There are about 20 odd funded online lending companies in India, and the market that was supposed be the big find of 2016 is now facing a reality check. Many of the funded companies are already pivoting and many others are seeing serious slowdown of momentum. Demonetization has hit many of them as overall borrowing has reduced since November, but that only hides many other underlying challenges.
The companies that are in the online lending space can be categorized in about 4 categories:
A few debates that were raging in the market seem to have settled down now. One was the fascination with marketplaces. Most investors now accept that in the short run, lending-from-own-balance-sheet model is the best model to serve under-served markets. The borrower coming online expects easy and quick money but this is not solved in a marketplace today for everybody. Usually, lenders themselves thrive on information and access asymmetry, and have no major advantage in helping the marketplaces remove the same. There may emerge marketplaces later in time as the newer and more tech savvy players provide enough depth to the supplier side of the marketplaces.
So we find practically all the marketplaces founded recently now getting a lending license to lend from their own books. There remains a genuine concern about the balance-sheet lending model that inherently uses money as a raw material and hence leads to very frequent fund raises. But as plenty of other spaces have demonstrated- the Indian market is better served in the full stack model, even though it may not be theoretically the most capital efficient model.
Another myth that is also getting dispelled is the lure of great credit scoring algorithms. AI, Machine learning, robo credit etc. are fancy words and very very attractive. But after reaching acceptable default levels, any incremental improvement in credit scoring is bound to give diminishing returns. And a team of 3 data scientists, with all due regards, has become a commodity. So everybody with a budget might have some credit scoring ability, and will be able to bring the credit defaults within reasonable limits as long as the underlying segment is fundamentally viable. Also, the bigger expense today, by a wide margin, for all online lending players is not the cost of default, it is the cost of acquisition.
That brings us to some real issues facing the space, aka why the companies are not growing at their expected pace.
No surprise that the challenges that the online lending cos face are pretty much similar to what the ecommerce cos faced early on- but they had the liberty of burning cash and learning as they grew. If you try to grow fast, you acquire customers at a very high cost. If you try to build too much tech in your processing, you have to leave out a large number of eligible customers or channel partners. If you have to borrow, you need to be profitable. But then if you don’t grow fast enough by burning some money, you won’t qualify as a venture deal for investors. So the teams need to be very nimble as they manage these pulls in different directions.
On the flip side, the reward of solving these challenges is very lucrative. The market is big and the unmet demand so large that in almost all spaces save the marketplaces there is room for 5–10 large new players. It is clear to startups and the incumbents that there no winner takes all here and this has ensured that nobody is indulging in discounting. The NBFC and microfinance spaces have delivered good returns for investors and there is enough PE interest in profitable tech enabled lenders, many of which may want to come in very early in these lenders and that increases the available pool of money.