STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Google recently announced a partnership with a company called Lending Club. That's a website that connects people who need to borrow money, with people who have money to lend. This is outside the conventional banking system. It's kind of like Match.com - for money.
Google's move is part of a growing activity in an industry called peer-to-peer lending. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Chanda Lugere works for a bank. But when she wanted a loan to consolidate her credit card debt - with its hefty interest rate - the bank didn't have much to offer. She tried other banks, too, but even with her excellent credit score, she got nowhere. So Lugere, who's in her 30s - went online seeking alternatives. She discovered Lending Club.
CHANDA LUGERE: I went ahead and applied for the loan, and I was able to get it funded in one week. And my rate was 6 percent. So it's half of what I have been paying. I thought it was a really great experience from beginning to end. Really easy - you apply online, and they gave you status updates.
KAUFMAN: Both Lending Club and its much smaller rival, a company called Prosper, have been around for several years but lately, things have really taken off at both companies. Here's Renaud Laplanche, the CEO of Lending Club.
RENAUD LAPLANCHE: Last year, we facilitated about $800 million in loans, and we are planning on $2 billion this year.
KAUFMAN: The system works like this: Investors put up the money to fund the loans - typically, they'll have pieces of hundreds, even thousands of loans - which are ranked according to risk. An investor's rate of return will vary accordingly. Laplanche says investors make a nice profit, but consumers still get lower rates than they would with a conventional lender because peer-to-peer lending operates like a marketplace.
LAPLANCHE: It is a more direct funding process between the investors and the borrowers. There's no branch network; everything happens online, and we use technology to lower cost.
KAUFMAN: In the industry's early days, most of the money for loans came from individual investors. But today - and this is a big change - large, institutional investors like insurance companies and pension funds, have put up a lot of the cash.
PETER RENTON: That is about one, simple thing, and it's called yields.
KAUFMAN: Peter Renton blogs and teaches courses about investing in peer-to-peer - or P2P - lending. He explains that in recent years, institutional investors have had a hard time finding good fixed-income investments. But P2P lending can offer that. And with more institutional money flowing in, the lenders can make more loans. We should note here that Peter Renton invests some of his own money in these P2P loans and when he directs investors to Lending Club and Prosper, he gets referral fees.
So what about Google's investment? It's not putting money into loans but is making an investment in Lending Club itself. Neither company is saying exactly what they plan to do, but Renton and others speculate that Google sees synergies between Lending Club and Google Wallet - the company's virtual payment system. Imagine, for example, Google's own credit card, or perhaps an instant, big-ticket loan.
RENTON: If you can hook up a loan institution who is really innovative, that can get something happening quickly; there is the potential that Google Wallet could hook up with Lending Club, and you could go buy a car on your cellphone.
KAUFMAN: Indeed, Lending Clubs' Renaud Laplanche has grand ambitions. He wants to make small-business loans, student loans, car loans, even mortgage loans. For him, the multitrillion-dollar market for consumer credit is a giant opportunity.
LAPLANCHE: It's really one of the few large markets that has not been fully transformed by the Internet. So we believe we can become the mainstream alternative to the banking system.
KAUFMAN: But David Schehr, who follows banking and investment services at the research firm Gartner, says P2P lenders won't be putting conventional banks out of business anytime soon.
DAVID SCHEHR: They're growing; they're growing steadily. But realize, they're growing off of a very small base. Their total volume of lending might be what a small, two- or three-branch community bank does in a year.
KAUFMAN: And, he says, it can take a long time for consumers to change their behavior, when it comes to banking.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.