I’ve just been checking out my Zopa savings account, where I’ve noticed interest rates are going up. I only ever lend to A and A* borrowers (people with great or better than great credit records) and the rate Zopa is quoting me as competitive is much higher than usual.
In fact, in the A*, 24-month market, I seem to be in the zone with an interest rate of 10.5%, which Zopa estimates will give me 9.5% after bad debt.
That 9.5% is almost 50% more interest than on the best savings accounts available from banks at the moment.
- Previously Zopa’s edge on normal savings accounts has been more 1-2% above the High Street banks.
- The Bank of England is cutting interest rates, so this is a chance to ‘lock in’ a higher rate.
- That 9.5% is close to my expected returns from the supposedly much riskier stock market.
So should peer-to-peer Zopa lenders be filling their boots?
A quick Zopa primer
I’ve been meaning for ages to write up my experiences with Zopa, but a quick primer will have to suffice for now.
Zopa is a peer-to-peer lending site that’s been going in the UK for about three years, and recently launched in the US, Japan and Italy. It’s completely legitimate in terms of its business (although some criticize its business model!) It’s been covered by both the BBC and the FT.
Set up by experienced bankers who created Egg in the UK, the best analogy is it’s sort of like an eBay for money. As a lender you offer loans to members, while other members borrow money. You get access to the same credit checking the big banks use (or don’t use), and there’s (theoretically) all manner of checks and balances built-in to enable you to see what kind of rate you’re getting.
The big difference between putting money into Zopa and a normal savings account is that you can lose your money with Zopa.
There are safeguards against this – you might choose to only lend, for example, £10 to each borrower, and bad debt is taken into account in the expected returns – but it’s still a crucial difference. On the other hand, I’ve not yet had a bad debt, and nor has a good friend who has been a lender with Zopa for over two years.
I still plan to write a long post about Zopa soon, as it’s really fascinating. If you want to know more before reading on, check out that BBC story on Zopa.
So, should I lend money like crazy at 9.5%?
Clearly, the credit crunch is having an effect on Zopa’s peer-to-peer lending market, either by:
- Increasing the number of Zopa borrowers, and so decreasing the pressure for lenders to compete via reducing rates.
- Reducing the number of lenders, and so reducing the range of offers for borrowers to choose from.
- Making lenders nervous, so we’re all raising our rates.
Plus I see a fourth, really unpleasant possibility:
- More lower-quality (or even dishonest) borrowers are coming to Zopa.
Which is it? I wish I knew. If I could be certain those A* borrowers wouldn’t default in droves in the next 24 months, I’d take a 9.5% return like a shot. Certainly, if a big High Street bank was offering that interest rate, I’d sell down some of my shares to take that as a guaranteed return.
But Zopa lending is not guaranteed, and that’s a very big but indeed.
I’d say the likeliest cause of the rate spike is a combination of all of the factors I mentioned above. Rising rates in a system like Zopa make sense even if rates are falling elsewhere, because lenders like me always have the opportunity to just stick our money in a bank account instead if we’re unsettled, and will demand more return for taking the risk. And if Wall Street and the City is nervous about lending money because of rising bad debts, we should be, too.
On the other hand, my A* borrowers are (theoretically) the creme de la creme of customers. You can lend to sub-prime borrowers at higher rates on Zopa, but I don’t. So the risk of a mass default for me should be small.
The biggest issue for me is Zopa has not yet been tested in anger. We haven’t yet seen how individual borrowers will behave in a peer-to-peer system if money really becomes tight. With some economists predicting a 1980s-style recession in every way except the shoulder pads, that’s a very real risk.
On balance, I’m going to increase my lending a little, but not go crazy. I originally explored Zopa as an experiment, and it’d be terrible to discover that I’m the unfortunate guinea pig should the experiment turn sour.