UK online lender Funding Circle shrugs off Brexit jitters with £81m investment

Peer-to-peer lender Funding Circle aims for rapid growth and is now targeting the $417bn US market

Edward Robinson
Thursday 12 January 2017 11:33 GMT
Peer-to-peer lenders have filled a void by providing loans to small businesses that big banks won't
Peer-to-peer lenders have filled a void by providing loans to small businesses that big banks won't (Getty)

British peer-to-peer lenders were bracing for disaster when the UK voted to quit the European Union on 23 June. Maybe they needn’t have worried.

Funding Circle, the biggest online lender for small businesses in the UK, has raised $100m (£81m) in equity funding, it said in a statement on Thursday. Accel Partners, the Palo Alto, California-based venture capital firm, led the round, which included Index Ventures, Union Square Ventures, and Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s state-owned investment company.

Retail investors and borrowers have flocked to their platforms since the Brexit vote with total loan volumes surging 28 per cent to £8.7bn, according to AltFi Data, a London-based research firm. Funding Circle’s lending has jumped by a third since the 23 June referendum.

Some analysts say the Bank of England’s decision to lower interest rates to 0.25 per cent from 0.5 per cent in August prompted retail investors to seek profits in peer-to-peer loans that were, on average, returning about 5 per cent. Others say investors paused in the months leading up to the vote and now are piling back into the space because the British economy has avoided a recession many economists predicted.

“It’s probably a combination of things,” said Cormac Leech, a London-based principal at Victory Park Capital Advisors, a private-equity firm in Chicago that invests in peer-to-peer loans. “Growth has been stronger than expected, investors are hunting for yield, and there’s a bounce-back from earlier in the year.”

In November, Funding Circle became the first online lender to arrange more than £100m in loans in a single month. The startup, which also operates platforms in the US, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain, said today that its UK operations had positive earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the fourth quarter. Zopa, the largest online lender to consumers in the UK, also broke into the black on that basis late last year.

Funding Circle’s round is the biggest in the UK since 2015. It bucks a drop in fintech investing in Europe and North America as startups morph into more mature businesses.

In the third quarter, venture investing in British fintech firms skidded 42 per cent from the year-earlier period to £64m, according to CB Insights, a New York-based research firm.

The deal comes as Funding Circle and its ilk face a crackdown by the Financial Conduct Authority. In December, the British regulator issued a report finding that the industry fell short of providing fair and transparent offerings to investors. FCA chief executive Andrew Bailey said the industry is growing so rapidly that platforms may be too complicated for retail investors to understand. This year, it may work with Parliament to implement new industry rules.

Even so, Harry Nelis, a partner at Accel who led the funding round, said Funding Circle is in a position to deliver what venture capitalists crave – the ability to grow significantly. The firm dominates online lending for small companies in the UK, a market that topped £5.6bn in the third quarter. And chief executive Samir Desai is making a push in the US market, which topped $417bn in October 2016.

“What we’re looking for is the possibility of something big, and in the UK alone you could build a business with a market capitalisation worth several billion,” Nelis said.

Funding Circle declined to disclose its valuation. The company, which has arranged more than £2.5bn in loans since its founding in 2010, was valued at more than $1bn when it raised $150m in April 2015.

Chancellor Philip Hammond said on Thursday that Funding Circle’s deal was a “vote of confidence” in a firm that’s “helping business to grow and create jobs.”

Last week, the British Business Bank, a government-owned development bank, made £40m available on Funding Circle’s platform for loans to small businesses.


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