UPS students gaining knowledge while making the world more difficult for payday lenders

Staff writerMay 19, 2014 

Alongside the lofty goals and stated mission of the Four Horsemen, outgoing president Bruno Mello has found a few upshots that are somewhat more down-to-earth.

“We steer people away from payday loans,” he said.

Beyond that, he said, ”Employers take me a lot more seriously.”

Mello is a very recent graduate of the University of Puget Sound.  Not a business major, he decided to bolster his knowledge of money machinations by joining Four Horsemen Investments, a campus group that makes what are known as “peer-to-peer loans.”

Professor Lynda Livingston formed the group in 2009.

“I thought students needed the opportunity to handle real money and in real time to actually learn something,” she said.

Handle it they do, and along the way they learn a few real-life lessons.

It’s a simple model, not unlike crowdsourced funding, although in the case of “P2P” lending, the recipient must pay the money back, with interest - but not as much interest as the borrower would pay a payday lender.

So the borrower posts his or her request for a loan on a P2P website such as Lending Club or Prosper. Lenders review the posted request and decide whether to become a part of the asset pool. If enough investors invest, the borrower gets his or her money at a stated rate.

In a successful deal the borrower gets money and the lenders make money.

“I think we can help people search for alternatives,” said Mello, who estimates that he has spent six to seven hours a week over the past two academic years working with the Four Horsemen group.

“I absolutely believe we are planting a seed,” said Livingston. 

The investment group counts some $10,000 in assets, Mello said. Initial funding has come from institutions – BECU, KeyBank, Threshold Group – as well as from individual investors and alumni.

Investors can expect a return of perhaps eight percent from P2P loans, although risks are involved. The amount of participation varies, and can begin as low as $25.

The group, which has earned 501(c)(3) nonprofit status,  is not financially affiliated with the university. All decisions to fund requests are made by the students in the group.

The most recent request for new members found 16 applicants, of whom eight – the largest cadre so far - have been selected to serve beginning next fall. When Mello joined two years ago, he was among five applicants. In the beginning, there were four.

Outside their financial agenda , members participate in various community outreach programs including computer tutoring, wetland cleanup and the sponsorship of a financial literacy program aimed primarily at women.

Since 2009, approximately $7,000-worth of Four Horsemen investments have gone to a variety of borrowers, from those planning a wedding to others who wanted to consolidate debt. (The borrower who wanted a gun was denied, as was the applicant who fancied a fancy new motorcycle.)

Of a few hundred loans made in the past five years, perhaps 10 have defaulted.

Borrowers come from around the country, Livingston said, and all are pre-screened by the lending website. 

“(We) make real loans to real people,” she said. ”It’s been a great opportunity.”

“It’s easy to look at decisions and forget how they affect everyday people,” Mello said.

Ultimately, Livingston said, she’d like to see the student-run group serve as a model for other schools. Until then, she will settle for helping students learn about financial literacy, and how money works when money works.

She would also like to see an impact on the larger community, the one where some people feel they need to pay incredibly high interest rates on their way to a debt trap.

In fact, she has written a handful of papers on the subject and recently presented “Could Peer-to-Peer Loans Substitute for Payday Loans?” at the Global Conference on Business and Finance. The paper has been published in the journal Accounting and Taxation.

With a degree in Classics, a minor in finance and the proven knowledge of how money can change lives, Bruno Mello is currently looking for a job. 


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