One of the many concerns surrounding fintech lenders is that they are not as tightly regulated as traditional banks and are not bound as firmly by the provisions of the Fair Lending Act. The Federal Trade Commission has expressed concerns about many of the lending practices of fintech companies, saying in a recent statement that “the use of big data analytics to make predictions may exclude certain populations from the benefits society and markets have to offer.” Using big data to cherry pick loan candidates may be seen as discriminatory and could end up increasing regulatory scrutiny of fintech lenders as some see their underwriting practices as not being much different than redlining.
Gerron S. Levi, the director of policy and government affairs for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, also expressed concerns about the practices of the fintech lenders in recent testimony before the House Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, telling legislators “We see echoes of the early days of the subprime mortgage boom, in which rapidly growing nonbank mortgage lenders innovated in the worst possible way by loosening credit standards, layering significant and multiple forms of risk, and causing financial harm to borrowers who could ill afford to repay the loans. If lightly regulated nonbank small business lenders, including fintech firms, are left unchecked, our fear is the impact may be the same: millions of small businesses stuck with exploding loans they can’t afford, and the American taxpayer left on the hook to clean up the mess.”
While the ability of fintech lenders to quickly process and fund loans may be seen as an improvement over the much slower process used by most banks, and is also seen by many as an opportunity to expand credit offerings to a wider percentage of the public, there are drawbacks. The algorithms that are used to find the very best borrowers would stand a good chance of being found to be discriminatory under the requirements of the Fair Lending Act. And some fintech lenders are targeting consumers with low or no FICO scores and charging extremely high-interest rates—which some regulators consider to be a form of predatory lending.
We already see the various regulatory agencies take a deeper look at the fintech lending industry. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in July entered into a consent order with Flourish, a fintech lender that the agency said had violated several regulations including the Consumer Financial Protection Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The order required Flourish to deposit $1.93 million in an escrow account to repay customers, and the company was fined an additional $1.8 million.
The biggest problem facing fintech lenders is that most of them have not yet been all the way through a credit cycle, so we have no idea how they will react when an economic event causes liquidity to dry up. They do not have access to depository funding and rely on credit facilities, whole loan sales and securitizations to fund originations. These sources of financing have a tendency to evaporate when markets become volatile, and many fintech lenders could be forced to seek partnerships with other lenders or the banks themselves.
In many ways, that would be the perfect solution for this potential liquidity problem. Community and regional banks are very interested in adding new technology that will allow them to offer more online products and services as well as cut costs and speed up loan processing. Banks are actively looking to accomplish this by partnering with, or in some cases acquiring, fintech lenders. According to a recent survey conducted by the law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, 88 percent of those surveyed think that in a decade the banking world will be one where traditional banks are partnering with fintech companies in a mostly collaborative environment
Fintech lenders choosing to partner with banks will come under closer regulatory scrutiny as their lending practices will have to be in line with the regulations under which banks operate. Regulators have also expressed growing concern about data security, and that will be a large issue that both the banks and fintech companies will have to address.
Regulatory challenges are going to continue to increase for fintech lenders. For many of them, the most practical course of action will be to partner with community and regional banks. For that to happen, however, their strategies and operations will have to be modified so the marketing programs and loan approval algorithms have no hint of discriminatory or predatory lending practices.