LONDON (Reuters) - A British hedge fund plans to bring peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, hitherto at the fringes of business financing, into the mainstream with the launch of a fund that aims to attract wealthy institutional investors into the industry.
Marshall Wace, which manages about $15.5 billion of assets, said on Friday it was buying U.S. P2P specialist Eaglewood Capital Management for an undisclosed sum and the two firms planned to launch the world's first listed P2P investment trust.
A source close to the matter said the trust would seek to raise approximately 200 million pounds from institutional investors, hoping to attract them to a small but fast-growing and highly-profitable industry.
P2P loans allow investors to lend directly to individuals and businesses, cutting out banks via low-cost online platforms.
The industry began its rise to prominence during the global financial crisis, plugging the hole left by cash-strapped banks' reluctance to lend to small businesses.
So far it has been dominated by small-scale, private loans from individual retail investors. But that is set to change, according to Simon Champ, a founder of brokerage Liberum Capital and the chief executive of the new group's European arm.
"I saw the opportunity but recognised there wasn't a way for institutional capital to get involved. It's an industry that has grown so far with retail funding. And if it's going to live up to its potential it will need institutional funding," he said.
Liberum has forecast P2P lending in Britain could be worth 45 billion pounds ($74 billion) within a decade, from less than 1 billion pounds now.
The industry - and its sister sector crowdfunding, which allows individual investors to buy equity in new companies - has already started the journey to the mainstream, attracting the attention of larger firms and regulators alike.
Marshall Wace brought over Champ and his Liberum Capital team last year to focus on opportunities in the industry.
And in 2013 the government launched a scheme to boost the economy with the provision of 20 million pounds of small business loans via P2P platform Funding Circle.
In a world of rock-bottom interest rates, P2P can offer attractive returns - in exchange for the risks of lending to small businesses that sometimes fail. The average net return from investors in Funding Circle is 6.1 percent.
The P2P industry is also expanding its global footprint. UK platform RateSetter recently opened in Australia, while in the United States, Eaglewood completed the first ever securitisation of P2P consumer loans in October last year, with a $53 million transaction of loans made through U.S. P2P firm LendingClub.
And though the sector is still tiny, it has expanded exponentially over the past five years.
"It's very much about creating something that's accessible and easy to use," Champ said. "It's part of the same disruptive internet technology that has shaken the high street, and it's finally arrived at the door of the banks."
(Editing by Clare Hutchison and Mark Potter)