Tag Archives: Fintech

“Digital Money, Payments and Banks,” CEPR/IESE Report, 2020

Discussion of Antonio Fatás’ chapter in Elena Carletti, Stijn Claessens, Antonio Fatás, Xavier Vives, The Bank Business Model in the Post-Covid-19 World, CEPR/IESE report, London, June 2020. PDF.

Antonio’s chapter offers a rich overview of the dramatic changes in the world of money and banking that we have seen in recent years. I focus on two themes: the nature of money and how it relates to these developments, and the government’s response to the structural changes we observe.

I discuss the price of money, its fundamental value, store-of-value bubble, and liquidity bubble components; the opaque legal tender concept and the absurd situation that governments outlaw the use of government money (contrary to what some theories would imply); the role of trust in a world without cash; and the substitution of money by smart contracts tied to a database.

And I comment on the many facets of digitalization; the time lag between the origination of new business models and regulatory catch-up; and on central bank digital currency as a key element of structural change in the financial system.

“Digital Finance,” FuW, 2020

Finanz und Wirtschaft, January 4, 2020. PDF.

  • Finance has been digital for decades. And both technology and preferences are only changing gradually. So, what triggers the abrupt changes in business models that we currently observe?
  • The interaction between industry on the one hand and legislators and regulators on the other has changed. New entrants exploit synergies across areas that have so far been regulated by independent authorities, or not at all. While entrants think and act outside the box, regulators and legislators have not yet been able to catch up.
  • Digital finance poses new challenges, including for financial stability, national security, and consumer protection (digital literacy).

The Bank of England’s “Future of Finance Report”

Huw van Steenis’ summarizes his report as follows (my emphasis):

A new economy is emerging driven by changes in technology, demographics and the environment. The UK is also undergoing several major transitions that finance has to respond to.

What this means for finance

Finance is likely to undergo intense change over the coming decade. The shift to digitally-enabled services and firms is already profound and appears to be accelerating. The shift from banks to market-based finance is likely to grow further. Ultra low rates, new regulations and the need to invest in updating their businesses mean many UK and global banks are struggling to make their cost of capital. Brexit and political and policy changes around the world will also impact the shape of financial services. Risks are likely to shift.
Regulators and the private sector have to collaborate in new ways as technology breaks down barriers. Finance is hugely important to the UK and the right infrastructure can support new finance.

What we ask the Bank of England to do

Shape tomorrow’s payment system
Enable innovation through modern financial infrastructure
Support the data economy through standards and protocols
Champion global standards for markets
Promote the smooth transition to a low-carbon economy
Support adaption to the needs of a changing demographic
Safeguard the financial system from evolving risks
Enhance protection against cyber-risks
Embrace digital regulation

Mark Carney’s June 2019 speech. See also the 2018 US Treasury report on financial innovation.

FedNow and Fedwire

The Federal Reserve Banks will develop a round-the-clock real-time payment and settlement service, FedNow. The objective is to support faster payments in the United States.

From the FAQs (my emphasis):

… there are some faster payment services offered by banks and fintech companies in the United States, their functionality can be limited. In particular, due to the lack of a universal infrastructure to conduct faster payments, most of these services rely on “closed-loop” approaches, meaning that users signed up to one service cannot exchange payments with users signed up to other services. Other services target ubiquity by relying on users’ bank accounts, but they may face challenges reaching enough banks to allow any two users to exchange payments. Moreover, these services typically use traditional retail payment methods to move funds between accounts. These methods result in a build-up of financial obligations between banks

… fragmented market for end-user faster payment services, with services that may provide faster payment functionality in some circumstances and for some specific uses, like person-to-person payments, but that do not have sufficient reach to advance the U.S. payment system as a whole. The Federal Reserve’s goal in announcing the planned actions is to provide a much broader scope of access to safe and efficient faster payments throughout the country.

… the European Central Bank, Banco de México, and the Reserve Bank of Australia have looked to support the development of faster payments in their jurisdictions by providing services that enable payment-by-payment, real-time settlement of retail payments at any time …

First, the Federal Reserve Banks (the Reserve Banks) will develop the FedNowSM Service, a new interbank 24x7x365 real-time gross settlement (RTGS) service with integrated clearing functionality, to directly support the provision of end-to-end faster payment services by banks (or their agents). Second, the Federal Reserve will explore the expansion of hours for the Fedwire® Funds Service and the National Settlement Service (NSS), up to 24x7x365, subject to further analysis of relevant operational, risk, and policy considerations, to support liquidity management in private-sector RTGS services for faster payments, as well as provide additional benefits to financial markets beyond faster payments.

… Board has concluded that private-sector real-time gross settlement (RTGS) services for faster payments alone cannot be expected to provide an infrastructure for faster payments with reasonable effectiveness, scope, and equity. In particular, private-sector services are likely to face significant challenges in extending equitable access to the more than 10,000 diverse banks across the country.

the service will settle obligations between banks through adjustments to balances in banks’ master accounts at the Reserve Banks; these funds will be eligible to earn interest and count toward banks’ reserve requirements. Consistent with the goal of supporting faster payments, use of the FedNow Service will require participating banks to make the funds associated with individual payments available to their end-user customers immediately after receiving notification of settlement from the service. The service will support values initially limited to $25,000

… the FedNow Service will be available to banks eligible to hold accounts at the Reserve Banks

By expanding Fedwire Funds Service and NSS hours, the Federal Reserve would provide further support to private-sector RTGS services for faster payments based on a joint account.

Some decision makers at the Fed believed that the Fed lacks authority to regulate banks operating payment systems in order to coerce them to offer access also to smaller banks.

The Bank of England Welcomes Fintech

In the FT, Chris Giles, Caroline Binham, and Delphine Strauss report about plans of the Bank of England to let fintech companies

bank at Threadneedle Street and thereby offer payments systems on a level playing field with commercial banks.

The editorial board of the FT welcomes the plans; it seems to have in mind not only competition but also “synthetic” CBDC:

By offering fintech companies access to the BoE’s vaults, the governor may inject much-needed competition into the sector. What must follow is proactive regulation …

Commercial banks have traditionally had exclusive access to deposits at the UK’s central bank, offering them a competitive advantage through cheap banking services. … Another potential advantage for consumers is they could be paid the central bank’s often favourable interest rate directly — rather than relying on traditional banks to pass on rate rises.

Mark Carney outlined the plans in his Mansion House speech. Here are some excerpts from the section on digital finance:

… the Faster Payment System (FPS) launched a decade ago has made payments quicker (within two hours) and more cost effective by encouraging direct bank-to-bank transfers.

While mobile app PayM uses FPS to facilitate direct bank-to-bank payments between individuals via text, it requires both the sender and recipient to be signed up to the third party service. But few are. And FPS is not yet used for in-store or online purchases as the infrastructure required at the point of sale does not reliably exist in the UK.

In these regards, the UK is still a long way behind countries such as Sweden, the Netherlands and India …

The revolution of payments may not be driven by the old bank-based systems … Major changes are on the horizon … That’s why the Bank fully supports the Payments Strategy Review the Chancellor has launched this evening.

To support private innovation and to empower competition, the Bank is levelling the playing field between old and new. This means allowing competitors access to the same resources as incumbents while holding the same risks to the same standards.

… we are now making it easier for a broad set of firms to plug in and compete with more traditional providers. In July 2017, we became the first G7 central bank to open up access to our payment services to a new generation of non-bank PSPs. …

Responding to demands from innovators, the RTGS rebuild will also now provide API access to users to read and write payments data, as well as implementing a system whereby each payment will be tagged with information in a standardised format across the world. This global messaging standard will speed up settlement both domestically and across borders.

… Today, the Bank of England is announcing plans to consult on opening access to our balance sheet to new payment providers. Historically, only commercial banks were able to hold interest-bearing deposits, or reserves, at the Bank. …

From the Bank’s perspective, expanding access can improve the transmission of monetary policy and increase competition. It can also support financial stability by allowing settlement in the ultimate risk free asset, and reducing reliance on major banks. Users should benefit from the reduced costs and increased certainty that comes with banking at the central bank. …

This access could empower a host of new innovation. … settlement systems using distributed ledger technology … consortia, such as USC, propose to issue digital tokens that are fully backed by central bank money, allowing instant settlement. This could also plug into ‘tokenised assets’ – conventional securities also represented on blockchain—and smart contracts. This can drive efficiency and resilience in operational processes and reduce counterparty risks in the system, unlocking billions of pounds in capital and liquidity that can be put to more productive uses.

The potential transformation in retail payments is even more fundamental. …

The Bank of England approaches Libra with an open mind but not an open door. Unlike social media for which standards and regulations are being debated well after they have been adopted by billions of users, the terms of engagement for innovations such as Libra must be adopted in advance of any launch.

Carney also outlines plans to support initiatives that aim at giving households and firms control over “their” data:

To make real inroads, SMEs must be able to identify the data relevant to their businesses, incorporate it into their individual credit files, and easily share these files with potential providers of finance through a national SME financing platform.

This would put into practice the recommendations from Professor Jason Furman’s Digital Competition Panel report on how to extract value from data and promote competition. One of the most important recommendations in this regard is to give consumers control of their data. This would allow consumers to move their personal information from one platform to another and avoid lock-in effects, opening the door to new services. To some extent, this is what Open Banking hopes to achieve. Although to make this a success means establishing common off the-shelf API standards and operating platforms onto which developers can build. …

It is not for the Bank of England to build this platform but we can help lay some of groundwork. The messaging standards we are adopting in the new RTGS will also include tagging payments with a unique ID called a Legal Entity Identifier (LEI).

Link to earlier post on the SNB’s policy.

Obtaining a Fintech License in Switzerland

Guidelines published by the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority. From the explanations:

The FinTech licence allows institutions to accept public deposits of up to CHF 100 million, provided that these are not invested and no interest is paid on them. A further requirement is that an institution with a FinTech licence must have its registered office and conduct its business activities in Switzerland.

SNB Grants Fintechs Access to SIC

In a press release the Swiss National Bank explains that it

grants access to … [fintechs] that make a significant contribution to the fulfilment
of the SNB’s statutory tasks, and whose admission does not pose any major risks. Entities with fintech licences whose business model makes them significant participants in the area of Swiss franc payment transactions will therefore be granted access to the SIC system and to sight deposit accounts.

The Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority is in charge of granting fintech licences.

Treasury Report on “Nonbank Financials, Fintech, and Innovation”

The Treasury’s recommendations fall into four categories:

Adapting regulatory approaches to changes in the aggregation, sharing, and use of con- sumer financial data, and to support the development of key competitive technologies;

Aligning the regulatory framework to combat unnecessary regulatory fragmentation, and account for new business models enabled by financial technologies;

Updating activity-specific regulations across a range of products and services offered by nonbank financial institutions, many of which have become outdated in light of techno- logical advances; and

Advocating an approach to regulation that enables responsible experimentation in the financial sector, improves regulatory agility, and advances American interests abroad.

Fact sheet: PDF. Report: PDF.

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.



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:


“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: