The Day Ahead: LendingTree's IPO may wilt on interest rate concerns

Online creditor LendingTree goes public as the Fed raises interest rates
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

With the Federal Reserve tinkering with interest rates at nearly every meeting, LendingTree has picked a turbulent time to go public. And if the performance of competitors Mortgage.com and e-Loan are anything to go by, the company's IPO could wilt quickly.

Interest rate fears have walloped shares of both e-Loan and Mortgage.com, which are trading near 52-week lows (comparison chart). E-Loan is hovering at around $10 (£6) a share compared to a high of 74 3/8. Mortgage.com is about $5 (£3) a share, which is far away from its high of 22 3/4.

When e-Loan and Mortgage.com went public in the summer of 1999, it was easy to be bullish -- Federal chief Alan Greenspan wasn't trying to slow down the economy at the time. The Fed began to tighten rates in the autumn and has since maintained course. On 2 February, it raised interest rates a quarter of a percent and remarked that it would remain vigilant, which means another rate hike is likely in March. This is bad news for lenders. LendingTree, however, is scheduled to be priced on Tuesday night (15 Feb) for trading on Wednesday. The company, which also provides personal, home equity and auto loans, is offering 3.65 million shares with a price range of $10 (£6) to $12 (£7). Merrill Lynch is the lead underwriter.

The online loan market looks promising in the long term. Market research firm Forrester Research has projected that online credit originations will grow from $25.7bn (£16bn) in 1999 to $167.6bn (£104bn) in 2003.

However, LendingTree's IPO timing could have been better -- it's either bold or needs cash pronto. Alternatively, maybe the company knows something the average investor doesn't. The regulatory filings, however, don't turn up any surprises.

Like other online mortgage players, LendingTree plans to diversify its loan base, boost transactions and brand awareness. The company's network includes more than 90 lenders. It also reported fourth quarter revenue of $2.9m (£1.8m) and lost $8.8m (£5.4m). For comparison, e-Loan reported revenue of $7.7m (£4.7m) and a pro-forma loss of $11.8m (£7.3m) in the fourth quarter. Mortgage.com has yet to report its fourth quarter results.

In regulatory filings, LendingTree announced that competition is one of its biggest risks. In addition to e-Loan and Mortgage.com, the company battles online lenders such as giggo.com and iOwn.com, as well as referral services such as Quicken.com, MSN HomeAdvisor and getsmart.com.

However, the biggest risk is clear -- interest rates. "During future periods of rising interest rates, we may experience a decline in consumer traffic to our Web site," said a company spokesperson.

The upside is that business booms when interest rates fall. Unfortunately for LendingTree, and other online mortgage lenders, the Federal Reserve seems intent on raising rates.

Odds and ends

Agency.com has shown why consulting pays -- the company easily topped Wall Street estimates and is working toward a profit. Chip equipment giant Applied Materials reports first quarter earnings after the bell. Wall Street is looking for 77 cents (47p) a share. All is wonderful in chip land, but if Applied Materials gives any hint of caution, shares could take some lumps. SBC Communications runs into regulatory problems as it seeks to offer long distance services. Who cares? As a long-term shareholder, SBC's regulatory hiccup doesn't mean much. The company will offer long distance services, it's just a case of when, not if.

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