Sunday, April 6, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare A Grand?



The latest development coming out of the current financial crisis is that individuals – regular people like you and me – are becoming banks. It's called Peer to Peer Lending. The idea is that the lender's money can earn more interest than if it were in a bank, and the borrower can borrow at a lower rate than if he or she went to a traditional lending institution. When I first heard about it, I knew right away it wasn't for me. I don't want to be a bank. For one thing, where would I get ten tellers to stand around talking while only one teller's window's open?


This kind of lending is becoming big business. Those who tout it say that it's a process in which "everybody wins." As if that's not a large enough red flag, the companies who run these things -- and who take a cut for themselves -- do it on the internet. The borrower and lender never meet, they just communicate online. I don't want to get my finances involved in a system that has the same rules as a porn chat room.


The websites try to create the atmosphere of a community, a club. Prospective lenders don't just consider the financial condition of the would-be borrower. They can use any criteria they want. According to those who have been studying these places, the lender will often decide which person to lend his money to based on that person's interests and hobbies. I don't know much about economics, but I'm not going to fork over my money to somebody just because he collects clocks.


Borrowers don't need to put up any collateral. They're often people who couldn't qualify for a loan elsewhere. One Peer to Peer company only requires that the borrower be a United States resident with a credit score of at least 520, a bank account, and a Social Security number. They don't even have to own a wallet.


So this system allows people whose credit isn't great to borrow money from people who set their own interest rates and make up the rules as far as who qualifies for a loan. Isn't that how we got into this financial mess in the first place?


But even if this thing didn't look like it was a disaster waiting to happen, I still wouldn't want to become a bank. There are too many decisions. Would I have to hire a guard? Should I validate parking? Should I close early on Halloween?


There's another reason why I don't want to get involved in this thing. What happens if the person I lend the money to can't pay it back? I don't have the right kind of personality to chase people for money. I don't want to be seen as the cruel, impersonal bank that's not allowing a mom and dad to buy a birthday gift for their kid. I don't want to see their noses pressed against my computer Windows as they beg for a little more time.


In this digital age, some people feel very close to those they "meet" on the internet. I think that's one of the biggest problems of Peer to Peer "communities." If you're wise, the only circumstance in which you lend money to a friend is if you don't ever expect to be paid back. Otherwise, bad feelings, lost money, and recriminations are bound to follow – even if you have common interests and a "really good feeling" about the other person.


Let's face it. With the exception of governments, banks are probably universally hated more than any other institution. They're seen as heartless, unfair, and as really hard places to find the bathroom. Why would people want to take over those negative feelings? I say we stick with tradition. If we have to hate, let's keep hating the banks instead of each other.



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