5 fintech trends for 2020

As we approach the end of 2019 it’s the time of year when sector pundits start to look at trends for 2020. You’ll find these within nearly every imaginable product group, and fintech is no different. This year, as in mnay others, the trends are identified at the major conferences, such as Money 20/20, which took place in Las Vegas in October.

1. Product bundling

Fintech startups have typically released single products. Transferwise is an example. As a result, what a bank offered had been ‘unbundled’ by the fintechs. Now there is a move to rebundling products to provide a one-stop experience, but it’s still early days.

2. An holistic experience

Fintechs were initially about financial inclusion and affordable options, but now there is a move towards creating an holistic customer experience that focuses on financial health. Financial health is becoming more vertically focused. This trend includes companies that target specific demographics (e.g. seniors or kids), job categories (e.g. gig economy) and industries (e.g. dental practices).

3. A more global vision

US-based conferences in the past tended to focus on the domestic market, but this year has seen attendees arrive from around the major world regions. It forces the Americans to think more globally and recognise that some of the largest fintechs in the world are global, including the neobanks, such as Nubank in Brazil. We will definitely see an acceleration in the growth of fintech globally, as Asia and Europe are already outperforming North America.

4. More focus on security

Cyber threats are certain to rise, not least because quantum computing is about to come into play and its method of computing will upset the current cryptographic security.

5. From vertical to horizontal

In the beginning fintech startups were vertical, as they travelled alone, so to speak. But the big news is that in the next few years, it will look at horizontal integration as it introduces its innovative ideas to other industries, and also make it possible for non-financial firms like Amazon to offer financial products. It was apparently noticeable that a significant number of C-Suite execs from other industries were at the Las Vegas event.

Of course, fintech is still in its infancy, and we will see many more changes, probably in the not too distant future, as fintech evolves to meet a range of needs worldwide.

Bitcoin heads towards its teen years

On the 31st October 2019 Satoshi Nakamoto’s baby turned 11 years old. It’s quite remarkable to think that in two years time the white paper that changed the world will be a teenager.

Of course more people are preoccupied with Halloween on this day, at least in Europe, and the UK delayed its Brexit as well for the second or third time (everyone is losing count), which grabbed the news headlines. However, it is somewhat sad to see that after 11 years, the mainstream media still ignores Bitcoin, and all the celebrations were left to the crypto-focused press.

The original white paper is only nine pages long and opens with a remarkably humble statement: “I’ve been working on a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer-to-peer, with no trusted third party.” Some might say that this is the understatement of the century, because the author makes it sound as if it is mundane, and yet 11 years on we know its potential to create billionaires, as well as spawning an entire crypto industry now filled with a host of altcoins, as well as goodness knows how many fintech startups related to cryptocurrency.

A groundbreaking white paper

We should never forget just how groundbreaking the bitcoin white paper was. For the first time somebody had delivered a blueprint for an anonymous, trustless, decentralised currency. Of course, it didn’t appear out of nowhere. Fore example, Nakamoto says in his white paper that the proof-of-work protocol was developed from Dai Wei’s B-money thereby ensuring a ‘one CPU one vote’ policy.

Another important aim was to be a deflationary currency. This was achieved by stating that a finite number of bitcoin would be available. In this case 21 million. Fiat currencies by contrast can be printed or minted whenever a central bank/government decides, and that is an inflationary move. Eventually you end up like Venezuela in a state of hyperinflation, if you keep printing money, but your national borrowing keeps growing and there’s nothing to repay it with. Then you see people with notes piled up in a shopping trolley just to buy a loaf of bread. This situation is alien to the bitcoin ecosystem.

Nakamoto had beef with fractional reserve banking

Satoshi Nakamoto was not a fan of the banks that run the global monetary system, precisely because of issues like hyperinflation. But his pet hate was fractional reserve banking. In this system a bank can accept deposits, make loans or investments, but it is only required to “hold reserves equal to only a fraction of its deposit liabilities,” as Martin Young explains at BTC News. The problem with this type of banking is that when the reserves don’t match the money deposited by customers, and there’s an event that creates a domino effect, then the bank collapses and the customers lose their money. Which is exactly what happened in 2008. Let’s not forget that Nakamoto published the white paper only six weeks after Lehmann Brothers spectacular crash.

Eleven years on, bitcoin has become iconic for its many supporters, and hated by a few. It is also true to say that the majority of people worldwide still don’t understand it, and are being fed all kinds of scary stories by the media, which doesn’t encourage them to understand the upside of cryptocurrency.

It may be true that we haven’t yet reached anywhere near the mass adoption figures that the first cypherpunks hoped for, but in another 11 years, I believe that celebrations of bitcoin’s birthday will be more widespread and that it will be more widely accepted. It may even be a lifebelt for many when the next global financial crisis hits us.

A bank you never heard of has died

How many of you can hold your hands up and say that you have heard of Raphael’s Bank?

It is one owned by an archangel by the way. It is Britain’s second oldest bank and it has existed for 232 years.

What happened to cause its quiet demise? It wasn;t on the news, because few people have heard of it, therefore there was no rush to get the government to bail it out. The bank, which was a leader in lending, sold its motor finance division in 2018 and stopped lending completely in April this year, as reported in Forbes by Frances Coppola. It has also now just closed its retail savings division. Its press release said,

“All savings account holders have been given sixty days’ notice, in line with regulatory guidelines, of the bank’s intention to return their monies to them and close their accounts.”

In 2015, the bank was an active lender, though it had no high street presence and operated mainly through brokers and third parties. Its main strength was in motor finance, including mobility scooters and such like, and it was known for its range of retail and small business loans. It was also a significant provider of pre-paid credit cards in the UK, and had a string of ATMs. Coppola says, “It was, in short, a small full-service bank. Just the sort of bank the highly concentrated UK banking marketplace needs.”

However, story of its death goes back to who owns it, because it wasn’t really an independent bank, despite its independent sounding name. It is owned by Lenley Holdings, which also owns the International Currency Exchange (ICE). And Lenley didn’t want to support a small British bank, so it put it up for sale in 2016.

The expectation was that Russian and Chinese buyers would leap at the opportunity, but none emerged. Meanwhile Raphael’s kept expanding its services, including becoming the banking partner for Transferwise in the UK. And it partnered with Vodafone and PayPal in their mobile money initiative in Germany.

In fact the bank was doing very well in 2017 and reported a profit of over £22m ($28.57m), which was a significant increase on the paltry £25,000 ($32,470) of the year before.

Some onlookers say that the Brexit fiasco spooked overseas buyers, which is likely true, but then in 2018 the bank reported a massive loss of nearly £4.5m ($5.84m). The chances of finding a buyer now were rapidly disappearing, which is why it closed its motor finance and asset finance activities, and sold its motor loan book. Therefore in 2019 it was judged that it couldn’t be sold as a going concern, so Lenley decided to liquidate it.

It is not a catastrophic situation for the banking community, but it is an interesting story for startup neobanks. Just remember, even though this bank opened for business before the French Revolution, in the end it was defeated by a combination of geopolitical events and a low Euribor rate that decimated its evolving payments division.

What is the point of a robot tax?

While browsing articles on Artificial Intelligence, I stumbled across a piece by Milton Ezrati at Forbes. Discussing the possibility of a robot tax? This idea had been proposed by Bill de Blasio before he gave up his bid to gain the Democratic presidential nomination. Ezrati thinks it is a dreadful idea, but he is aware that both Silicon Valley leaders and current government progressives are quite keen on it.

According to the article, a robot tax would have four parts: First, it would apply to any company introducing labour saving automation. Second, it would insist that this employer either find new jobs for the displaced workers at their same pay level or pay them a severance. Third, the tax would require a new federal agency, the Federal Automation and Worker Protection Agency (FAWPA) and fourth, it would require Washington eliminate all tax incentives for any innovation that leads to automation.

The assumption appears to be that workers displaced by automation will never again find work at a comparable wage. Elon Musk for one, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are amongst those who are worried about this aspect of it, as is Democratic candidate, Andrew Yang, who suggests the introduction of a universal basic income, “to substitute, he claims, for the incomes lost to robots and artificial intelligence generally.”

However, it is not proven that the introduction of AI and robots will disadvantage workers so substantially. As Ezrati say, “innovation, if it initially displaces some workers, always eventually creates many more new jobs even as it boosts overall productivity and increases output.”

And, as he also points out, “since the industrial revolution began more than 250 years ago, business and industry have actively applied wave after wave of innovation and yet economies have nonetheless continued to employ on average some 95 percent of those who want to work.”

In my opinion, and in this respect I am in agreement with Ezrati, we have focused far too much on what will be lost with the introduction of more robotics, and not sufficiently on what is to be gained. His analogy that uses the introduction of email and the Internet regarding typists’ jobs illustrates this. Whilst those working in admin, messenger departments and typing pools no longer had their current job, new forms of employment emerged for them.

Similarly, when the introduction of automatic teller machines threatened to throw thousands of bank clerks out of work, the machines created profits that meant they could employ more tellers, and these tellers, with the assistance of different technologies, could do more interesting, complex, and valuable jobs at higher pay than they received before the ATMs were put in place.

A robot tax would be counter-productive and stunt growth in innovation, hampering the possibility of finding new types of jobs and improving living standards. It’s a proposed tax that simply doesn’t make sense.