Alternative Finances

FICO’s New BFFs

It was just a few months ago that FICO’s fading and inevitable fall was being widely speculated. Fair Isaac Corporation — the entity behind the FICO score — is an American institution that has existed for over 60 years. The FICO score itself has been a central part of consumer lending for the last 30 years and has, in fact, become an ever more central part of the risk underwriting process, particularly in the last two decades.

But, for the last 12 months or so, FICO’s 300–800 scoring method has been serenaded by an increasingly loud chorus of voices questioning whether the system had become too backward-looking, dated and rigid to continue to function as the be-all and end-all answer in consumer lending.

“FICO-based underwriting doesn’t do a very good job of answering two questions: ‘Can you pay us back, and if you can, will you pay us back?’” Doug Merrill, CEO and founder of ZestFinance (and former CIO of Google), told PYMNTS in a recent interview.

Now, for years, whether FICO did a very good job of answering those two questions was somewhat irrelevant. The great benefit of being the only game in town is that the pressure to be “very good” isn’t always there — mere competence will suffice.

But FICO is no longer the only game in town, and now, there are new entrants to the lending field, backed by algorithms that they claim do a better job of assessing the creditworthiness of potential borrowers.

“That’s what we’re really good at seeing, because we look at thousands of small data clues that give us the answer,” Merrill noted.

And that pitch was attractive — to consumer borrowers looking for a scoring system with the potential of opening up lending, to investors who spent hundreds of millions investing in lending platforms and their “smarter-than-FICO” risk evaluation systems. By the end of 2015, the federal government got in on the act and in a big way.

In December, Reps. Edward Royce (R-CA) and Terri Sewell (D-AL) introduced HR 4211, the Credit Score Competition Act of 2015, which would allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to use credit scoring models other than FICO.

“The GSEs’ [Fannie and Freddie] use of a single credit score is an unfair practice that stifles competition and innovation in credit scoring,” said Royce. “Breaking up the credit score monopoly at Fannie and Freddie will also assist them in managing their credit risk and decreases the potential for another taxpayer bailout.”

Not good new for Team Fair Isaac. In fact, by the end of 2015, many analysts were noting that if FICO couldn’t hold its dominance in mortgage lending because of its exclusive relationship with Fannie and Freddie, its days might be numbered.

But the world at the beginning of 2016 is a somewhat different and more cautious place than it was a short three months ago, and FICO isn’t looking so outdated.

In fact, in the new year, lots of FIs have been embracing the good, old gold standard. And that push into a more visible place in a customer’s life — combined with the fact that rising default rates on some alt-lending platforms are leading some to take a closer look at those new and improved risk ranking systems — suggests that FICO just might have some FI-GHT left in it.

 

The Big Banks’ Thumbs Up

As 2016 kicked off, big banks and credit card companies started boosting FICO by offering their customers free access to its score. The ability to do so is not new; banks have been formally allowed to do so for the last four years (the result of a push by FICO. However, most banks had been somewhat slow off the mark to actually offer the service. The Discover Network was the earliest mover, offering the service and heavily marketing it as of 2013.

But, in the last year, under pressure from alt-lenders and their fancy new assessment methods, the biggest of the big banks are starting to embrace it and are giving their customers warm and fuzzies with respect to the old-fashioned FICO.

JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup adopted the program in the last year, Bank of America started offering regular access to its credit scores to customers in January and Wells Fargo and U.S. Bancorp followed suit in February.

“This is a piece of information that grades you and judges your ability to borrow, and because it is so crucial, you should be entitled to have it,” said Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.

According to Jim Wehmann, EVP of scores for FICO, the firm has recently embraced making FICO transparent and accessible with its “Open Access” program. Since banks, he noted, are already paying for the scores in most cases, it costs them nothing to pass along the score.

“There was lots of confusion out there about what a FICO score is, and those educational scores were not helping. We felt the banks were the natural conduit to get consumers FICO scores, because that’s where the credit process begins,” Wehmann said.

And, apart from being educational, reports indicate access to FICO is also a selling point.

When Chase added free FICO score access to its Slate card in March 2015, applications and usage rose, according to Pam Codispoti, president of consumer-branded cards at Chase.

And just as FICO is emerging as a more accessible selling point for consumers, those alt-lending platforms and their credit-ranking algorithms are starting to get a closer look, as economic conditions are changing (and becoming less favorable) and default rates have gone on the rise.

Investors, regulators and consumers are all wondering if those new ranking systems — with all the data on social media and eCommerce they can siphon in and analyze — are actually putting up results that are much different or much better than FICO’s.

And FICO — like The Rolling Stones song — has time on its side. And a long 30-plus-year track record it can point to in assessing lending risk. And, as it turns out, when it comes to assessing who to give money to or not, a little bit of history may not be such a bad thing after all.

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