Over the past five or so years, the Internet has radically changed the way most industries (from content, to music, to travel) function. Central to this wave of change is a shift of power from large institutions to consumers. The financial industry is one of the last bastions where old-school business models still reign supreme.
But that’s changing.
Sites like SmartHippo empower consumers with tools and the information on the best available rates that they previously did not have access to. Peer to peer (P2P) lending sites such as Prosper and Lending Club empower consumers to bypass banks and lend directly to each other, with the promise of better rates on both sides of the equation. Where technology now provides a scalable way for consumers to exchange information and capital between themselves, the middlemen of the past are no longer as relevant.
Needless to say I’m a but fan of P2P lenders so I was quick to sign up with IOU Central was the first Canadian company to launch in the space. (I tried signing up with Prosper, but the site is restricted to US residents with a Social Security Number.) Lo and behold I logged into IOU Central today to start using the site only to be greeted by the message that “IOU Central is now operating with limited functionality.” Translation: No new loans on IOU Central, at least for now. Startup North was the first to report on this here.
I just spoke with Phil Marleau, their President and CEO, and he told me the action was taken at the request of the Autorité des marchés financiers, Quebec’s securities regulator. The agency is infamous for its impotence in front of real issues that should be under its control, such as its abysmal failure to help the 1,600 investors who lost $130 million in the Mount Real scam back in 2005.
He told me the AMF paid a visit to IOU Central yesterday and asked them to halt operations. It turns out that individuals using the site to lend money are making an investment, so IOU could be construed as selling securities.
“The important thing is that we’re working with the regulators and want to comply,” Marleau said.
According to Marleau, IOU Central had received legal advice stating they did not have to be regulated. This was based on the fact that their model was closely based on the way Prosper and Lending Club operate in the U.S., as well as Zopa in the UK. Based on this legal advice, IOU Central did not bother to even brief regulators on what they were doing.
Canada’s other P2P lender, CommunityLend, hit the scene with a lot of noise when they announced in December they had raised $2.5 million in financing. However, they have yet to have launched, citing the needs to properly address regulatory compliance issues first.
When IOU Central launched earlier this month, it looked like they had come out of nowhere and one-upped CommunityLend. CommunityLend must be gloating now.
“Our approach has been to build a viable and sustainable company, that will appeal to Canadians, and their desire for security with anything financial,” Colin Henderson, CommunityLend’s CTO told me via email. “There are no shortcuts with peoples money, and we have been working hard with the regulators for over 8 months, on over 40 Licences to ensure we can satisfy the needs of Canadians, by the time we launch.”
Marleau, to his credit, at least put on positive spin on the events: “When we’re back up, it’s going to be a better model. Because we’ll be regulated and that adds credibility and confidence.”
Here’s hoping it happens quickly. Canada’s financial system, an oligopoly if I’ve ever seen one, badly needs some shaking up.