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Creative Banking is not an oxymoron

Or alternative title — "How to amplify relationships & build trust in banking" using the power of of social peer networks.

About 5 years ago I wrote about the potential of the web to change the finance sector in new and exciting ways. The example at the time was Grameen who pioneered microfinance loans in Bangladesh which was set-up by Muhammad Yunus. Since then Yunus has won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Part of the thinking was to be able to use technology to amplify relationships and be able to deliver a level of trust outside the conventional wisdom of the day. This allows donors or funders to take part in micro-credit and makes it much easier to do so.

Some of these ideas were discussed in Kevin Kelly's "New Rules for the New Economy" 1999 book where he correctly picked the rise of peer networks and the positive effect this could have on the quality and quantity of those commercial relationships.

Given that the web and all the social tools and relationships built up around the wider use of technology has now progressed; it should be no surprise that web based loan markets have started to develop in a much wider context.

Imagine an angel capital market register for consumers, because that has started happening now. Here are 3 examples.

ZopaWeb in the UK is based on the big idea of social lending. To quote from their about section:

  • Social Lending is a financial category of genuine and increasing importance.
  • It's been happening on a small-scale in a families and social groups for hundreds of years and the internet has opened it up to everybody.
  • It's the biggest development in the world of money for decades, as people deal directly with other people, cutting out the banks.
And ... from the FAQ 3. Why has no one done this before? The principle behind Zopa is very similar to local micro-lending schemes that operate in Asia and Latin America. Families, neighbours or friends will lend amongst themselves, often a very structured way, to the benefit of the community. Because the groups are closely knit, trust is not usually an issue.

The growth of the internet, the advance of verification and credit scoring technology, and changing attitudes to corporate institutions have combined to mean this method of lending and borrowing is now viable for everyone.

The Zopa site was launched in March 2005 and currently has 105,000 users according to a news report. As Kelly expressed it in 1999 — "The central economic imperative of the network economy is to amplify relationships." *Or as you may prefer it better "Its not Kansas anymore; its Oz" from the Wizard of Oz.

Prosper in the U.S is based on similar thinking and claims 180,000 members and $36m in loans to date. It was launched in February 2006 and interestingly Benchmark Capital is an investor in both Zopa and Prosper. The Prosper system allows users to put a human face on their loan needs.

The way Prosper works is intuitive to people who have used eBay. Instead of listing and bidding on items, people list and bid on loans using Prosper's online auction platform. People who want to lend set the minimum interest rate they are willing to earn and bid in increments of $50 to $25,000 on loan listings they select. People who lend can easily diversify using "standing orders", which automatically make many small loans to different borrowers.

Kiva whose tagline is "Loans that Change Lives" has a different business model. According to their stated objectives loans are interest free to micro credit lenders who then charge their own interest rates. PayPal provides free processing service and while you stand to get your loan back — eventually; the service is still refining its business model. It plans on charging 2% interest to field partners (actual micro-credit loan managers) who then onlend at rates much lower than other finance sources, if there are any.

"Kiva is using the power of the internet to facilitate one-to-one connections that were previously prohibitively expensive. Child sponsorship has always been a high overhead business. Kiva creates a similar interpersonal connection at much lower costs due to the instant, inexpensive nature of internet delivery. The individuals featured on our website are real people who need a loan and waiting for socially-minded individuals like you to lend them money."

In this part of the world, SPBD (South Pacific Business Development) is responsible for micro credit loans in Samoa as a Kiva field partner. It is clear that using the web for social re-engineering in the three examples listed above represents quite a significant shift in the way that loans can be raised. It is also likely that over time the business models will change a bit so that the balance between social conscience and viable returns will be sustainable.

Personally I'd like to see interest rates on Kiva loans come down — however the irony is that the field partners costs are still quite high exactly because of a lack of technology at that end of the equation.

In the Zopa and Prosper examples, because there is pervasive technology on both the lender and the borrowers’ situation - the net result is not only that loan costs can be reduced in some cases below the commercial rates but that they get access to loans at all.

And for borrowers who were previously unable to access a loan at any rate - this is certainly creative banking.

Update: 24th February. Thanks to our reader in Alice Springs who spotted this video clip from PBS Frontline on the Kiva projects in Uganda