Get rates of up to 6.5%
Peer-to-peer lending firms such as Zopa, Funding Circle and Ratesetter offer rates to investors of up to 6%, but their products are NOT the same as savings accounts. Plus, many who've invested are having trouble getting their money back out during the pandemic. This guide explains the risks and looks at how the main players stack up.
WARNING: The peer-to-peer lending sector has suffered during the coronavirus crisis. Some people who've invested are having trouble accessing their cash, with waits of several months at some providers. Usually you need to sell your loans to others, but the demand simply isn't there to buy them. Rates are also a lot lower than they were before the pandemic, even as APRs borrowers are charged have grown, as providers expect a larger proportion of returns to be lost to bad debt.
See the top peer-to-peer provider boxes to see what's happened at the three big players.
What is peer-to-peer lending?
Peer-to-peer lending websites are financial matchmakers, online money cupids, marrying up people who've cash to lend and are looking for a good return, with individuals or companies wanting to borrow.
With the banking middleman cut out, investors putting up cash for lending can get much higher rates than they would from a savings account, while borrowers often pay less than with a conventional loan. The sites themselves profit by taking a fee.
But before you get excited by the rates on offer and put any money into peer-to-peer (P2P), it's important you understand that it's NOT like traditional savings.
Peer-to-peer may look like saving, but as there's no savings safety guarantee and you could lose your money, it's really an investment.
Lending isn't done willy-nilly – borrowers are cherry-picked using credit checks and rated according to risk. The websites do all the repayment chasing on your behalf – so there's no legwork like lending to a bloke down the pub. However, there are risks involved which are important to consider before putting your money in.
In the past, basic-rate taxpayers lost £20 in tax for every £100 of interest they earned, while higher-rate taxpayers lost £40. But now the personal savings allowance (PSA) means every basic-rate taxpayer can earn £1,000 in interest without paying tax on it (higher-rate taxpayers can earn £500).
The interest you earn from P2P lending is covered by this – despite the fact they're not 'savings' in the traditional sense – although it's worth remembering you do have just one personal savings allowance per tax year. Any interest you earn that exceeds the allowance will be subject to tax. For more info, see our Personal Savings Allowance guide.
The 'innovative finance ISA' (IFISA) allows P2P investors to lend out up to the annual £20,000 ISA allowance within an ISA wrapper, so interest on that portion of money will be tax-free forever. These launched on 6 April 2016, but it has taken a while for the major players to get approval to offer them.
All providers below now offer IFISAs to new and existing customers. For more information on this type of ISA, see the Peer-to-peer 'savings' to be included in ISAs MSE News story.
Regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has now launched a set of tighter rules for peer-to-peer lenders. The headline one is that new investors are no longer allowed to put more than 10% of their investable assets into P2P.
As of 9 December 2019, if you've not sought out independent financial advice, you can only invest a maximum of 10% of your investable assets (excluding things such as your main residence). However, you'll need to 'self-certify' by telling the provider you won't invest more than this and it remains to be seen how it'll be enforced.
There are ways around it though: for example, if you've invested two or more times in the past two years there are no longer any limits on investments. But our view is that while this rule is only for new investors, it's an important signal about not overexposing yourself to the risks – see Martin's warning below.
Checks to ensure you have the knowledge and experience to invest. Firms need to ask you questions to check you know what you're doing, if you haven't received financial advice.
More info on plans if a lender goes bust. Firms will have to give you more information about their plans for when things go wrong.
P2P firms must also present information clearly and be honest about risks. All P2P companies must meet these rules or face sanctions, which can include large fines.
Firms are also required to have at least £50,000 of capital (more for bigger firms) in reserve to act as a buffer to ensure they can withstand financial shocks or difficulties.
You MUST know the risks – peer-to-peer lending isn't for everyone
WARNING: Peer-to-peer lending is currently being tested by the effects of an economic recession, due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic. We have already seen some reaction from providers, but it is too soon to know the full extent of any impact. So before investing in peer-to-peer, be VERY careful.
Here's a list of things you need to consider before giving a peer-to-peer company your money.
While the UK and EU have finally agreed on a trade deal, it's still early days and we don't know the extent to which it will affect the economy - some say good, others say bad. We do know there is huge uncertainty. P2P is a new industry; most firms have never ridden through a substantial downturn, and we don't know how they will. The P2P platforms mentioned in this guide only operate in the UK, so there is no cross border implications from the trade deal.
We list further risks below – the last is the 'unknown unknowns', which the current uncertainty only exacerbates. While we're not saying don't do P2P, we do think you need to consider even more carefully if it's right for you.
With normal UK savings, the Financial Services Compensation Scheme offers you a level of protection. It promises to pay the first £85,000 of any money saved per person, per financial institution if that institution went kaput. Any money you've invested with a P2P lender that's being loaned out doesn't have this, even now lenders are regulated.
While for many P2P has worked well, the primary risk is, of course, not being repaid if people or companies you've lent the money to don't pay it back.
Each P2P site has its own way of attempting to lessen this risk – make sure you know what provisions a site has in place before choosing it.
Many P2P lenders allow you to withdraw money early if you want, by matching your existing loans with new investors. While this can work well, lenders with Funding Circle have had to wait for months recently. There is also a question of how this secondary market would work if interest rates were to rise. If, say, you're lending out at 4% and want to exit, but newcomers can lend out at 9%, how easy will it be in practice to get someone to take over your loans at the less attractive rate?
The lenders in this guide quote 'expected', 'projected' or 'target' returns for investors, but the actual rate you get could be less, for example, if part of the money you lent isn't repaid (and there's no provision fund that covers it), or if a borrower repays part of your loan early.
No interest is paid while your cash is waiting to be lent out. Depending on the provider, it could take a few days to find borrowers. Bear this in mind, especially if you're investing a lot, as it may take longer to all be lent out.
Technically the loans are between you and the borrower, so if the P2P site went bust, you'd still be owed. All P2P firms need to have plans in place for an 'orderly wind-down' of the business. This could include having insurance to pay for a third party to collect outstanding loans, though if this did happen, things aren't likely to run anywhere near as smoothly. An example of this was investors in collapsed firm Lendy waiting to see if they'll get back their share of the £150 million invested.
There have been horror stories in the US and with some providers in the UK, including the May 2019 collapse of mid-sized firm Lendy. This is a fast-changing industry and you have to factor in the unknown unknowns. Things will happen that we can't predict, so you need to consider if you're willing to take this risk with your money.
Martin: Don't put money into peer-to-peer if you can't afford to lose it
Peer-to-peer lending looks like savings (but with higher interest, eg, 5%), acts like savings, but smells like investing. As we've warned, it ISN'T covered by the UK savings safety net, which protects bank, building society and credit union savings up to £85k per person, per institution if they went bust.
Even in this new industry, we've already seen two small UK P2P platforms, Lendy and Funding Secure, recently collapse.
The Financial Conduct Authority is so concerned about people's attitudes to P2P, and that some marketing makes it seem like savings, it's ruled that from Monday 9 December, firms won't be allowed to let those who haven't had independent financial advice put more than 10% of their investable assets (ie, excluding their home) into P2P.
While the rule is only for new investors, if you already have money in there, it's a good spur to check your exposure to P2P. Those saving regularly may have more in it than they think. Even then 10% is still high for many. As with all investments, the best stance is NEVER HAVE MORE MONEY IN THAN YOU CAN AFFORD TO LOSE.
This isn't a coded message to say don't do P2P. I'm not anti-it; I do it myself. Yet I meet more and more people who see it as akin to savings. It isn't. It's investing. Investing can be great – you do it to get higher returns than savings, but the cost is the risk of losing money.
It's important to understand the risk, and decide if you accept it, not just when putting money in, but then continually reviewing whether you want the exposure. That's especially important in uncertain times, such as right now. For those comfortable with the risk, P2P can be a great option (and has been for me).
Main peer-to-peer lending firms
The P2P market's developing fast, and while there are new sites popping up all the time, currently there are three firms that make up the majority of the market.
Each works slightly differently, and – as with a lot of things in life – the greater the risk, the higher the return. Do be aware rates change frequently, so those listed below are simply a snapshot of a moment in time.
Ratesetter quotes rates of between 3% and 4% for its three products. None has a fixed term, but fees vary for getting your money out:
- Access offers 3% – it charges no fee for accessing your cash.
- Plus offers 3.5% – it charges 30 days' interest for accessing your money.
- Max offers 4% – it charges 90 days' interest for cashing in. Ratesetter's innovative finance ISA also offers 4%.
Coronavirus update. Since May the monthly interest rate Ratesetter pays out to investors has been halved (this policy is subject to review every three months). For example, its access account currently offers 3%, but you will now only receive 1.5% – the rest of the interest is being put into its provision fund.
If you want to release your investment, this can now take months from the date you submit the request, as explained in our Ratesetter news story.
Projected rates: 3% (Access product), 3.5% (Plus), 4% (Max), 4% ISA – all only offering half of those rates since May
Unlent cash kept in: Barclays
Min/max lend amount: £10 / unlimited
Money lent so far: £3.5 billion
Number of lenders: 78,700
Because of the nature of P2P, there's a risk not all of your money will be paid back – or any at all – which could affect the return you get. However, Ratesetter provides protection in the form of its provision fund.
Ratesetter says it has paid out the expected rate in all cases and the provision fund amounts to £39 million. While the firm is FCA-regulated and one of the largest peer-to-peer lenders, there is always the risk that Ratesetter itself could experience difficulties.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ratesetter said it took one day on average to release investors' cash, but that it could take time as you needed to wait for new investors to take on your loans. Since the onset of the pandemic, Ratesetter has said that this can take up to a month, though investors have reported waiting even longer than that to access their cash.
Funding Circle involves lending to businesses and has been used by the Government – which has committed £315m. Projected returns are higher, but so is the expected level of 'bad debt', so it's the riskiest. 'Bad debt' refers to a company that might not be able to pay back what it's borrowed.
You can also open an innovative finance ISA with Funding Circle – these have the same features as its non-ISA products, with the benefit of returns being tax-free.
Coronavirus update. Funding Circle has paused new investing for retail investors, but says it hopes to offer this again in the future. This means existing investors aren’t able to add new funds or reinvest their monthly repayments in new loans.
However, they are continuing to receive monthly repayments of capital and interest from the businesses they lend to. Investors are also currently unable to sell loan parts to other investors.
Projected rates: 4.3% - 4.7% (Conservative product), 4.5% - 6.5% (Balanced), after fees and bad debts
Unlent cash kept in: Barclays
Min/max lend amount: £1,000/unlimited
Money lent so far: £5.8 billion
Number of lenders: 83,000
Funding Circle used to let you choose which businesses you lend to, but now your money is automatically spread across multiple borrowers, so if one fails to repay, it won't hit you too badly. You can choose from two products:
- Balanced lends your money to businesses across Funding Circle's full range of risk ratings.
- Conservative has a lower expected return but lends to the two lowest risk classes of business.
For both products, no more than 0.5% (min £10) of your money will be lent to a single business.
Your money's lent out over periods ranging from six months to five years. As the loans are repaid, you receive a proportion back every month plus interest, which you can choose to withdraw or reinvest.
If you want to access your money early, there is a secondary market for selling on the debt. But this depends on a buyer being available – investors have reported it's often taken three months or more to sell loans, so there are no guarantees how fast you might get your money back.
Funding Circle splits companies into A+ to E risks. This comes after it's checked company directors for fraud through the CIFAS national fraud database, assessed the company's Experian credit report, confirmed it's traded for more than two years and has no county court judgments of £1,000+ against it. Loans of £100,000+ must be backed by assets.
The UK's original peer-to-peer firm, Zopa was set up in 2005. You choose how much cash you want to put in and how long you want to lock it away for, and you'll get a fixed rate – it'll spread your money across multiple borrowers to try to lower the risk (see below).
You can also open an innovative finance ISA with Zopa – these have the same features as its non-ISA products, with the benefit of returns being tax-free. Currently Zopa offers two products:
- Core has a projected annual return of up to 4% after fees and bad debts (bad debts take into account someone not being able to pay back what they've borrowed). It has a 1% fee to withdraw funds early. This lends to borrowers with a risk rating of A* to C, the lower end of the risk spectrum (so people Zopa expects to default less).
- Plus offers a higher projected return of up to 5.3% a year, with the same 1% fee to withdraw funds early. It lends to borrowers across all of Zopa's risk ratings of A* to E, making it a riskier product than Core.
Coronavirus update. Continues to remain open to existing investors, though it has introduced a temporary waiting list for new investors and is currently only offering new loans invested through Core at A* - B and Plus A*- C – effectively not lending in its higher risk categories.
Expected rates: 2% - 4% (Core), 2.1% - 5.3% (Plus) after fees and bad debts
Unlent cash kept in: RBS
Min/max lend amount: £1,000/unlimited
Money lent so far: £5 billion
Number of lenders: 76,000
Zopa lends your money to individual borrowers, each of whom gets a risk rating, from A* to E – with E being most likely to default. It diversifies your investment, which means it spreads your cash among many different borrowers. The rate offered already has Zopa's assumed bad debts and fee deducted, so it's already worked in an expected number of people who may not repay.
If a borrower misses four months' worth of repayments, Zopa will try to collect the loan through a recovery process, though it'll initially deduct the amount unpaid from your account. If it recovers the money, it'll add it back to your account.
You get monthly repayments, which can be paid back into your holding account or lent out again. If you want to access a lump sum that's still being lent, you can sell on your outstanding loans for a 1% fee. Zopa says it takes two to three days to get the cash.
Alternative P2P sites
Funding Circle, Ratesetter and Zopa aren't the only peer-to-peer sites, but they're the biggest. Other sites include the likes of ThinCats, MarketFinance, Lending Works*, Landbay, Assetz Capital, CrowdProperty and Folk2Folk. Some of these are new and/or small, so you need to think carefully if you are comfortable with the level of risk associated before you decide to use any of them.
Following the introduction of enhanced FCA rules in the sector, previous self-regulatory body the Peer-to-Peer Finance Association has been disbanded. A new group, 36H (named to reflect that members are fully authorised by the FCA under Article 36H of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000), has been set up in its place to be a voice for the industry.
Membership is open to all lending platforms that are authorised and regulated by the FCA under Article 36H legislation. So far the only members are Funding Circle, Ratesetter, Zopa, Lending Works and CrowdProperty. The group says it will "focus on policy and regulatory matters, as well as promoting the benefits the sector is delivering; including bringing choice, competition and transparency to the lending and investment markets".
We will update this guide with any changes in the sector as a result of this work and as and when any other platforms join.
We would love to hear your feedback on your experiences of using P2P lending sites via the MSE Forum link below.
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