-Vinod Kothari (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Marketplace lending, P2P lending, or Fintech credit, has been growing fast in many countries, including the USA. It is estimated to have reached about $ 24 billion in 2019 in the USA.
However, there are some interesting legal issues that seem to be arising. The issues seem to be emanating from the fact that P2P platforms essentially do pairing of borrowers and lenders. In the US practice, it is also commonplace to find an intermediary bank that houses the loans for a few days, before the loan is taken up by the “peer” or crowd-sourced lender.
USA, like many other countries, has usury laws. However, usury laws are not applicable in case of banks. This comes from sec 85 of National Bank Act, and sec. 27 (a) of the Federal Deposit Insurance Act.
In P2P structure, the loan on the platform may first have been originated by a bank, and then assigned to the buyer. If the loan carries an interest rate, which is substantially high, and such high interest rate loan is taken by the “peer lender”, will it be in breach of the usury laws, assuming the rate of interest is excessive?
One of the examples of recent legal issues in this regard is Rent-Rite Superkegs West, Ltd., v. World Business Lenders, LLC, 2019 WL 2179688. In this case, a loan of $ 50000 was made to a corporation by a local bank, at an interest rate of 120.86% pa. The loan-note was subsequently assigned to a finance company. Upon bankruptcy of the borrower, the bankruptcy court refused to declare the loan as usurious, based on a time-tested doctrine that has been prevailing in US courts over the years – called valid-when-granted doctrine.
The valid-when-granted doctrine holds that if a loan is valid when it is originally granted, it cannot become invalid because of subsequent assignment. Several rulings in the past have supported this doctrine: e.g., Munn v. Comm’n Co., 15 Johns. 44, 55 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1818); Tuttle v. Clark, 4 Conn. 153, 157 (1822); Knights v. Putnam, 20 Mass. (3 Pick.) 184, 185 (1825)
However, there is a ruling that stands out, which is 2015 ruling of the Second Circuit court in Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC (786 F.3d 246). In Madden, there was an assignment of a credit card debt to a non-banking entity, who charged interest higher than permitted by state law. The court held that the relaxation from interest rate restrictions applicable to the originating bank could not be claimed by the non-banking assignee.
The ruling in Madden was deployed in a recent [June 2019] class action suit against JP Morgan Chase/Capital One entities, where the plaintiffs, representing credit card holders, allege that buyers of the credit card receivables (under credit card receivables securitization) cannot charge interest higher than permitted in case of non-banking entities. Plaintiffs have relied upon the “true sale” nature of the transaction, and contend that once the receivables are sold, it is the assignee who needs to be answerable to the restrictions on rate of interest.
While these recent suits pose new challenges to consumer loan securitization as well as marketplace lending, it is felt that much depends on the entity that may be regarded as “true lender”. True lender is that the entity that took the position of predominant economic interest in the loan at the time of origination. Consider, however, the following situations:
- In a marketplace lending structure, a bank is providing a warehousing facility. The platform disburses the loan first from the bank’s facility, but soon goes to distribute the loan to the peer lenders. The bank exits as soon as the loan is taken by the peer lenders. Will it be possible to argue that the loan should be eligible for usurious loan carve-out applicable to a bank?
- Similarly, assume there is a co-lending structure, where a bank takes a portion of the loan, but a predominant portion is taken by a non-banking lender. Can the co-lenders contend to be out of the purview of interest rate limitations?
- Assume that a bank originates the loan, and by design, immediately after origination, assigns the loan to a non-banking entity. The assignee gets a fixed, reasonable rate of return, while the spread with the assignee’s return and the actual high interest rate paid by the borrower is swept by the originating bank.
Identity of the true lender becomes an intrigue in cases like this.
Securitization transactions stand on a different footing as compared to P2P programs. In case of securitization, the loan is originated with no explicit understanding that it will be securitized. There are customary seasoning and holding requirements when the loan is incubated on the balance sheet of the originator. At the time of securitization, whether the loan will get included in the securitization pool depends on whether the loan qualifies to be securitized, based on the selection criteria.
However, in case of most P2P programs, the intent of the platform is evidently to distribute the loan to peer-lenders. The facility from the bank is, at best, a bridging facility, to make it convenient for the platform to complete the disbursement without having to wait for the peer-lenders to take the portions of the loan.
US regulators are trying to nip the controversy, by a rule that Interest on a loan that is permissible under 12 U.S.C. 85 shall not be affected by the sale, assignment, or other transfer of the loan. This is coming from a proposed rule by FDIC /OCC in November, 2019.
However, the concerns about the true lender may still continue to engage judicial attention.
Usurious lending laws in other countries
Usurious lending, also known as extortionate credit, is recognised by responsible lending laws as well as insolvency/bankruptcy laws. In the context of consumer protection laws, usurious loans are not regarded as enforceable. In case of insolvency/bankruptcy, the insolvency professional has the right to seek avoidance of a usurious or extortionate credit transaction.
In either case, there are typically carve-outs for regulated financial sector entities. The underlying rationale is that the fairness of lending contracts may be ensured by respective financial sector regulator, who may be imposing fair lending standards, disclosure of true rate of interest, etc. Therefore, judicial intervention may not be required in such cases. However, the issue once again would be – is it justifiable that the carve-out available to regulated financial entities should be available to a P2P lender, where it is predesigned that the loan will get transferred out of the books of the originating financial sector entity?
P2P lending or fintech credit is the fastest growing part of non-banking financial intermediation, sometimes known as shadow banking. A lot of regulatory framework is designed keeping a tightly-regulated bank in mind. However, P2P is itself a case of moving out of banking regulation. Banking laws and regulations cannot be supplanted and applied in case of P2P lending.
We have been engaged in research in the P2P segment. Our report on P2P market in India describes the basics of P2P lending structures in India and demonstrates development of P2P market in India.
Our other write-ups on P2P lending may also be referred: