European banks have shown strength during Covid-19

It could have been another 2008 banking crisis, but as it turns out, European banks have weathered the challenges of Covid-19 with great resilience. Despite this, they still face other challenges that could upset their future outlook, especially consumer debt and interest rates.

This time around, banks have ended up in a much stronger capital position than back in 2008, due to the regulations introduced in the wake of the financial crisis. Some are in such a buoyant position that they are ready to resume dividend payouts this year, Silvia Amaro writes at CNBC. 

Arnaud Journois, vice president at DBRS Morningstar told Amaro, “The most important takeaway is that we have not seen a deterioration in asset quality yet since the onset of the crisis.” This view of ‘strength’ is backed up by Fahed Kunwar, head of European banks equity research at Redburn, who said its latest quarterly results have been ‘Strong”.

The big lenders have benefited from government stimulus measures introduced across EU countries, and business failures have been contained due to steps taken by the European Central Bank and the Bank of England. However, there are fears that this situation may not continue into 2022 as “fiscal and monetary interventions are potentially scaled back.”

Nick Andrews, Europe analyst at investment research firm Gavekal told CNBC, “Bad loans will start to appear over the next year or so. That’s when we will get a clearer picture of how bad the situation is in the corporate sector.” A view that is echoed by Elisabeth Rudman, head of European financial institutions at DBRS Morningstar, who also said, “the full level of non-performing loans is still to materialize.”

While governments haven’t made concrete announcements about their withdrawal of financial support, this is bound to happen as the health crisis slows down and economies reopen. When it happens, some businesses will be too stretched to meet their loan repayments and may have to file for insolvency.

The interest rate challenge

Jes Staley, CEO of Barclays, commented on interest rates, saying, “One risk given the level of government spending is if interest rates do start to move up markedly, that will increase the cost of trying to respond to the pandemic.”

As we know, interest rates are at a record low level after being cut as part of the economists’ response to the pandemic. However, central banks could raise the rates if prices rise significantly. There may be less risk attached to this in the Eurozone, where recent increases in inflation were associated with one-off events, such as Germany’s new consumer tax rules.

But in the UK, economists are predicting that prices “could overshoot the Bank of England’s inflation target later this year,” and that would likely result in an interest rate rise. If this happens, it will be bad news for the UK economy in general.

The big hope for the banks is consumer spending once restrictions are eased and restaurants and shops re-open. Andrews from Gavekal said, “We could see a stronger rebound on the back of pent-up demand,” which would ultimately support the banks’ balance sheets and draw in more business investment.

Can XAI in banking help small businesses?

Small businesses (SMEs) are no longer as well served by traditional banks, yet this is one niche sector where they have an opportunity to shine.

To date, banks have provided SMEs with a mix of retail and corporate services, however, as a Finextra blog explains, “this no longer fits the evolving needs of small businesses.”

Services for this business sector need to think about more holistic solutions. These may include more collaboration with a range of digital service providers if they are to retain the confidence of SME clients by addressing their pressing needs.

Temenos, a firm specialising in enterprise software for banks and financial services has been reimagining how banks could better serve SMEs using the available technology. For example, “banks can implement innovative design-centric and data-driven products, as well as services that can transform the SME customer experience.”

The customer’s digital experience is now critical, as is the use of data, because these will be the driving force in future SME banking services. And this is where artificial intelligence (AI) can be of enormous help. It can enable banks to leverage data from multiple sources “to make faster, and more accurate decisions and provide individualised, frictionless customer experiences.”

Utilising AI, or XAI (explainable AI) would be another major step, primarily because “one of the key issues for banks using AI applications that there is little if any discernible insight into how they reach their decisions.” Transparency is required for customer confidence, especially concerning lending.

If banks looked at more than an SME’s credit score, and took a more holistic approach by viewing a range of attributes, they would be able to make more “nuanced and fully explainable decisions that lead to 20% more positive credit decisions and fewer false positives.” Furthermore,  this can be done in real-time using APIs to connect to third-party data sources.

Banks using XAI can show how the decision was made and then suggest alternative products or provide advice about how to improve the chances of getting a loan. In this particular period of time, with the Covid-19 pandemic having negatively affected so many small businesses, there has been an increased need for SME loans. As a result, banks need to support this with more digitisation and smarter decision-making. Using XAI seems like a good place to start.

Dogecoin passion could prevent government crypto bans

Dogecoin, which has existed for a few years, is not a cryptocurrency of the usual kind. It’s a fun, ‘meme’ coin and Elon Musk, Gene Simmons, The Jonas Brothers and Snoop Doge have been having some fun with it recently. However, although it has no utility, Noelle Acheson, says “it embodies two key themes impacting institutional interest in crypto assets: the role of “fundamentals,” and the likelihood of successful government bans.”

Acheson asks if fun should drive value (Dogecoin is up 1,350% in 2021, and answers her own question with, why not? She points to GameStop (yes, again!) saying that the market’s understanding of ‘value’ is shifting. Matt Levine at Bloomberg summed it up: “Money and value are coordination games; what we use for money depends on the channels that we use to coordinate social activity. Once society was mediated by governments, and we used fiat currency. Now society is mediated by Twitter and Reddit and Elon Musk, so, sure, Dogecoin.”

Even Dogecoin’s founders have no idea why its success has continued some seven years after launching it. But they can’t remove it, or close it down, because Dogecoin runs on a public, decentralized blockchain that no one controls. So, it will probably continue to exist so long as people value its fun element.

It’s about passion

GameStop and Dogecoin both exemplify what community passion can achieve, and how it may potentially block government bans on crypto. For example, India tried to ban cryptocurrencies recently, but the community mobilised, created a hashtag and rallied its members to lobby government representatives. They pointed out that the country has 10-20 million crypto users, plus 340 startups and 50,000 employees in the crypto space.

Something similar happened in Nigeria where the central bank ordered banks to close the accounts of cryptocurrency users. There was a public outcry, and the central bank had to issue a press statement “reminding the public that the rule was not new, and that it was for their own good.” The central bank had to unblock accounts of 20 people involved in the #EndSARS movement, which was about the dissolution of a federal police unit with a reputation for fierce brutality. Acheson says, “The fact that the accounts were frozen in the first place is one of the many reasons seizure-resistant cryptocurrencies are rapidly gaining in popularity amongst Nigeria’s young.” It is also the case that Nigeria is gaining recognition as Africa’s Silicon Valley, and trading crypto assets is a way of life for many young people. They have new tools to work with and a growing disrespect for institutions. Because of the central bank directive, they are simply moving from exchanges to peer-to-peer channels. As a result, the politicians have taken notice,, and some prominent voices in government have spoken out against the ban. Other countries will be watching this with interest, because as Acheson warns, “the very act of attempting to repress cryptocurrency’s use could light a fire under a generational understanding of why it’s necessary.”

Private finance is taking crypto mainstream

Last year was a turning point for cryptocurrencies. It turned blockchain from being a space for geeks into one where governments, institutions and retail traders now had a seat at the table. The 2021 GameStop story also played a major role in a change of perception.

Most interestingly, as Alex Shipp explains in an article for Cointelegraph, “cryptography and its primary feature, privacy, have been relegated from the front-and-center role they once played as cryptocurrency’s main attractions.” This has been replaced by the enticements of DeFi apps that offer “enhanced liquidity, yield farming and unprecedented economic models.”

Will 2021 be DeFi’s big year?

DeFI has become the Shangri-La of cryptocurrency it seems. Its allure is pervasive across the cryptocurrency landscape, with investors enchanted by its “double-digit APRs and seamless user experience,” which holds better long-term prospects for them than the “subtle, systemic benefits conferred by a privacy-centric exchange.”

Privacy is no longer the primary reason for entering the crypto space. Moreover, as the perceived benefits of DeFi grow, consumers are more than happy to make trade-offs to keep it growing. They really don’t want to forfeit these for the sake of privacy.

DeFi is the current Disruptor-in-chief within an already disruptive community. Now we can expect another to emerge – PriFi, or Private Finance. This, says Shipp, “brings privacy back on-stage by bringing it back on-chain — that is, into the Ethereum and Polkadot ecosystems — to integrate privacy into a robust network of rapidly evolving applications of decentralized finance.”

It’s significant because until now, “privacy solutions have remained siloed on standalone, privacy-oriented blockchains, isolated from the ever-expanding features of the DeFi landscape.” This ‘movement’ wants users to be able to have access to privacy without any trade-offs. Shipp says it could not have come at a more critical moment. Why?

The answer is GameStop. I won’t reprise the story, because I’m sure you know it. However, one critical factor is that after the hedge funds got caught over-leveraged in short positions, centralized companies, such as Robinhood, Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade and others, restricted trading “thereby protecting the remaining capital of the exposed funds.”

This caused outrage amongst the retail investors, because these companies had essential hung them out to dry. What they learnt was, as Shipp says, “For retailers in 2021, that has meant awakening to a pair of sobering realizations: that centralized markets only remain free as long as they serve centralized powers and that surveillance is a primary supporting feature employed by such power structures.”

The trading restrictions placed on the retail traders highlighted the need for “a new line of emergent derivatives: fully private, on-chain synthetic assets whose values are securely pegged to traditional financial instruments — stocks, commodities, bonds, insurance products and more.”

The crypto space is opening up in ways the first enthusiasts probably never dreamt of, and while it may not suit purists, it is driven by the demands of the market. You could say everything has changed, and nothing has changed – depending on your perception.