Thursday, 22 January 2009

WeBank: New Rules for The New Economy

It was an unusually broad church that came to hear whether people will replace financial institutions at WeBank last night. More network economy than financial services.

While it was excellent to hear from platforms as diverse Zopa, Kubera Money and Midpoint & Transfer (a proposed P2P foreign exchange matching service), the panel discussion was quite revealing.

For James Gardner, Head of Innovation in a bank, the question was whether peer-to-peer finance would ever become so successful that it would make it uneconomic for banks to compete in the markets for deposits and personal loans. Having spent considerable time trying to understand how P2P platforms will scale cost effectively, he doubts that banks will lose their grip on these markets. In particular, he felt that the cost of compliance with increasing regulation will constrain growth and fee income alone won't support the investment in resources required. However, various members of the audience were keen to point out that peer-to-peer finance is the product of a very different attitude to money than people's attitude to banking. For this reason the two should not be viewed merely in competitive terms.

Indeed, Giles Andrews (MD at Zopa), said Zopa lenders were not necessarily drawing on their savings, as opposed to investment capital, in their quest for greater personal control over their returns. However, Giles did say that Zopa was gradually taking market share from banks in personal loans, having disbursed about £31m worth to date, and doubling volumes year on year. Already marginally profitable on each transaction, the business itself will reach profitability once volumes double again. On this basis, he says there is no problem with scalability.

Umair Haque of the Havas Media Lab sees P2P finance as a reflection that our established institutional rules have become ineffective, and must be re-written, in much the same way as other online marketplaces and social network services have introduced their own new rules, customs and etiquette. So we should look not so much at individual players or business models but at what set of rules is needed for social and economic recovery.

For my own part, I agree that P2P finance is not about "banking". They are on different, diverging paths. But inevitably - and particularly in the current economic enfvironment - one is drawn to the notion that banking as we have known it is doomed. James Gardner's observation that banks can't see how P2P finance could possibly scale given current institutional constraints is quite telling. Perhaps it is that mindset that has given rise to frustration and innovation amongst non-banks, from hedge funds to payment service providers to retailers and even individual people. Everyone wants to do things differently to how banks have insisted they be done. Even formal regulation has opened up more lightly-regulated territory that was previously reserved for banks, such as e-money and payment service provision - endorsing non-regulated products at the same time. In this way, one can see how the new economic rules are being written around banking, rather than by banks themselves.
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