“Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. – Honore de Balzac
I have recently been doing a good amount of research on Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P) and have written about it in a recent blog post. Yes, Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P) is legal in most states, but is it ethical? While I was researching more about Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P), I felt a strange nostalgia. This type of investing caused me to reflect on the town I grew up in and the people I once knew.
I grew up in a small town located in Northeastern, Pennsylvania. Like myself, most of the population was made up of people who were Irish, Italian, Polish, and from other Western European heritage. Many of my friends would say that their grandparents were “right off the boat” at Ellis Island. These were hard-working people, some might say salt-of-the-earth. Many of those first-generation Americans performed back-breaking labor. The men worked in coal mines and the women worked in dress factories.
Not everyone in this region shared the Protestant work ethic. Like my parents, most of my friend’s parents also had square jobs. Some, however, did not seem to work at all, yet lived very well.
This had me perplexed. I remember asking my friend Sal what his dad did for a living since he always seemed to be home and never at work. He told me that he worked as a billiards supply salesman and spent his evenings working at pool halls.
I asked my father if he knew how lucrative being a billiards supply salesman was. He frowned at me and explained that even though it was socially acceptable in our town, Sal’s dad was not a billiards supply salesman. He explained that Sal’s dad was a loan shark, bookmaker, and organized illegal high-stakes card games. It was even rumored that people lost the deed to their house at these card games.
My dad was not being judgmental. Sal’s dad was a legitimate criminal. He did time at the Allenwood Federal Prison Camp for racketeering.
My parents raised me with high morals. Never the less, I was young and impressionable. I just saw that Sal’s dad seemed to live a great life. He had a big house with a kidney-shaped swimming pool. He drove a brand-new black Jaguar. The whole family had the best of the best. Plus, they were always nice to me and a very popular family in the community.
It was not until many years later that I realized why my dad was so critical about Sal’s father. Sure, I understood that he was not paying taxes, but I was in denial about the scale of corruption that infected this region. I thought that nobody was getting hurt. Two books and a documentary changed my whole outlook on the area where I grew up and some the people who I grew up with.
The first book that blew my mind was I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. This book is about Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran. Sheeran was a hitman from Philadelphia who worked for Jimmy Hoffa. He also worked for the mob boss Russel Bufalino who was from Kingston, Pa. What was truly shocking about this book was that it states that the plan to murder President Kennedy was hatched at Brutico’s Bar & Grill in Old Forge, Pa. I have eaten dinner at that restaurant on countless occasions. This book was adapted into the movie The Irishman that will be released in 2018. The movie stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and is directed by Martin Scorsese.
The second book that was shocking to me was The Quiet Don by Matt Birkbeck. The Quiet Don was about the history of organized crime in Pennsylvania and how powerful Russel Bufalino was with the New York crime families. What floored me was that people who I knew as a teenager were mentioned in this book. I used to casually talk to Frank Pavlico at Golds Gym in Scranton, Pa. I did not know that he was the driver for mob boss William D’Elia. He told me that he owned a car detailing business. After William D’Elia was arrested, Frank was identified as an informant. Shortly after that, Frank was found dead and his death was labeled as a mysterious suicide.
Thirdly, what truly was disturbing was the Kids for Cash Scandal in 2008 that was made into a documentary. Kids for cash was a scandal involving a real estate developer who was also the owner of a for-profit juvenile correctional facility and two corrupt Luzerne County judges. Basically, the owner of the for-profit jail was paying off Judge Marc Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan to send children to his jail for minor offenses such as not completely stopping at a stop sign or truancy. The arrangement between the owner of the prison and the two judges was allegedly brokered by William D’Elia.
How does this tie into the ethics of Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P)? Maybe I am just not anti-establishment, but I see Peer-to-Peer Lending as being very much like an online loan shark. It seems as shady as the payday loan stores or cash-for-gold outfits that you see in strip malls.
Some might say that Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P) helps people who do not have the credit to get a traditional loan from a bank. Some might even feel that they are sticking it to the man by taking business away from big banks.
In my opinion, it is not altruistic for an individual to loan money to other people and charge them a high-interest rate. I would not do that to a friend or relative, so why is it alright for me to do in on an anonymous level? Also, the lending practices of P2P companies are equally as manipulative as big banks based on advertising one rate and offering a higher one.
While I am socially conscious, I do not generally take on a socially conscious approach to investing. My largest holding is an S&P 500 index fund. Some of the stocks in the S&P 500 have questionable business ethics. There are energy companies that pollute the environment and clothing manufactures that pay slave wages to employees in third world countries. Yes, all of that might be true, but I do not feel like the pawnbroker who Raskolnikov murdered in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky when I contribute to my Roth IRA.
Don’t get me wrong, I am an investor. Never the less, I believe that is important to be honest to yourself and have principles. If a business transaction or investment opportunity does not seem ethical, it should be examined further.
Just because I can use a sterile online platform to issue loans to people with shaky credit, am I not just shylocking? Sure, nobody is going to get their finger broken or have the vigorish increased for defaulting and failing to pay back their loan on time. It still feels like the same basic concept of taking advantage of people who are down on their luck.
For some time, I was considering opening an account and to participate as a lender. Upon further review, I have decided against opening a Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P) account. I am comfortable with my balanced-growth portfolio and do not see the need to add alternative investments to my holdings. There is no need to go beyond a portfolio of a few index funds and to make my investment portfolio more complex.
What is your opinion on Peer-to-Peer Lending (P2P)?
Do you think that this type of investing is ethical?
Please remember to check with a financial professional before you ever buy an investment and to read my Disclaimer page.