Lending Club Seeks to Bolster Its Retail Investor Base

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Lending Club, which is seeking to rebound from a recent corporate governance scandal, plans to step up its efforts to sell loans to everyday investors, Chief Executive Scott Sanborn said.

After the San Francisco-based marketplace lender ousted Sanborn's predecessor in May, many institutional investors that had fueled the firm's rapid growth stopped purchasing loans. Lending Club's loan originations fell by 29% between the first quarter and the second quarter, and the company reported an $81.4 million loss between April and June.

But retail investors have been a bright spot for the firm, which uses an online platform to match savers with consumers who often borrow to consolidate existing debt at a lower interest rate.

During the second quarter, Lending Club had 135,000 self-managed active individual investors. Those retail customers invested more than $327 million during the second quarter, which was up 16% from the same period a year earlier.

Sanborn said Wednesday that Lending Club is considering offering its loans in new forms in order to broaden the company's appeal among retail investors, though he did not provide details. His comments came at Citigroup's global technology conference in New York.

Sanborn also mentioned two new investment funds – one that launched in June, and another that recently got approval from the Securities and Exchange Commission – that should offer an easier way for middle-class savers to invest in the firm's loans.

In addition, Sanborn said that Lending Club plans to expand its marketing to retail investors.

"What we have traditionally done is frankly word of mouth from our current, happy investors," Sanborn said, "and then online advertising has been the core. So we're looking to broaden beyond that."

Lending Club recently announced the hiring of Raman Suri, a former BlackRock executive, as head of retail investors. Suri reports to Patrick Dunne, another BlackRock alumnus, who joined Lending Club in July as chief capital officer.

The firm, once a fintech darling, has been focusing on shoring up its investor base after the unexpected departure of longtime CEO Renaud Laplanche, who was forced out following the discovery that Lending Club executives had falsified certain data in order to meet the specifications of a particular loan buyer.

During the first quarter self-directed retail investors made up about 18% of Lending Club's investor base, Sanborn said. The company has long argued that these everyday savers are likely to remain more loyal than institutional loan buyers, giving Lending Club a leg up over competitors that are closed to retail investors.

Sanborn said Wednesday that Lending Club offers a simple, understandable way for retail investors to earn returns of 5% or higher. "You can make it as easy or as complicated as you want," he said.

At the same time Sanborn emphasized that retail investors will not fill the shoes of banks, which bought about one-third of Lending Club's loans during the first quarter but quickly retreated from the platform starting in May.

"The banks, we feel really good about getting them back, and feel that they're an incredibly valuable part of the system," he said.

Earlier this year Lending Club started offering financial incentives to hedge funds and other institutional investors as a way to entice them to start buying loans again. Those incentives expired at the end of August.

Sanborn said that he is confident that investors who received incentive payments will continue to buy Lending Club loans, though he also acknowledged that the payments may have incentivized some loan buyers to make their previously planned loan purchases sooner than they otherwise would have.

Lending Club reported operating revenue of $102 million during the second quarter. The company expects operating revenue to range from $95 million to $105 million during the last two quarters of the year.

Sanborn also said Wednesday that the company's launch of a new, undisclosed product has been delayed until next year. Lending Club originally planned to announce the product's launch in June, but that timetable was derailed by the boardroom turmoil.

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