In the last few years, a variety of innovative capital markets have arisen to supplement and extend traditional large institutional capital markets. The new markets fill niches of demand for capital and investment, and allow greater granularity of investment information and capital direction. The currency may be money, reputation, ideas, social good or any combination of these. Some of the new capital market vehicles include:
- Virtual World Economies (Second Life, There, Entropia Universe, World of Warcraft),
- Peer-to-Peer Lending (Prosper, Zopa, Lending Club),
- Micro-Lending (Kiva, Grameen Bank, Accion),
- Social Capital Markets and Venture Philanthropy (GoodCap, Blended Value, New Profit),
- Ideagoras (Innocentive, The Point, Zooq) and
- Prediction Markets (Iowa Electronic Markets, Intrade, ZiiTrend).
"As of January 22, 2008, it will be prohibited to offer interest or any direct return on an investment ... without proof of an applicable government registration statement or financial institution charter. (Full text here)"
Risk, Cost of Capital and Acceptable Return
One value of the new markets is that they provide capital in cases that are less attractive or irrelevant to traditional financing entities. These situations often have dramatically different risk, growth and timescale profiles than traditional investments and are conceptually similar in many ways to doing business in a high risk country.
The risk is higher, so the return too must be higher in compensation. Looking at annualized interest rates may not make sense in the accelerated time environment of virtual worlds where the economy (as measured by land and money supply) is currently growing 6% per month in Second Life.
What is an appropriate cost of capital? Anecdotal interest rates on Second Life loans have ranged from 7% per month to nearly 50% per month, and experienced a 20-30% default rate. This is the cost of capital for people who do not want to declare their physical identity details or seek other means of capital. In the physical world, it is not unusual for payday lenders to charge 300%+ per year to cover their high default rates. Peer-to-peer lender Prosper found that U.S. state-based usury laws did not allow the site to charge enough interest to cover subprime borrower defaults.
Virtual economies are chided for not having sustainable interest rates at the same time as the subprime lending crisis is crescendoing through physical world capital markets, itself a reprise of the 1980s RTC crisis.
Law, Regulation and Jurisdiction
The appropriate norm is to comply with traditional governing entity rules and laws, including being flexible with business models in order to do so. Peer-to-peer lenders had to structure their businesses in specific ways to obtain licensing and comply with U.S. usury laws which vary by state.
Virtual world economies will likely need to be even more innovative to receive physical world approvals. The pervasively global and anonymous virtual world medium suggests that geographically-based physical world regulation will be challenging to apply in reasonable and effective ways. However, anonymity is probably less important as an attribute for virtual capital seekers, as when a benefit is conferred, people are generally willing to give up anonymity. For example, peer-to-peer lenders found that people are perfectly willing to have their credit reports posted publicly on the Internet in return for the ease of potentially obtaining a loan.
In addition to traditional law and regulation, new capital markets may face another layer of compliance in the form of specific in-medium practices that develop. Complying with in-medium practices is important both reputationally and in the instance of in-medium adjudication and dispute resolution mechanisms.