Why Charles Schwab Held Talks to Buy Online Lender SoFi

Social Finance, the online student loan lender embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal that resulted in the ouster of Chief Executive Mike Cagney, reportedly held talks with Charles Schwab (SCHW) in hopes the discount brokerage would acquire it.

Citing people familiar with the matter, the Financial Times (paywall) reported the deal talks with Schwab were prompted by a $6 billion offer from a foreign bank after SoFi raised $500 million in funding led by Silver Lake. With a more than $4 billion valuation after that, the unnamed foreign bank expressed interest in acquiring SoFi. That prompted the online lender to reach out to other potential suitors aiming to fetch $8 billion to $10 billion in a sale.

Schwab, among other companies based in the U.S., reportedly held talks but couldn’t come up with an offer that matched what SoFi was hoping to fetch. The fintech​ company is reportedly opting to wait to potentially launch an initial public offering in 2019 rather than take a lower offer, reported the Financial Times. Had a deal materialized between SoFi and Schwab, it would have marked the biggest acquisition of a venture-backed company since Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for $22 billion, noted the report. Both Schwab and SoFi declined to comment to the Financial Times.

SoFi made a name for itself in 2011 by offering debtors a way to refinance their student loans. The company has since branched into online lending, wealth management, mortgages and was aiming to get a license to become a bank. It's currently in the process of finding a new Chief Executive after Cagney left in September after allegations of harassment. Its also giving up on its banking license aspirations as it tries to fix its culture.

At first blush, a deal with Charles Schwab may not make sense, given it isn’t in the online lending business. But SoFi does have a wealth management unit that would give the San Francisco discount brokerage access to more customers and thus more assets under management. It's also a low-cost provider on that front, something very much in Schwab's wheelhouse. According to SoFi’s website, the company doesn’t charge customers for the first $10,000 invested and charges 0.25% per year. It also has a team of live advisors that give customers advice and ETF portfolios that are curated by the company. SoFi also has a large customer base, particularly of millennials, that would be attractive to Schwab. Earlier this year ex-CEO Cagney predicted SoFi would end the year with 500,000 customers.

While Schwab has been named a takeover target in the potential consolidation of the brokerage market, it has also been acquisitive in the past. Back in 2011, Schwab spent $1 billion to acquire OptionsXpress as a way to get in on the options trading market. More recently it has been looking to expand into new markets and has been pushing further into the ETF market.

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