This guest article was written by Melissa Stringer who is the Director of Sales of freemarketFX.
The term ‘peer-to-peer’ (P2P) is increasingly being adopted by businesses in different sectors, including in financial services, to allude to their advancement away from traditional intermediary-laden business processes. Fears around VC bubbles, and discussion boards on regulatory issues, abound…
So what is peer-to-peer?
Essentially ‘peer-to-peer’ is a term applied to any means of value exchange where participants are direct counterparties of one another.
Where did we first see the term ‘peer-to-peer’?
To the non-coding population, P2P was popularised by the infamous file sharing company, Napster, in 1999: Individuals were able to share MP3 files online, music generally, with other participants using the service. The site evoked the ire of the Recording Industry Association of America which cited unlawful sharing of copyright material, urged by mainstream artists, concerned about leaked releases and free circulation. Napster was eventually closed by court order in 2001, but not before news of Napster’s success and free musical edification had disseminated the ranks of student unions across the world, gaining ever more popularity, with 80 million users at its peak.
What does peer-to-peer mean?
In addition to its literal meaning, peer-to-peer is an emotive term, which evokes revolution, promotes social awareness, and prompts the desire to help our fellow man:
“I am helping someone buy or do something that is really important to them. Saving and investing with a conscience,” says Karina – individual investor with Zopa. Ideally, I believe that’s the spirit of peer-to-peer.
There are winners and losers in the system of ‘peer-to-peer’. In the Napster example, winners are naturally the 80 million users of the service, and the independent or otherwise unknown artists who credit the free-market exposure with their popularity and success; losers are established artists and record labels, who stood to lose significant revenue in record sales. I trust there’s no need to draw out the parallels when the same scenario plays out with fintech vs financial institutions…
P2P has been associated with legal concerns, regulation issues and fraud risk, however, disruptiveness, innovation, and value-for-money are also three ubiquitous themes of companies in this space. Peer-to-peer technology is a new frontier in economic and social enrichment; firms assuming this label want to fix existing problems, and empower their customers to make the best of their time, money and opportunities.
What types of businesses are peer-to-peer?
The most well-known peer-to-peer communities, and currently the most debated, are:
The ‘best buy’ top three P2P lending firms are:
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- Zopa- “The longest-running site, with good rates and risk spreading”
- RateSetter – Feels like a savings account, and customisable rates
- Funding Circle – Government backed peer-to-peer ‘Unicorn’
P2P Currency Exchange
I have far too much to say on this topic so I will leave this to another post, but well-known companies are: Transferwise, Midpoint and CurrencyFair, and MoneySwap based in Hong Kong.
Perhaps not as obvious, but AirBnB and Uber are also P2P pioneers
Peer-to-peer was big business this year as BI pointed out – P2P fintech firms were the recipient businesses of 4 of the top 11 largest investments in 2015.
Any peer-to-peer problems and pitfalls?
Specifically in peer-to-peer lending, there is growing reservation iterated by LendInvest CEO Christian Faes for BI as to whether peer-to-peer lending businesses “can ever actually be profitable.” Increased regulation in the UK means that “it does become quite expensive and cumbersome to run a peer-to-peer lender.” This might afford investors and users some confidence however, as the regulatory landscape has cleared out the sector and remaining platforms have had to “make the grade” under the FSA’s watch.
Within peer-to-peer payments and non-bank currency exchange providers (generally) there is a running theme of unabashed bank-bashing. Undoubtedly brilliant, and I’m grateful to them and their gigantic marketing budget for spreading the word about peer-to-peer FX, Transferwise’s primary slogan is “Beat the Banks” and their ‘That Moment” marketing campaigns are inescapable: “Tea spitting, tears and WTF? We’ve plastered the tube with ‘That Moment’ “. Yes you have, literally.
Amusing though these messages are, the antagonistic nature is arguably disingenuous, and premature; Transferwise, and firms like them (ours included) still rely, sometimes indirectly, on centuries old bank institutions for currency accounts, payment capabilities and credit. Many payments and currency exchange providers are unable to open bank accounts and gain licencing in the UK, failing to live up to the UK’s exacting regulatory and operational requirements, and banking partiality. To us lucky few, I might suggest refraining from biting the hand that feeds you… too hard.
The recent trend of VC investment in fintech is part of a global movement towards social connectedness and intermediation. Rod Hsu, President of nTrust, speaking to BVI, ascribes this shift to Millennials being a pioneering demographic, encouraging a “uniquely progressive view of future financial conditions.” Millennials “in particular, are most likely to envision a cashless, sharing-based economy in the future where banks no longer serve as their primary financial institutions.” As more and more Millennials rise up the management ranks, adoption of peer-to-peer technologies is set to increase into the future.