Tag Archives: Fintech

Fintech Regulation in Switzerland: Open Questions

In the NZZ, Jürg Müller reports about the developing regulatory framework for fintechs in Switzerland. A proposal by the federal finance department drew—reasonable—criticism by various lobbies and industry associations, including the CFA Society Switzerland.

Die CFA Society Switzerland will das systemrelevante Bankensystem von anderen Finanzdienstleistern trennen. Dafür sei eine präzisere Bankendefinition nötig, als sie heute vorgenommen werde. Nur Banken sollen demnach dem Bankengesetz unterstehen. Finanzdienstleister, die kein traditionelles Bankengeschäft betreiben und keine Liquiditätsrisiken eingehen, sollen einem anderen Regulierungsmodell unterstehen. Dabei sollen je nach Tätigkeit unterschiedliche funktionale Lizenzen zum Zuge kommen – dieser letzte Punkt wird von vielen Vernehmlassungsteilnehmern ebenfalls eingefordert.

Schliesslich identifiziert die CFA Society Switzerland auch zentrale Fintech-Themen, die in der Vernehmlassung aussen vor gelassen wurden. Eine dieser Lücken sei der direkte Zugang zur Schweizerischen Nationalbank (SNB). Aus heutiger Sicht sei nicht ersichtlich, weshalb nur Banken elektronisches Zentralbankgeld halten dürften. Auf Anfrage wollte die SNB zu dieser Forderung keine Stellung nehmen. Andere Zentralbanken wie die Bank of England zeigen sich solchen Ideen gegenüber derweil aufgeschlossen. Auch einzelne Schweizer Ökonomen wie beispielsweise Dirk Niepelt stehen allgemein zugänglichem elektronischem Notenbankgeld positiv gegenüber.

Link to my article mentioned above.

`Brussels’ to Disrupt European Banking

The Economist reports that forthcoming European payments regulation has the potential to disrupt the industry.

Provided the customer has given explicit consent, banks will be forced to share customer-account information with licensed financial-services providers.

… payment services … could become more integrated into the internet-browsing experience …

With access to account data … fintech firms could offer customers budgeting advice, or guide them towards higher-interest savings accounts or cheaper mortgages. Those with limited credit histories may find it easier to borrow, too, since richer transaction data should mean more sophisticated credit checks.

Money, Banking, and Dreams

In another excellent post on Moneyness, J P Koning likens the monetary system to the plot in the movie Inception, featuring

a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream piled on a dream.

Koning explains that

[l]ike Inception, our monetary system is a layer upon a layer upon a layer. Anyone who withdraws cash at an ATM is ‘kicking’ back into the underlying central bank layer from the banking layer; depositing cash is like sedating oneself back into the overlying banking layer.

Monetary history a story of how these layers have evolved over time. The original bottom layer was comprised of gold and silver coins. On top this base, banks erected the banknote layer; bits of paper which could be redeemed with gold coin. The next layer to develop was the deposit layer; non-tangible book entries that could be transferred by order from one person to another.

The foundation layer has changed over time:

One of the defining themes of modern monetary history has been the death of the original foundation layer; precious metals. … as central banks chased private banks from the banknote layer … and then gradually severed the banknote layer from the gold layer. By 1971, … [b]anknotes issued by the central bank had become the foundation layer. The trend towards a cashless world is a repeat of this script, except instead of the gold layer being slowly removed it is the banknote layer.

Fintech improves the efficiency of the layer arrangement and its connections. It also adds new layers: For instance, some payments made via mobile phone effectively transfer claims on deposits. And it may circumvent layers:

In U.K., the Bank of England is considering allowing fintech companies to bypass the banking layer by offering them direct access to the bottom-most central banking layer.

In contrast, a krypto currency like bitcoin establishes a new foundation layer, on which new layers may be built:

Even now there is talk of a new layer being developed on top of the original bitcoin foundation, the Lightning network. The idea here is that the majority of payments will occur in the Lightning layer with final settlement occurring some time later in the slower Bitcoin layer.

I fully agree with this characterization. In addition to the theme emphasized by Koning—adding layers—I would also stress the theme of untying higher-level layers from lower ones: Central bank money typically is no longer backed by gold; deposits typically are not fully backed by notes; and mobile phone credits may no longer be backed by deposits. The process of untying layers relies on social conventions and trust, and it is fragile. Important questions concern the cost of such fragility, and its necessity. Fragility is not necessary when the social cost of liquidity provision at the foundation layer is negligible.

Fintech in China

The Economist reports about the fintech revolution in China.

By just about any measure of size, China is the world’s leader in fintech (short for “financial technology”, and referring here to internet-based banking and investment). It is far and away the biggest market for digital payments, accounting for nearly half of the global total. It is dominant in online lending, occupying three-quarters of the global market. A ranking of the world’s most innovative fintech firms gave Chinese companies four of the top five slots last year. The largest Chinese fintech company, Ant Financial, has been valued at about $60bn, on a par with UBS, Switzerland’s biggest bank.

How Does the Blockchain Transform Central Banking?

The blockchain technology opens up new possibilities for financial market participants. It allows to get rid of middle men and thus, to save cost, speed up clearing and settlement (possibly lowering capital requirements), protect privacy, avoid operational risks and improve the bargaining position of customers.

Internet based technologies have rendered it cheap to collect information and to network. This lies at the foundation of business models in the “sharing economy.” It also lets fintech companies seize intermediation business from banks and degrade them to utilities, now that the financial crisis has severely damaged banks’ reputation. But both fintech and sharing-economy companies continue to manage information centrally.

The blockchain technology undermines the middle-men business model. It renders cheating in transactions much harder and thereby reduces the value of credibility lent by middle men. The fact that counter parties do not know and trust each other becomes less of an impediment to trade.

The blockchain may lend credibility to a plethora of transactions, including payments denominated in traditional fiat monies like the US dollar or virtual krypto currencies like Bitcoin. An advantage of krypto currencies over traditional currencies concerns the commitment power lent by “smart contracts.” Unlike the money supply of fiat monies that hinges on discretionary decisions by monetary policy makers, the supply of krypto currencies can in principle be insulated against human interference ex post and at the same time conditioned on arbitrary verifiable outcomes (if done properly). This opens the way for resolving commitment problems in monetary economics. (Currently, however, most krypto currencies do not exploit this opportunity; they allow ex post interference by a “monetary policy committee.”) A disadvantage of krypto currencies concerns their limited liquidity and thus, exchange rate variability relative to traditional currencies if only few transactions are conducted using the krypto currency.

Whether blockchain payments are denominated in traditional fiat monies or krypto currencies, they are always of relevance for central banks. Transactions denominated in a krypto currency affect the central bank in similar ways as US dollar transactions, say, affect the monetary authority in a dollarized economy: The central bank looses control over the money supply, and its power to intervene as lender of last resort may be diminished as well. The underlying causes for the crowding out of the legal tender also are familiar from dollarization episodes: Loss of trust in the central bank and the stability of the legal tender, or a desire of the transacting parties to hide their identity if the central bank can monitor payments in the domestic currency but not otherwise.

Blockchain facilitated transactions denominated in domestic currency have the potential to affect central bank operations much more directly. To leverage the efficiency of domestic currency denominated blockchain transactions between financial institutions it is in the interest of banks to have the central bank on board: The domestic currency denominated krypto currency should ideally be base money or a perfect substitute to it, directly exchangeable against central bank reserves. For when perfect substitutability is not guaranteed then the payment associated with the transaction eventually requires clearing through the traditional central bank managed clearing mechanism and as a consequence, the gain in speed and efficiency is relinquished. Of course, building an interface between the blockchain and the central bank’s clearing system could constitute a first step towards completely dismantling the latter and shifting all central bank managed clearing to the former.

Why would central banks want to join forces? If they don’t, they risk being cut out from transactions denominated in domestic currency and to end up monitoring only a fraction of the clearing between market participants. Central banks are under pressure to keep “their” currencies attractive. For the same reason (as well as for others), I propose “Reserves for All”—letting the general public and not only banks access central bank reserves (here, here, here, and here).

Banks Without Debt

In his blog, John Cochrane points to SoFi, a FinTech company, as proof that banking services can be delivered by institutions without the traditional characteristics of a bank.

SoFi finances loans by selling equity. The loans are securitized and the cash is reinvested in loans. As John points out:

  • A “bank” (in the economic, not legal sense) can finance loans, raising money essentially all from equity and no conventional debt. And it can offer competitive borrowing rates — the supposedly too-high “cost of equity” is illusory.
  • There is no necessary link between the business of taking and servicing deposits and that of making loans. Banks need not (try to) “transform” maturity or risk.
  • To the extent that the bank wants to boost up the risk and return of its equity, it can do so by securitizing loans rather than by borrowing. (Securitized loans are not leverage — there is no promise of your money back when you want it. Investors bear any losses immediately and without recourse.)
  • Equity-financed banking can emerge without new regulations, or a big new Policy Initiative.  It’s enough to have relief from old regulations (“FDIC-free”).
  • Since it makes no fixed-value promises, this structure is essentially run free and can’t cause or contribute to a financial crisis.

Lego Fintech

In the FAZ, Tim Kanning reports about highly specialized Fintech companies increasingly forming cooperations to better cater to customer needs. Portals rely on services by specialist providers.

Regulation Catches Up with Fintech

The Economist reports that regulation catches up with peer-to-peer lending:

Meanwhile, a case working its way through the courts may subject P2P loans to state usury laws, from which banks with a national charter are exempt. That would prevent the P2P firms from lending to the riskiest borrowers in much of America. In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency, announced this month that it would begin accepting complaints about P2P consumer lending.

Rates of delinquency are rising as well.

Stiff Competition for Brokerage Firms

The Economist reports about the “ostensibly free online services” provided by Robinhood, a share-trading app.

Instead of taking commissions from customers, Robinhood receives them from the trading venues to which it steers their orders, a controversial but common practice. It also earns returns from the cash clients leave in their accounts, and plans soon to offer margin trading—the buying of stock with borrowed money—for which it will charge a fee.

Earlier posts on fintech.

Ethereum

Ethereum

is a decentralized platform that runs smart contracts: applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third party interference.

These apps run on a custom built blockchain, an enormously powerful shared global infrastructure that can move value around and represent the ownership of property. This enables developers to create markets, store registries of debts or promises, move funds in accordance with instructions given long in the past (like a will or a futures contract) and many other things that have not been invented yet, all without a middle man or counterparty risk.

Banks Face Wipeout in some Financial Services

In the FT, Martin Arnold summarizes a McKinsey study on banking. Arnold entitles his article “McKinsey warns banks face wipeout in some financial services.”

According to the report, competition arises from technology companies that deliver specific financial services at much lower cost.

McKinsey said technological competition would reduce profits from non-mortgage retail lending, such as credit cards and car loans, by 60 per cent and revenues by 40 per cent over the next decade. … It predicted a smaller, but still significant, chunk of profits and revenues would be lost from payments processing, small and medium-sized enterprise lending, wealth management and mortgages. These would decline between 35 and 10 per cent, McKinsey said.

See my previous posts on structural change in banking and fintech competition for banks.

Fintech Competition for Banks

In a series of articles, The Economist reports about technology companies that compete with traditional banks in areas ranging from lending to payments and wealth management.

The introductory article refers to AngelList and references reports by Goldman Sachs (The Future of Finance, copy posted here), BCG and Accenture. And it highlights two factors driving the structural change which I have also emphasized in a recent article: Technology and vanishing trust in banks. The other articles cover:

Updates—some more firms in the business:

CreditGate24.

“Bankensektor im Umbruch (Structural Changes in Banking),” FuW, 2015

Finanz und Wirtschaft, April 18, 2015. PDF. Ökonomenstimme, April 20, 2015. HTML.

  • Banks increasingly face competition in bread-and-butter businesses like term deposits, lending and payments.
  • Two trends shape the sector’s changes: Falling trust in banks, both at the political level and by individual clients; and the rise of the internet.
  • Trust has been squandered. But with cheap access to information, it also has lost importance.
  • Asymmetric information in financial markets might become less of a friction. This could turn into an existential threat for banks.
  • When trust is less important and technology more versatile, increasing returns to scale in the provision of financial services might be a thing of the past. And so the universal bank. New regulatory and tax regimes could foster the process of structural change.

Here are some links to background information: