Among the disruptive financial technology (fintech) practices, app-based lending is certainly notable. The scenario of an app-based lending is somewhat like this – a prospective borrower goes to an app platform, fills up some information. At the background, the app collects and collates the information including credit scores of the individual, may be the individual’s contact bases in social networks. Finally, the loan is sanctioned in a jiffy, mostly within minutes.
The borrower interacts with the platform, but does the borrower know that the loan is actually not coming from the platform but from some non-banking financial company (NBFC)? Whether or not the borrower knows or cares for who the lender is, the fact is that, mostly, the technology-provider (platform) and the funding-provider (lender) are not the same. They may be two entities within the same group; but more often than not, the lender is an NBFC which is simply utilising the platform.
The relationship between the platform and the lender may take one of the following forms: (a) the platform simply is procuring or referring the credit; the platform has no credit exposure at all; (b) the platform is acting as a sourcing agent and is also providing a credit support, say in the form of a first-loss guarantee for a certain proportion of the pool of loans originated through the platform; (c) the platform provides full credit support for all the loans originated through the platform, and, in return, the lender allows the platform to retain all the actual returns realised through the pool of loans, over and above a certain 'portfolio internal rate of return (IRR)'.
Option (a) is a pure sourcing arrangement; however, it is quite unlikely that the lender will be willing to trust the platform’s credit scoring, unless there is significant skin-in-the-game on the part of the platform.
If it is a case of option (c), which, incidentally, seems quite common, the loan is actually put on the books of the lender, but the credit exposure is on the platform. The lender’s exposure is, in fact, on the platform, and not the borrower. The situation seems to be quite close to a 'total rate of return swap', a form of a credit derivative, whereby parties synthetically replace the exposure and the actual rate of return in a portfolio of loans by a pre-agreed 'total rate of return'.
Our objective in this article is to examine whether there are any regulatory concerns on the practice as in case of option (c). Option (c) is an exaggeration; there may be a case such as option (b).
But since option (b) is also a first loss guarantee with a substantial thickness, it is almost akin to the platform absorbing virtually all the risks of the credit pool originated through the platform.
Before we get into the regulatory concerns, it is important to understand what the motivations of each of the parties are, in this bargain.
The motivation on the part of the platform is clear—the platform makes the spreads between the agreed portfolio IRR with the lender, and the actual rate of return on the loan pool, after absorbing all the risk of defaults. Assume that the small-ticket personal loan is being given at an interest rate of 30%, and the agreed portfolio IRR with the lender is 14%, the platform is entitled to the spread of 16%.
If some of the loans go bad, as they indeed do, the platform is still left with enough juice to be a compensation for the risks taken by it.
The readiness on the part of the platform is also explained by the fact that the credibility of the platform’s scoring is best evidenced by the platform agreeing to take the risk—it is like walking the talk.
The lender’s motivations are also easy to understand—the lender is able to disburse fast, and at a decent rate of return for itself, while taking the risk in the platform. In fact, several NBFCs and banks have been motivated by the attractiveness of this structure.
Are There Any Regulatory Concerns?
The potential regulatory concerns may be as follows:
De-facto, synthetic lending by an entity that is not a regulated NBFC;
Undercapitalised entity taking credit risk;
A credit default swap (CDS), but not regulated as a CDS;
Financial reporting issues;
Any issues of conflict of interest or misalignment of incentives;
Good borrowers pay for bad borrowers;
KYC or outsourcing related issues.
These issues are examined below.
Synthetic Lending by an Unregulated Entity
It is common knowledge that NBFCs in India require registration. The platform in the instant case is not giving a loan. The platform is facilitating a loan—right from origination to credit risk absorption. Correspondingly, the platform is earning a spread, but the activity is technically not a 'financial activity', and the spread is not a 'financial income'; hence, the platform does not require regulatory registration.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the platform is essentially doing a synthetic lending. The position of the platform is economically similar to an entity that is lending money at 30% rate of interest, and refinancing itself at 14%. There will be a regulatory arbitrage being exploited, if such synthetic lending is not treated at par with formal lending.
But then, there are a whole lot of equity-linked or property-linked swaps, where the returns of an investment in equities, properties or commodities, are swapped through a total rate of return swaps, and in regulatory parlance, the floating income recipient is not regarded as investor in equities, properties or commodities. Derivatives do transform one asset into another by using synthetic technology—in fact, insurance-linked securities allow capital market investors to participate in insurance risk, but it cannot be argued that such investors become insurance companies.
Undercapitalised Entities Taking Credit Risk
It may be argued that the platform is not a regulated entity; yet, that is where the actual credit risk is residing. Unlike NBFCs, the platform does not require any minimum capitalisation norms or risk-weighted capital asset requirements.
Therefore, there is a strong potential for risk accumulation at the platform’s level, with no relevant capital requirements. This may lead to a systemic stability issue, if the platforms become large.
There is a merit in the issue. If fintech-based lending becomes big, the exposure taken by fintech entities on the loans originated through them, on which they have exposure, may be treated at par with loans actually held on the balance sheet of the fintech. As in the case of financial entities, there are norms for converting off-balance sheet assets into their on-balance sheet equivalents, the same system may be adopted in this case.
After the global financial crisis, one of the regulatory concerns was skin-in-the-game. In the light of this, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has imposed a minimum holding period, and minimum risk retention requirements in case of direct assignments as well as securitisation.
The transaction of guarantee discussed above may seem like the exposure being shifted by the platform to the NBFC. However, the transaction is not at all comparable with an assignment of a loan. Here, the lending itself is originated on the books of the NBFC/lender. The lender has the ultimate discretion to agree to lend or not. The credit decision is that of the lender; hence, the loan is originated by the lender, and not acquired.
The lender is mitigating the risk by backing it up with the guarantee of the platform—but this is not a case of an assignment.
There is a skin-in-the-game on either side. For the platform, the guarantee is the skin-in-the-game; for the NBFC, the exposure in the platform becomes its stake.
A CDS, but Not Regulated as a CDS
The transaction has an elusive similarity to a credit default swap (CDS) contract. Annexure XIV to the master directions for NBFCs contains RBI’s guidelines on CDS contracts
. It may be argued that the guarantee construct is actually a way to execute a derivative contract, without following CDS guidelines.
In response, it may be noted that a derivative is a synthetic trading in an exposure, and is not linked with an actual exposure. For example, a protection buyer in a CDS may not be having the exposure for which he is buying protection, in the same way as a person acquiring a put option on 100gm of gold at a certain strike price may not be having 100gm of gold at all. Both the persons above are trying to create a synthetic position on the underlying.
Unlike derivatives, in the example of the guarantee above, the platform is giving guarantee against an actual exposure. The losses of the guarantor are limited to actual losses suffered by the lender. Hence, the contract is one of indemnity (see discussion below), and cannot be construed or compared to a derivative contract. There is no intent of synthetic trading in credit exposure in the present case.
Financial Reporting Issues
It may be argued that the platform is taking same exposure as that of an actual lender; whereas the exposure is not appearing on the balance sheet of the platform. On the other hand, the actual exposure of the lender is on the platform, whereas what is appearing on the balance sheet of the lender is the loan book.
The issue is one of financial reporting. International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRSs) clearly address the issue, as a financial guarantee is an on-balance sheet item, at its fair value. If the platform is not covered by IFRSs/IndASes, then the platform will be reflecting the guarantee as a contingent liability on its balance sheet.
Conflicts of Interest Or Misalignment Of Incentives
During the prelude to the global financial crisis, a commonly-noted regulatory concern was misalignment of incentives—for instance, a subprime mortgage lender might find it rewarding to lend to a weak credit and capture more excess spread, while keeping its exposure limited.
While that risk may, to some extent, remain in the present guarantee structure as well, but there are at least two important mitigants. First, the ultimate credit decision is that of the NBFC. Secondly, if the platform is taking full credit recourse, then there cannot be a misalignment of incentives.
Good Borrowers Pay for Bad Borrowers
It may be argued that eventually, the platform is compensating itself for the risk of expected losses by adding to the cost of the lending. Therefore, the good borrowers pay for the bad borrowers.
This is invariably the case in any form of unsecured lending. The mark-up earned by the lender is a compensation for risk of expected losses. The losses arise against the loans that don’t repay, and are compensated by those that do.
KYC or Outsourcing Related Issues
Regulators may also be concerned with know your customer (KYC) or outsourcing related issues. As per RBI norms “NBFCs which choose to outsource financial services shall, however, not outsource core management functions including internal audit, strategic and compliance functions and decision-making functions such as determining compliance with KYC norms for opening deposit accounts, according sanction for loans (including retail loans) and management of investment portfolio.”
Usually the power to take credit decisions vests with the lender. However, in case the arrangement between the lender and the platform is such that the platform performs the decision-making function, the same shall amount to outsourcing of core management function of the NBFC, which is expressly disallowed by the RBI.
Is It Actually a Guarantee?
Before closing, it may be relevant to raise a legal issue—is the so-called guarantee by the platform actually a guarantee?
In the absence of tripartite agreement between the parties, the arrangement cannot be said to be a contract of guarantee. Here the involvement is of only two parties in the arrangement i.e. the guarantor and the lender.
It was held in the case of KV Periyamianna Marakkayar and others vs Banians And Co
that “Section 126 of the Indian Contract Act which defines a contract of guarantee though it does not say expressly that the debtor should be a party to the contract clearly implies, that there should be three parties to it namely the surety, the principal-debtor and the creditor; otherwise it will only be a contract of indemnity. Section 145 which enacts that in every contract of guarantee there is an implied promise by the principal debtor to indemnify the surety clearly shows that the debtor and the surety are both parties to such a contract ; for it will be strange to imply in a contract a promise between persons who are not parties to it.”
Accordingly, the said arrangement may be termed as a contract of indemnity wherein the platform agrees to indemnify the lender for the losses incurred on account of default by the borrower.
Fintech-based lending is here to stay, and grow. Therefore, risk participation by fintech does not defeat the system—rather, it promotes lending and adds to the credibility of the fintech’s risk assessment. Over a period of time, the RBI may evolve appropriate guidelines for treating the credit exposure taken by the platforms as a part of their credit-equivalent assets.
(Vinod Kothari is a chartered accountant, trainer and author. Mr Kothari, through his firm, Vinod Kothari & Co, is also engaged in the practice of corporate law for over 25 years