Lending Club stocks jumps, helped by signs that online lending industry continues to grow fast

Markets Associated Press

Everyone wants in the Club.

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Shares of Lending Club advanced 3 percent Wednesday after the company reported better-than-expected results and raised its full-year outlook as more people discover peer-to-peer lending as a cheaper alternative to a traditional bank.

It's a positive bit of good news for a company whose the stock is down nearly 30 percent year to date as investors wait to see if Lending Club, and its competition, become as big as some investors believe it will be.

Lending Club is the largest company in the peer-to-peer lending industry, which has become one of the hottest topics among investors in the past year. Lending Club is not a bank nor does it lend money itself. Like other peer-to-peer lending companies, Lending Club operates a website that puts potential borrowers and investors together. Lending Club earns revenue by charging a servicing fee on all loans it helps create.

The San Francisco-based company said it earned an adjusted profit of 2 cents per share on revenue of $81.2 million. Analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research anticipated a profit of a penny per share on revenue of $74.7 million. Lending Club now expects its full-year revenue to be in a range of $385 million to $392 million, up from its previous range of $370 million to $380 million.

Interest in peer-to-peer borrowing is still small, but remains strong, judging by Lending Club's loan originations. The company originated $1.64 billion in loans in the first 90 days of 2015, compared with $791 million a year earlier. That's a 107 percent year-over-year growth.

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As more people take out loans, the type of people borrowing money is broadening as well. In 2009, Lending Club said 53 percent of its borrowers were 35 years old or younger. Now nearly half of all Lending Club borrowers are between the ages of 36 and 50, a sign that online lending is moving beyond the digitally attuned and young.

Peer-to-peer lending still makes up a tiny fraction of the $700 billion consumer loan market. But investors and analysts believe that percentage will only grow, since the interest rates Lending Club, Prosper and others can charge for their loans is significantly less than a traditional bank.

Because of the intense interest in online lending industry, there has been a flood of competition from new companies and old Wall Street mainstays alike. Goldman Sachs is reportedly looking to get into online lending and banks are partnering with Lending Club and others to stay competitive in consumer loans. A recent conference in New York attracted nearly 2,000 attendees, double the year before.

The booming interest has required Lending Club to spend heavily to stay ahead. The company spent $35.8 million on sales and marketing last quarter, a 75 percent jump from the $20.6 million what it spent last year. The company's overall expenses increased sharply in the quarter from a year earlier, particularly in engineering and product development. The company also saw a sharp rise in the amount of money it gave out in stock-based compensation to recruit new engineers and employees.

Despite signs that Lending Club and the entire peer-to-peer lending industry has room to grow, investors remain cautious. Even with the stock down 30 percent this year, it still costs a massive $348 for every dollar of earnings Lending Club has, far more than the $24 average for companies in the Standard & Poor's SmallCap 600, an index of small-company stocks.

While higher earnings multiples are common for companies with high growth potential, analysts say the biggest thing holding up the stock is how expensive it is already.

Lending Club was up 52 cents, or 3 percent, to $18.10 in early afternoon trading.