3 predictions for the digital financial future

The financial industry is going through a sea change. So many aspects of it are under scrutiny: from debates over cashless societies, to universal basic income, and the implications of digital currencies. Money has always been a hot topic, but it has become even hotter.

Blockchain changed the conversation

The advent of blockchain technology is in part a reason for this sudden increase in interest. As Lauren deLisa Coleman writes for Forbes, we are seeing financial giants like JP Morgan enter the digital currency space, alongside Facebook and IBM. And she points out, “But amidst such vast activity around digital currency overall, there is a specific and growing interest toward trend shifts pertaining particularly to token exchanges.

Talking about Token Exchanges

Coleman reports on the discussions at a New York event: Token Exchanges: The promise of liquidity, compliance and stability, where lawyers comprised the majority of the audience. Joel Telpner, partner and Chair Fintech & Blockchain Practice at Sullivan & Worcester LLP, addressed the issue of turbulence in the digital currency space: “We’re all collectively paying the price at the moment, but it’s important to keep in mind that this is not a bad thing. Most all new forms of technology have experienced a high level of unreasonable exuberance in the early days and after that period, business becomes much more stable.”

A more mature environment

Interestingly, he also suggested that now is the time to create a new ecosystem with new players: “”We’re at the end of the beginning,” he remarked. “This is about moving from the wild, wild, west to a more mature level of the digital currency space and tokens. Those that remain have to work hard and understand that success will come from fundamental principles in business and governance, and it will certainly pay off.”

3 key things to watch out for

He then identified what he believed are the three key regulatory areas to watch this year that could be game changers:

1. He believes the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) will make a statement about the status of digital currencies and tokens — which are tokens and which are not.

2. The CFTC (Commodity Future Trading Commission) will become more involved in the token space given that this collective regulates commodities.

3. Stablecoins will come under a regulatory spotlight and decisions will be made about how to regulate this particular type of digital currency.

The event also revealed that a consensus of opinion indicates the issue of custodianship will come under focus this year as well. In addition, there will also be an eye to how trade is conducted in this space and how securities are managed securities once they are issued.

But, one of the most hotly debated topics in the industry is which jurisdiction will establish itself as a leader in the space: Telpner’s response to this was: “”But this approach was wrong in 2017, 2018 and still wrong to think like this in 2019, because all countries are working hard to regulate this space. Stop chasing jurisdiction.”

Who made it into the Forbes Fintech 50?

The Forbes Fintech 50 2019 reveals that although the crypto markets may be going through a frosty period, investment in the growth of fintech businesses surged in 2018. As Forbes reports, total investment reached $55 billion in 2018, double that of the previous year. The Forbes list of the top 50 finteches also shows that the businesses themselves are getting bigger, with 19 of the 50 firms valued at, or in excess of, $1 billion.

This is only the fourth time that Forbes has published this list and it’s pleasing to see that there are 20 startups that have made the cut for the first time. It is also interesting to see that the sector showing a strong growth in startups is that of payments services, particularly those focused on providing a service to the unbanked. In the case of the USA these people are typically migrants without a US credit history, or people who live hand to mouth on a wage paid weekly. The lack of access to banking and payment facilities is a greater problem in developing countries, but let’s not forget it happens in the first world as well.

Exchanges dominate

There are few surprises at the top of the list, as many of the names are familiar: Axoni, Bitfury, Circle, Coinbase, Gemini and Ripple are all headline makers. Bitfury is the only non-US based of this top six: it is based in Amsterdam. It started off as a bitcoin mining outfit, but then launched its own blockchain plus software designed to help U.S. law-enforcement and others investigate illicit activity using bitcoin. It has a valuation of $1 billion plus and received more than $150 million from Korelya Capital, Macquarie Capital, Dentsu & others.

Axoni may be less famliar than say Coinbase, Circle or Ripple. It uses blockchain-based smart contracts to overhaul the back office of the world’s biggest derivative markets. It received funding from Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and others to the tune of $59 million.

Circle, with a valuation of $3 billion and Coinbase with a valuation of $8 billion are big hitters; they even sometimes work together. Last year they partnered to launch a stablecoin USDC — a crypto asset using the ethereum blockchain and backed by US dollars.

Payments services present in big numbers

Payments services make up 25% of the Top 50 list. The Forbes list is skewed towards US companies, but it is notable that in the payments sector, it includes Transferwise, a UK registered company, widely used by Europeans when they need to transfer large sums of money across borders. Other payments services listed include Bolt, which is the ‘smallest’ with a valuation of only $20 million, whereas Stripe is one of the largest with a valuation of $685 million.

Forbes predicts that the leaders in the blockchain sphere will stop trying to outrun each other in 2019 and will instead start seeking partnerships within the mainstream world of finance.

Online Lenders vs The Banks

The financial crisis of 2008 has spawned a number of innovations in the world of finance. Cryptocurrency and fintech startups are two of them, but these were preceded by a new wave of online lenders.

The truth is, and it remains so, that the Big Banks failed to respond to the financial crisis in a meaningful way for consumers. They caused the problem, but they remained in denial about the effects on the person in the street who needed access to credit. Furthermore, the banks simply didn’t want to take on more risk. The banks instead of thinking about people, concerned themselves with regulatory challenges and stuck to technology that first saw the light of day in the 1960s.

Online lenders get VC support

Enter the online lenders, supported by venture capitalists who could hear the money dropping into their coffers. Lending money appeared to be an easy and profitable game, however it wasn’t all plain sailing.

Still, online lenders had their customers well figured out: they knew what they wanted and what they didn’t want: they wanted instant access to loans and they didn’t want to visit a physical branch and discuss every detail of their lives with somebody in a suit. That aspect of it all went well.

Online lenders at a disadvantage

However, the economies of lending have been another matter. As fintech expert, Ben Cukier writes, “Loan profitability is driven by the spread (the cost difference between the interest charged on the loan, less the cost of funding those loans), the cost of acquiring the loan, and the default rates of those loans.” From the outset online lenders were at a disadvantage when compared with the traditional banks, because the old-school bankers uses low cost deposits to fund loans. By contrast, the new online lenders had to rely on “raising debt or even more expensive equity,” as Cukier points out..

Enter Big Data

Plus, customers knew the bank brands, whereas the newcomers had to invest a lot in raising brand awareness. But they did have a weapon that the banks did not posses: the newcomers had Big Data. They talked up their Big Data platforms, which use disparate data to better underwrite credit risk in ways common credit scores did not. And, they leveraged this data to target specific consumers on social media, and then used the data they mined from customer behaviour on social media enabled them to dictate borrowing terms.

Fintech is the real financial innovation

This gave the banks a wake-up call, and now bank customers can interact with their banks through apps and even get quick credit approval. Plus the banks offer a range of products, whereas online lenders only offer loans. Then fintech startups came along and offered more help to the big banks. Mark Hookey, CEO of Demyst Data says, “Fintech innovators demonstrated that a data focus matters, however banks can apply that insight at a far greater scale to know their customers and launch new products.”

In the end it is these fintech companies, rather than the online lenders, that offer the promise of a real revolution in lending.

Protecting humanity as AI grows

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going through the process of evolution. To date we have seen the emergence of artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), and artificial general intelligence (AGI) to artificial super intelligence (ASI). Those working in the field predict that it won’t be long until AI is able to “combine the intricacy and pattern recognition strength of human intelligence with the speed, memory and knowledge sharing of machine intelligence,” as Jayshree Pandya writes in his recent Forbes article.

One of the upshots of this progress is that people feel less insecure and fear what this may mean for their future, particularly with regard to employment. After all if AI can replace most manual and mundane work that will affect a significant number of people in manufacturing industries. As Pandya points out, “with all these new digital assistants and decision-making algorithms assisting and directing humans, more complex day-to-day work for humans is being greatly lessened.” It would be nice to think that this will mean humans can put their feet up and relax, but who will fund that? The robots won’t pay for sure.

Of course, there is hope for humans, because no mater how much AI technology is hyped, it simply can’t replicate the human brain, because elements like memory and conscience are as yet a long way off and are only a part of some computer scientist’s dream of a human-like artificial intelligence.

Super scary Super ASI

Pandya believes that the “potential development of artificial super intelligence points to a frankly scary scenario in the coming years.” He thinks that the processing power of the human brain may not be able to match that of ASI in the long-term, which is indeed a frightening thought. It may well be inevitable that AI will reach a point where it will be able to improve its own software design and capabilities far beyond what its designers envisioned: like the monster that Dr Frankenstein could not control.

Will AI overtake human intelligence?

Another concern is that human intelligence may dumb down as AI takes over tasks. If the human brain is not allowed the opportunities to learn new skills, how will its development suffer? That is a tough question to answer. And the answer to it may define the future of humanity, which has for all of recorded history relied on the sophistication of human natural intelligence for survival. Pandya says, “the question everyone across nations needs to evaluate today is whether our efforts should be towards enhancing human intelligence or artificial intelligence.”

We need to start planning now for the future when our intelligence may be seen as inferior to that of AI. It sounds like science fiction, but we can no longer dismiss it as a scenario created by a novelist or Hollywood.