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贷款投资大跳水

近几日,Lending Club模式表现不佳新闻的屡上头条。借此机会,我想重新梳理一下我们对于贷款投资的一些观点。

过去两年,我主要关注了两个主题,但每一个都充满争议。

首先,我认为我们正处于经济周期中的中后期,也就是说经济缓慢减速的可能性远大于突然增长。尽管美联储存在加息倾向,资本市场和大多数投资者都开始认为经济在转向。

我的第二个观点和第一点联系很紧密:我认为市场借贷平台承担了太多不属于他们的义务,即用过于低的回报率借出高风险贷款。Lending Club的分析文章和我们对投资者的建议如出一辙——专注于高质量的贷款投资。

对于新进入市场的借贷平台,我们会首先告诉他们,投资高质量贷款带来的回报率可能比股权投资更高。风投公司已经拉高了“市场借贷平台”价值了,所以我们无法按照原有投资贷款产品那样按照年度基准计算自己的投资回报。

无论过去还是现在,衡量市场借贷平台的标准,仍然以借贷额为主。因为这些平台是依靠收取现贷款发放费和贷款周期内的服务费维持运营的。

这也就是说,没人知道这种“发起-销售”的运营模型是否成功,就算成功了,也没人知道谁是最后的赢家。

有趣的是,常有人把这种模式称之为“金融业的Uber化”,但是两者之间的相似之处并没有那么多。

Uber的成功和它的大规模扩张有很大关系——简而言之,他们的司机遍布各地。即使你现在可以提供更好的服务,你也失去了扩张到和Uber一样规模的时机。

但是借贷是不一样的——人们会对传统银行失去信心,最终决定客户忠诚度的,还是价格而不是规模。

理性贷款人会选择以最低利率借款。为了获取高借出额,市场放贷平台被迫选择低利率与高风险贷款人交易,这就如同饮鸩止渴。

可见,一个拥有深厚资本市场背景的活跃运营团队是非常重要的,而我们就是最佳人选。我们的决定是依据我们对经济的判断、放贷人的报价和潜在贷款人的品质综合给出的。如果我们对借贷失去信心,我们将不再投资借贷领域。

显然,投资贷款比公司股票更靠谱。因为借贷产品将继续存在,但是都是在小额放贷人手上交易,而不是“市场化”,他们能提供10%的年回报率。我敢打赌这是股票市场不能做到的。

大型市场放贷平台不再借出贷款影响大吗?2014年11月我写道:

“随着证券化的兴起,我们离分级交易越来越接近,并最终会实现。”

现在——仅仅过了一年——分级交易在很多市场产品中实现了。简而言之,证券化就是将一堆贷款打包成证券并公开市场出售。分级证券可能被高级别资产经理、养老基金或是保险公司购买。

这迅速改变了借贷市场的经济运营模式。如果没有证券化,如果一个借贷平台将他的利率调整的太低或是违约风险突然增加,投资者将会逃离直到它上调了利率。

现在,证券化为对利率不太敏感的买家打开了大门,平台也不用为利率变化不及时而埋单。除非平台大幅上升对低质量贷款人的利率,否则不良资产的表现将堪忧。

我们强烈反对对Blue Elephant中不良资产的追捧,即使它在短期内可提高我们的回报率。

我们并不拥有类似的准优级和次级贷款。

我们的打分非常保守,任何没有表现记录的资产都会被记为0左右。我们创建了一个以部门和地理位置分类的高质量贷款的目录。现在,我们将会从这个保守定位中获益。

如果我的资本市场经验存在指导意义的话,这才仅仅是开始。现在保持保守将会为接下来几个月股利分发打下基础。我们的观点会不断改进,我们也会不断分享我们的资讯。

同时,我们将继续专注于理智、保守的投资。

Given the recent headlines regarding the struggles in performance of Lending Club’s models, I wanted to revisit some of our closely held views on loan investing.

Over the last two years, I have been focused on two major themes — both of which were met with a lot of skepticism.

First, I was convinced that we were mid-to-late in the economic cycle, meaning that economic weakness was more likely than explosive growth. While the Fed managed to sneak in a rate hike, the capital markets have spoken and most investors are starting to believe that the cycle is turning.

The second belief, connected in many ways for the first, was that marketplace lenders would overextend themselves, making too many risky loans at low yields. The Lending Club article confirms what we have been telling our investors for months — stay focused on high-quality lending.

The first decision we made when looking at emerging lenders was that investing in high quality loans was likely to provide better returns than equity. Venture capital firms had already driven up the valuations of “marketplace lenders” to levels at which we couldn’t realize returns on an annual basis like we could from investing in the loans.

Lenders were, and still are, being valued based on some multiple of the volumes of loans they underwrite. This makes sense given that their earnings stream comes from the origination fees they collect for each loan and the corresponding servicing that they collect for the life of the loan.

That said, no one knows if the originate-to-sell model will succeed, or, if they do, who the winners will be.

While it is interesting to discuss the “Uberization” of finance, the parallels are limited.

Uber succeeds in some way due to its scale — said simply, they have a lot of drivers in a lot of places. If you started a better car service today, it would be hard to get the same scale over any survivable period of time.

Lending is different — while people may be frustrated with traditional banking, at end the day loyalty to a lender is not determined by scale, but by price.

Most people choose to borrow at the lowest possible rate, assuming that their borrowing experience is reasonable. To achieve higher volumes, marketplace lenders are forced to lower rates and seek out riskier borrowers, which is a toxic cocktail that always ends in tears.

This highlights the importance of an active management team with a deep capital markets background like ours.

We make decisions based on our view of the economy, the rate offered by the lender and the quality of the underlying borrower.

If we stop liking loans, we stop buying them.

Obviously the loans have held their value far better than the company’s equity. We continue to find loan product, often from niche lenders that are not part of the “marketplace”, that offer around 10 percent returns annually. I would not bet on replicating this in the equity markets.

Does it matter that the larger marketplace lenders do not retain any loans on their own balance sheet? In November of 2014, I wrote that:

As securitization heats up and we get closer and closer to rated transactions, we’ll go with “eventually, but not now.”

Here we are — just over a year later — and rated securitizations are being done across a number of marketplace products. For those unfamiliar, a securitization allows a pool of loans to be turned into a security and sold off into the public bond markets. A rated securitization is likely to be purchased by a large asset manager, pension fund or insurance company.

These huge pools of capital change the economics of lending. In a world without securitization, if a marketplace lender lowers their rates too far or if defaults increase unexpectedly, investor capital would flee until that lender raised lending rates.

Now that securitizations have opened the door to buyers who are less rate sensitive, platforms have an excuse to be less sensitive to deterioration in performance. In other words, they are being too slow to raise lending rates. Until marketplace lenders raise lending rates meaningfully to the lower-quality borrower, we will assume that performance of down-in-quality assets will suffer.

We have fastidiously resisted the urge to chase low-quality assets in the Blue Elephant, even though it would have made our returns look better in the short run.

We own nothing resembling near-prime or subprime risk.

We are marked conservatively, with any nonperforming asset written down near zero. We’ve created an extremely high quality book of loans with sector and geographic diversity. We should now benefit from that conservative positioning.

If my capital markets experience is any guide, this is only the beginning. Staying conservative for a little longer will pay dividends over the coming months. Our views will continue to evolve and we look forward to sharing that information as it happens.

In the meantime, we will stay focused on making smart, conservative investments.


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