When we started LendIt in 2013 I had no idea that China was a hot bed of peer to peer (p2p) lending. But there I found myself talking with several leaders from the Chinese p2p lending industry at the first LendIt back in June 2013. We did no advertising in China but many got wind of the event and traveled to New York City to be there. It was then that I found out the massive scale the industry had already achieved in the world’s most populous country.
I first wrote about the Chinese p2p lending industry later that year and introduced the west to CreditEase, the company that was the largest p2p lending platform in the world. Over the next couple of years the industry thrived with thousands of platforms launching and the total loan volume skyrocketing to over $150 billion in 2015, which was four times the loan volume of 2014. In hindsight, we should have known that kind of growth in a lending industry is not just unsustainable, it is highly risky.
China’s Biggest Ever Financial Scandal
We got the first inkling that something was not quite right when China was rocked by the biggest financial scandal in its history. Ezubao, one of China’s largest p2p lending platforms, collapsed as it was revealed the business was nothing more than an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Around 900,000 investors collectively lost $7.6 billion in what was the second largest Ponzi scheme the world had ever seen (Madoff being the largest).
But the industry rationalized this away as just one bad apple. The regulators had just announced draft rules for the industry at the end of 2015 and there was a sense that the strong platforms would adapt and continue to perform well. And that is what happened for the next year or so. But by 2018 serious problems began to emerge. That year ended up being the year of reckoning for the industry.
The p2p lending industry had grown to around 4,000 platforms at its height which everyone agreed was not a sustainable number. The weak platforms were not going to make it but the trouble was as they failed they often took investor money with them. While there was definitely some fraud there were also cases of platforms that meant well but were simply unable to make online lending work.