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Democratizing Finance: Big banks eye peer-to-peer lending push

Societe Generale
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

Two of the world's leading investment banks are looking at a move into the fast expanding peer-to-peer lending sector, underlining how even established financial institutions are racing to embrace technology to disrupt traditional finance.

Société Générale and Goldman Sachs are among several banks discussing a plan to back Aztec Money, an emerging peer-to-peer financing platform that has created an online market place where people can bid for company invoices, according to three people familiar with the project.

When peer-to-peer structures were first set up a decade ago, the rationale was to bypass banks by using state-of-the-art technology to link those who have money to invest with individuals or companies that need it. But as the demand for P2P finance has grown, platforms are turning to large financial services groups to provide funds and spur their growth.

The sector is also attracting high-profile individuals, with Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group, the latest to join a P2P lender.

She has been appointed to the board of Payoff, one of a clutch of new competitors that are emerging to compete in an industry dominated in the US by Lending Club and Prosper.

Banks are among the institutions that have bought up loans from Lending Club, the US's largest P2P site. In the UK Santander and Royal Bank of Scotland have struck partnerships with P2P firms.

Read MoreP2P lending stocks offer rewards ... and risks

Their involvement will disappoint purists, who have trumpeted the nascent P2P industry as a democratic innovation with the power to usurp a discredited banking industry.

Aztec, which claims to have sold hundreds of millions of corporate invoices since it was launched in 2013, has said that its platform plugs gaps left by retreating banks and brings trade finance to emerging markets that would otherwise have little or no access to it.

Banks are discussing purchasing corporate invoices en masse and repackaging them. The influx of funds from banks, hedge funds and asset managers is driven both by a search for higher-yielding investments and the opportunity to securitize the assets.

SocGen and Aztec declined to comment. Goldman also declined to comment, though one person close to the bank signalled it was "a long way" from proceeding with the project.

Aztec's move to team up with big investment banks echoes other examples of partnership between the emerging P2P sector and the incumbent lenders they were supposed to be challenging.

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In the US, big banks and other leading financial services companies are now among the main backers of P2P platforms.

The evolution is contributing to a rethink about the moniker of the nascent industry. Executives now favour the terms marketplace lending or non-bank lending.

David Stevenson, editor in chief of AltFinanceNews, said at a recent industry conference held in New York that the sector was hitting the mainstream and becoming more institutional. "This is almost becoming a conventional alternative asset class," he said.

Reviving the trade finance market could in theory yield trillions of dollars worth of collateral ripe for secularization at a time when such deals are stagnating. The fall-off in the European issuance of these sliced-and-diced loans has been particularly acute, with volumes falling from $1.2 trillion in 2008 to $286 billion last year, according to data from the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.