of determining trustworthiness.

"Lending circles, and the idea of people getting together in networks and supporting each other [financially], is centuries old," said Yee Lee, chief executive of Vouch, a lender that relies on a model like that described above. "Typically in these cases there are incredibly high repayment rates, because of the support network."

Vouch offers loans between $500 and $15,000 to individuals and it scores their creditworthiness initially through traditional methods, such as income and FICO score. However, the borrowers then give the company the contact information for as many as five people who will "vouch" for them and that can bring down the rate or increase the amount. The key question for the network is "Do you trust this person with money and, if so, how much?" The company then asks the respondents to put their money where their mouth is by asking them to cover that amount if the borrower doesn't pay. Lee said the average vouched amount is $110.

The company launched in 2014 by lending from its own balance sheet, but late last year it closed its first debt securitization deal with an asset management firm and entered into a partnership with a large hedge fund focused on consumer lending. (Lee declined to name the firms.)

The financial industry has been debating the virtues of using alternative methods for credit scoring for a few years now. Some say it holds promise for the underbanked, while others say the idea of having creditworthiness tied to social networks poses its own risks.

"We see promise in not only in reaching the unbanked, but the more data you have, the more confidence there is in underwriting," said John Thompson, a senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation. "You also have to be careful about unintended consequences, so we hope these models continue to be tested and refined."

Still, it appears that value in using social and nontraditional data in underwriting is beginning to catch the attention of banks, said Juan Mazzini, a senior analyst with Celent.

"For years they said, 'This is not going to work,' " Mazzini said. "Now some banks are starting to look at partnering with some of these fintech companies to offer an alternative financing to customers."

These partnerships are not likely to be a flash in the pan, in part because it means bringing in new, previously overlooked customers, but also it is likely to please regulators, he added.

"It's difficult sometimes for banks to reach the unbanked and underserved markets with credit products," he said. "And a focus on financial inclusion is also part of the agenda for many governments around the world."

Banks in the United States are behind other countries in partnering with social lending startups largely because of regulatory issues, said Patricia Hines, also an analyst with Celent.

"In the U.S., the OCC oversees the use of credit scoring models by banks," she said. "If a bank wants to revise its credit models they need to undertake a rigorous analytical testing process, comparing the performance of existing models against proposed models over time."

But some U.S. banks, specifically those with a mission of serving the underserved, are exploring alternative lending models. For instance, Spring Bank in the Bronx, N.Y., is working with a firm called Happy Mango to offer loans to low- to moderate-income consumers using alternative credit scoring. Social data is a small part of the overall mix in how Happy Mango judges creditworthiness; it also analyzes spending and saving habits as opposed to just looking at prior loan payment history. This is an effective model to extend credit those that may not have built up a traditional credit history, said Melanie Stern, the $130 million-asset bank's director of consumer lending.

"We were looking to offer a series of loan products to lower-income consumers, and wanted to use a way to evaluate them for a loan without using traditional credit scores," she said.

The partnership with Happy Mango is more than just credit scoring, though. It offers a "self-assessment" tool, where consumers can input information about their financial habits and receive feedback to help them manage their money better.

"So even if they don't get a loan, it still provides them with a sense of where they are financially," Stern said.

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Comments (5)
my business collapse 8 months ago, I had no hope of getting my business alife again.I tried to borrow money from the bank but I did not have enough money in my credit card and no property as collateral to get a loan, but someone introduced me to a woman called Alfred Kessinger. This man`s loan company was able to give me a loan of $30,000 without any property as collateral or credit card, but he gave it to me on trust. So my friends I said to myself why being selfish, so i decided to share this information with everyone. If you require a loan from a reliable loan lender do contact Alfred Kessinger on am.invest@hotmail.com
Posted by sharoncoolidge | Tuesday, June 21 2016 at 4:59PM ET
I am wondering how adverse action is handled here. Imagine if your "friends" tell the bank bad things about you. Are they now a "credit bureau or reporting agency"? Do they have to provide you with a free report about what they said about you so you can set the record straight? Can you sue them libel?Do the friends have protection if they offer an unfavorable opinion? Extreme but it feels like a class action waiting to happen.

Also, feels like it's walking a disparate impact tightrope.
Posted by KThome | Monday, January 25 2016 at 11:58AM ET
Co-signer: a fool with a pen.
Posted by bribarn1959 | Monday, January 25 2016 at 8:10AM ET
I hadn't thought about it but this might be a great way to pick up chicks...just guarantee their notes on Facebook.
Posted by jonb | Friday, January 22 2016 at 4:34PM ET
I can't gather myself to comment on this but I hope someone will. I need to get home and get on Facebook and find some nice people to guarantee to pay on behalf of.
Posted by jonb | Friday, January 22 2016 at 4:31PM ET
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