Lending Club Mess Raises Fresh Fears About a Market's Rapid Growth

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The surprise resignation of Lending Club Chief Executive Renaud Laplanche on Monday threw the marketplace lending sector, already unsettled by investor unrest, into deeper turmoil.

Just days after Prosper Marketplace announced mass layoffs and OnDeck Capital warned of slowing loan growth, the biggest marketplace lender on the planet said that its founder and CEO was stepping down amid accusations of improprieties by senior officials at the firm.

The news led to a major sell-off of Lending Club's shares and threatened to further scare away investors that buy loans originated by Lending Club and its competitors. It could also hasten regulatory scrutiny of the marketplace sector.

Laplanche was one of the industry's pioneers and one of its most prominent cheerleaders. The French-born securities lawyer founded Lending Club a decade ago, managed it through the financial crisis and presided over a period of tremendous growth that included an initial public offering in 2014.

Laplanche's abrupt exit came amid accusations by Lending Club's board that certain unnamed executives acted inappropriately on two separate occasions.

In an incident earlier this year, an institutional loan buyer was sold $22 million in loans that did not match the purchasing criteria it had specified, according to Lending Club. The application dates on $3 million of those loans had apparently been falsified.

Lending Club described the second incident in more oblique terms. It allegedly involved the failure to inform the San Francisco company's risk committee of personal interests held in a fund in which the firm was considering making an investment. Lending Club did not reveal whose personal interests went undisclosed.

Laplanche's departure and the circumstances surrounding it stunned those who follow the industry closely. That list of insiders includes Peter Renton, a longtime industry booster and the author of "The Lending Club Story," which was published in 2012 with a foreword written by Laplanche.

"People often ask me what is the worst thing that could happen to this industry. I would somewhat flippantly respond that it would be massive fraud by the CEO of Lending Club," Renton wrote Monday in a blog post. "While thankfully this is not what has happened, there has clearly been some level of impropriety at the highest level within Lending Club."

Lending Club named Scott Sanborn as the company's acting CEO. Sanborn, the firm's onetime chief operating officer, was promoted to president less than three weeks ago.

Hans Morris, a venture capitalist and former Visa president who sits on Lending Club's board, was named to the newly created position of executive chairman. Three unnamed senior managers who were involved in the $22 million in loan sales either resigned or were terminated.

"A key principle of the company is maintaining the highest level of trust with borrowers, investors, regulators, stockholders, all our employees," Morris said Monday during a conference call with analysts.

"And while you might say the financial impact of these $22 million in loan sales was minor — it's less than 0.6% of loans we originated in the quarter; the financial revenue implications were very minor — a violation of the company's business practices as well as a lack of full disclosure during this review was unacceptable to the board. And this is not something the board will compromise on in any way."

Lending Club's stock price was down by more than 27% in midday trading Monday. Shares in the firm were trading at $5.16, far below the peak of more than $25 early last year.

But the impact of Laplanche's sudden departure is likely to be felt far beyond just one company.

Until Monday, there had never been a hint that any of the leading online lending platforms in the U.S. had made intentional misrepresentations to loan buyers. The scope of the alleged misconduct at Lending Club is relatively small, but it could reinforce doubts about a sector that was already reeling from investors' concerns about weakening loan quality.

Matt Burton, the CEO of Orchard Platform, which provides technology to help institutional investors evaluate the sector's loans, said that loan buyers seem to be encouraged by the decisive steps that Lending Club announced on Monday.

At the same time, Burton acknowledged that Lending Club and its competitors are having trouble finding enough new investors to keep pace with anticipated levels of loan growth.

"I think that the challenge that the industry is running up to is that the expectations of growth for these companies are so high that it requires a large capital acquisition effort," he said.

Hedge funds and other well-financed loan buyers fueled the industry's rapid rise, but many of them have quickly turned fickle.

Just last week, Prosper Marketplace, another San Francisco-based firm that is one of Lending Club's top competitors, announced plans to lay off 28% of its workforce amid a slowdown in loan demand.

The week before, OnDeck Capital, a New York-based firm that specializes in small-business loans, disclosed that the loan volume in its marketplace lending business fell from $199 million in the fourth quarter of last year to $128 million during the first quarter.

The circumstances surrounding Laplanche's departure could also spur closer regulatory scrutiny of marketplace lenders.

A number of government inquiries at both the state and federal level are already under way; the U.S. Treasury Department plans to release a set of recommendations for the marketplace lending industry on Tuesday.

Fitch Ratings argued in an email Monday that Lending Club's "noted material weakness in its internal controls … is likely to further accelerate the pace of regulatory scrutiny of the sector."

Analysts at Compass Point Research & Trading predicted in a research note that the disclosure of improprieties at Lending Club will also fan doubts among banks that have been buying an increasing share of the company's loans.

During the first quarter, banks purchased 34% of the loans in Lending Club's standard program — a category that makes up more than three-quarters of the firm's total loan volume — up from 21% during the previous three-month period.

Almost lost amid Laplanche's departure, Lending Club also released its first-quarter earnings on Monday. Net income totaled $4.1 million, compared with a $6.4 million loss in the same period a year earlier. Operating revenue rose 87% year over year to $151.3 million.

The company also announced that it is tightening its lending standards for less-creditworthy borrowers. Inside what is roughly the lowest quartile of Lending Club loans, about 15% of loans are being eliminated, the company stated.

"These population segments were mainly characterized by high indebtedness and propensity to accumulate debt and lower credit scores," Sanborn said during the conference call.

Lending Club is delaying quarterly and annual guidance about its earnings until after the company is able to assess the impact of the management shake-up.

It is not clear whether Laplanche's departure will affect Lending Club's previously announced launch of a new consumer loan product on June 13. A company spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Laplanche touted the upcoming product launch during a keynote speech at an industry conference last month.

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