Discrimination In P2P Lending?

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A couple of economics professors have published a fascinating report, that raises a lot of questions about P2P lending.

The authors analyzed all loan applications listed during a one-year period on Prosper.com. They found that listings submitted with a picture of a African-American person — or no picture at all — were significantly less likely to get funded than listings from whites with similar financial information. If funded, African-Americans were subject to a slightly higher rate.

They also discovered some discrimination against older borrowers, overweight borrowers, and borrowers that they considered to be unattractive. They did find, however, that lenders discriminated in favor of members of the military and women (especially single women).

What complicates this picture, though, is that the site’s black borrowers were more likely to default (by 36%) than the white borrowers with similar financial information. In addition, members of the military were 49% more likely than non-military borrowers to default.

My take: I’ve commented before on what I consider to be the disingenuous marketing of P2P lending sites. Prosper’s claim that it was “created to make consumer lending more financially and socially rewarding for everyone” isn’t exactly supported by the professors’ findings.

Beyond this, though, the study raises legal issues (I think — I might be wrong here. I’m not sure what the legal requirements are regarding Prosper and other P2P sites). Banks are prevented from redlining — should P2P lenders be prohibited from discriminating, as well? And if there truly is discrimination happening, what is (or should be) Prosper.com’s role in identifying it or preventing it?

Seems to me that Prosper (and possibly other P2P lending sites) runs the risk of becoming just a way for the affluent to lend to the affluent. According to the study, while borrowers with a credit grade of at least 640 accounted for just 17% all listings, they comprised 46% of all funded listings. Is this really all that different from traditional banks?

I remain somewhat skeptical that P2P sites are going to make a big dent in the banks’ lending businesses, and even more skeptical of the sites’ claims to be providing a social service.

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