Industry commentators within the financial advice market often draw comparisons between peer to peer lending (P2P) and tax efficient investments. Yes, it is true that both are non-standard alternative investments which have grown substantially over the past 20 years. However, this is almost the extent of their similarities with investors exposed to a completely different underlying asset and risk profile. Financial advisers have fueled the growth of the tax efficient market while direct retail investors are the driving force behind P2P’s rise.
There are three tax efficient venture capital schemes open to UK investors: Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) and Venture Capital Trust (VCT). Investors benefit from a substantial tax benefit for investing in these schemes and providing the underlying assets perform, also a financial gain. A fourth tax efficient category does exist, Business Property Relief (BPR), which provides inheritance tax relief. These tax advantages have been put in place to encourage investors to invest in smaller, riskier, high growth businesses.
Similarly, to the government establishing a framework for the tax efficient market to grow, the use of technology has allowed for P2P to be established. Peer-to-peer lending allows investors, or lenders, to connect directly with borrowers on online platforms. This creates efficiencies in the market, providing investors with a reasonable risk-adjusted return and borrowers with quick access to capital. Although the HMRC has not directed significant tax benefits to P2P, they have introduced a new form of the ISA account, the Innovate Finance ISA (IFISA).
Growth of P2P and Tax Efficient Market Comparisons
Both the S/EIS and P2P markets have grown substantially over the past 10 years. The VCT market appears to have stagnated with investors favouring S/EIS over VCT investments for two reasons: a greater investment cap — £1m vs. £200k — and a wider range of tax reliefs.
The P2P market in the tax year 2015/2016 was just larger than the combined S/EIS and VCT market (£2.52 billion vs £2.53 billion). During the 2016/2017 tax year the P2P market has continued to grow, equating to total volumes of £3.65 billion. Although we will have to wait for the HMRC to release the 2016/2017 S/EIS and VCT industry figures, it’s likely that the P2P market is now considerably larger.
Although exact figures for the size of the BPR market are hard to determine, research agency Intelligent Partnership suggests that the UK could have saved around £595 million in taxes through estate planning in 2015/16. This gives an indication of the total addressable BPR market. It’s therefore likely that the P2P market is bigger than the entire tax efficient investment market.
Differences in Investor Base
Despite both tax efficient investments and P2P growing in prominence, the source of capital has been quite different. Direct retail investors, or “peers”, have fueled the growth of P2P. Until 2014, all investors in P2P were self-directed investors investing directly online. In 2016, the market was still predominantly retail investor focused, however, an influx of capital has come from institutional investors making up roughly 30% of the market. To date, appetite from financial advisers has been limited.
In comparison, financial advisers have driven growth in the tax efficient investment market. Research by Intelligent Partnership demonstrates that 82% of advisers recommend VCTs while 88% recommend S/EIS investments. Although retail investors can invest directly in tax efficient products, they need to have a deep understanding of their personal tax position, which may overcomplicate the investment decision. That said, direct S/EIS investing does happen predominantly in the form of angel investing either through crowdfunding sites or private arrangements.
Octopus Investments, the largest EIS manager, announced in May 2016 that it would not raise money through EIS schemes. Although they stated this was due to a change in focus towards their VCTs, in the same year Octopus Investments launched its own P2P platform, Octopus Choice. An interesting market shift.
With such a strong demand from direct retail investors for P2P investments, we may see growth within the adviser channel, particularly if clients start requesting P2P.
Reasons for investing
The benefits of P2P investing differ drastically when compared to tax efficient investing. Although the investment case for tax efficient products is important, the tax benefits associated with these products are often the main trigger for investing. In contrast, P2P investors are seeking a stable, risk-adjusted return, which is not correlated to the stock market.
Investors in P2P are typically exposed to a diversified pool of either consumer, business, or property loans. In contrast, S/EIS, BPR and VCT investments expose investors to equity positions in small businesses seeking to grow.
With P2P lending, it’s possible to review the underlying loan book performance of the assets, and now, with 12 years’ worth of data, the returns are fairly predictable. This level of transparency and predictability cannot be achieved when investing in equity positions held within tax efficient products.
So why are they compared?
In general, peer to peer lending, VCTs, BPRs, and S/EISs investments are considered non-standard, alternative investments with a potential for capital losses. Suitable investors are likely to already have a well-diversified portfolio, looking for either tax efficiencies or a stable yield.
With the exception of some AIM-listed businesses, which can be accessed through specialist BPRs or VCTs, the majority of the underlying assets of tax efficient products are unlisted. The non-listed nature of the ultimate exposure also holds true for peer-to-peer lending investments. The outcome of this is that both tax efficient investments and P2P investments are relatively illiquid asset classes. It is possible to get your money back when investing in P2P, providing there are new lenders willing to substitute your loan commitments. Fortunately, with an abundance of demand for borrowers, it’s very quick for investors to access their funds early when withdrawing from the major P2P providers. With VCTs and EISs, investors are able to exit early, but the HMRC will claw back any tax incentives gained. In both circumstances, investors should be prepared to commit for the long term.
The government created sufficient tax breaks which formed the BPR, S/EIS and VCT markets. The purpose of this was to help foster the growth of early stage businesses through the provision of equity capital. In 2016, 36% of the P2P market related to SME debt financing. In effect, P2P lending could be seen as the debt equivalent of the equity EIS/ VCT market. This leads to a final question: Is it unrealistic to expect the HMRC to extend tax breaks to the P2P business market?
Probably not, as growth has occurred naturally with the benefits of P2P being strong enough for investors to get on board without the tax benefit.
Unlike Tax Efficient Investments, which can benefit people of a certain wealth bracket, P2P investments attract investors from all wealth brackets. The principal restricting factor for the growth of the P2P sector is not investor demand but how effective the P2P platforms are at originating creditworthy borrowers. If the platforms can crack this nut, there will be little to stop the growth of the P2P market.
The provision of high quality data and research is likely to provide comfort to financial advisers as they consider further alternatives beyond tax efficient products.
If you have any comments on this article, email Orca CEO Iain Niblock at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Iain Niblock.
Orca aims to drive the mainstream adoption of peer-to-peer lending (P2P) by providing research, analysis, and tools to empower investors. The Orca platform, launched in spring 2017, allows IFA’s and sophisticated investors to perform in-depth due diligence on P2P investments. Independent data analytics is at the core of the Orca proposition allowing self-directed investors and advisers to make risk-adjusted investment decisions or recommendations.
Iain Niblock has been involved in alternative investments for three years. Before Orca, he founded an investment company which raised and lent capital through a listed retail bond. Prior to his entrepreneurial endeavours, Iain worked as an economist and analyst at Centrica PLC.