Palo Alto, CA – Aug 10, 2017 – When people think of FinTech, they think of a few things like peer-to-peer lending, payment companies, asset management firms, or maybe even cryptocurrencies. But one of the most outdated yet burdensome costs in all of finance, spread across the widest range of people, is still overlooked. The mortgage lending process is heavily padded with fees that are remnants of a bygone age. This is a huge window of opportunity for lending-oriented FinTech startups to disrupt the market.
First, we must begin with the effect of technology on short-term interest rates. The Fed Funds rate was close to zero for several years, and it is apparent that any brief increase in rates by the Federal Reserve will swiftly be reversed once markets punish the move in subsequent months. We are in an age of accelerating and exponential technological deflation, and not only will the Fed Funds rate have to be zero forever, but money-printing will be needed to offset deflation. This process has already been underway for years, and is not yet recognized as part of the long term trend of technological progress.
A 30-year mortgage was the standard format for decades, with a variable-rate mortgage seen as risky after a borrower locks in a low rate on their 30-year mortgage. But when the Fed Funds rate was at nearly zero, the LIBOR (London Interbank Offer Rate) hovered around 0.18% or so. If you get a variable-rate mortgage, then the rate is calculated off of the LIBOR, with an additional premium levied by the lending institution. This premium is about 1.5% or more. When the LIBOR rate was over 3% not too many years ago, the lender premium was only a third of the mortgage, but now, it is 85-90% of the mortgage. So instead of paying 0.18%, the lender pays 1.7%. This huge buffer represents one of the most attractive areas for FinTech to disrupt, as what was once a secondary cost is now the overwhelmingly dominant padding, itself a remnant of a bygone age.
When almost 90% of the interest charged in a mortgage merely represents the value that the lending institution provides, we can examine the components of this and see which of those could be replaced with a lower cost technological alternative. The lender, such as a major bank, provides a brand name, a mortgage officer to meet with face-to-face, and other such provisions. All of this is either unnecessary, or can be provided at much lower cost with the latest technologies. For example, blockchains can ensure the security aspects of the mortgage transaction are robust. Online consumer review services can provide an extra layer of reputational buttressing to any innovative new lending platform. The rationale for such a hefty mortgage markup over the underlying interest rate is just no longer there. If the lender premium in a mortgage falls from 85-90% down to, say, 50%, then the rate on an adjustable rate mortgage will decline to just twice the LIBOR, or about 0.4%. Even thought the Federal Reserve has recently increased the Fed Funds rate, this is very temporary, and 0% will be the Fed Funds rate for the majority of the forseeable future, just as it has been for the last 9 years.
When this sort of technology-derived cost savings on interest payments percolates through the economy, it will cause a series of disruptions that will greatly reduce one of the last main consumer expenditures not yet being attacked by technology. Housing costs have risen above the inflation rate in many major cities, against the grain of technology. This is unnatural, since a home does not spontaneously renovate itself, get bigger, or otherwise increase in inherent value. On the contrary, the materials deteriorate over time, so the value should fall. Yet, home prices rise despite these structural forces, due to artificial decisions to restrict supply, lower bond yields through Quantitative Easing, etc. This artificial propping up of home prices masks the excessive costs in the industry, particularly in the mortgage-lending sector. As Fintech irons out the aforementioned outdated expenses in the mortgage-lending process, many fundamental assumptions about home ownership will change.
Home ownership is a very emotional concept for many buyers (which is why there is a widespread misconception that a person ‘owns’ their home even while they are making mortgage payments on it, when in reality, ownership is achieved only when the mortgage is fully paid off). This emotion obscures the high costs of obsolete products and procedures that continue to reside in the mortgage industry. Amidst all the technological disruptions we have seen within the last generation, most people still don’t understand that the central origin of most disruptions is an outdated, expensive incumbent system. But FinTech’s cost-deflating effects has started the ‘cracks in the dam’ process against a very substantial and widely-levied cost, and this may be the disruption that brings FinTech’s dividends to the masses.
In this regard, many lending-oriented FinTech private companies, such as Prosper Marketplace and FundingCircle, may have to move quickly to address this product area, and perhaps consider acquisitions of smaller companies to accelerate the goal.
For more on FinTech disruptions and M&A opportunity therein, see our FinTech M&A Report.
Blog post authored by:
Woodside Capital Partners International LLC