Keep big tech out of finance? Seriously!

As Off the Chain writes, this week is a big one for crypto. It may even become a defining week, when at some point we look back at its events.

The Facebook hearings in Congress play a major role in this. David Marcus has faced two different committees, neither of them over-informed about cryptocurrency in general. He sat like one man alone holding back the tide of ill-informed views held by America’s lawmakers. For example, they (and the President) are still convinced that crypto is primarily used for criminal activity, when by now we all know that cash is king in the drug world for starters.

However, while Elizabeth Warren probed the issues of privacy and trust, ever implying that it would be almost impossible to trust Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the hearing that most concerned crypto’s supporters was that with the Banking Committee.

Old men backed by banks

As numerous journalists have noted, the average age of a US Senator is 61.8 years old, and most of them are not open-minded enough to grasp the innovations that blockchain and crypto can bring to the United States. Most of them have benefitted financially from the old system, so why change it. Who cares about the future when ‘I’m alright Jack’.

Keep Big Tech Out

These hearings were significant, but even more noteworthy was information leaked over the weekend regarding a bill that has been drafted by Congressional representatives aimed at preventing large technology companies from becoming financial institutions. It is literally titled “Keep Big Tech Out of Finance Act” and contains a number of extremely worrying statements, with potentially dangerous ramifications.

The Act targets companies like Facebook, Amazon and Uber, but totally ignores the fact that Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are engaged in the same blockchain-related projects as the Silicon Valley boys.

And consider this: the same lawmakers who are participating in the Senate Banking Committee hearing, are some of the lawmakers who have received significant donations from the banking industry. These guys are hardly going to make changes that have a negative effect on banking.

The cost of prohibition — America loses

They are also proposing to prohibit digital currencies and this would put the United States and US-based technology companies at a significant disadvantage. There was some irony in Marcus being asked as to why Calibra had registered in Switzerland rather than the USA. There’s your answer, although Marcus simply said they were already an American company.

Several journalists have also noted that this Act proposes a daily penalty of $1 million for any tech company flouting its rules. Significantly, most observers agree that Facebook can afford to pay that fine with ease, and that they will probably just see it as the cost of doing business.

If the United States cannot get behind digital currencies it will lose out to Southeast Asia where there is widespread adoption: instead of Facebook’s Libra becoming a leader, AliPay and WeChat Pay will be the platforms used internationally.

It looks like the Big Tech companies in the US are going to have to play ball with Wall Street, something they have managed to avoid in the past. Will they abandon their attachment to liberal principles and embrace those of the less principled occupants of the Street? Let’s see. But I doubt it will be possible to keep them out of finance in the long term.

Who is controlling your financial data?

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A decade ago, and even further back, none of us were aware that our personal data was so valuable. Now, we’ve certainly been made aware that companies are busy collecting as much data about each of us as they can, because the more they know about us, the more power they have over our decision making.

We know that social media channels like Facebook re focused on collecting data about our shopping habits and our political views amongst other things, and that has frightened not a few people, and angered them when they discovered the data was being sold to dark actors behind political lobbying. And while the majority of the public may be being guided by the media towards focusing on social media giants, the banks are busy collecting data about each of us as well.

And, like the social media guys, the banks want to hold on to our data; they don’t want to share it with fintech startups. Because these startups are better positioned to use the data and respond to consumer wants in a faster more flexible way. To that end, there is a battle going on by some of the biggest banks, such as JP Morgan Chase and the Silicon Valley fintechs for possession of data.

Big banks plan to stifle fintech access to data

Nizan Geslevich Packin at Forbes suggests that JP Morgan and Capital One actually have a campaign strategy to control, Silicon Valley fintech startups’ access to consumer financial data. She claims that there is a rising behind-the-scenes tension and “some banks have threatened to block fintech companies’ servers from accessing customer data, in order to improve their customer accounts’ safety and increase consumer protection.” The banks claim that this is in the consumer’s best interests because fintechs “often collect more data than they need, store it insecurely, sell it to third parties, and sometimes also get hacked, exposing account numbers and passwords.” It sounds a lot like political arguments these days, especially in countries with a two-party system, like the USA and UK.

Of course regulation and consumer protection are important; they are two of the cornerstone elements of the financial industry. And yes, cybersecurity is an issue these days, and we should be wary of sharing data with third-parties, but if anyone thinks the banks are occupying the higher moral ground and acting entirely for the benefit of the consumer, then they don’t know banks and bankers that well.

Banks claim to act for the consumer

Banks are acting in their own interest: they are afraid of the fintech newcomers who are currently taking a trickle of their customers, but that could become a major flow.

Not if the banks have their way and find a way to stop the sharing of data. As Nizan says, there are companies like Mint that provide consumers with an aggregated snapshot of their accounts from multiple financial institutions. Without access to the bank data, Mint’s business would collapse. Indeed, most fintechs are reliant on gathering traditional bank data; without it they will not be able to innovate.

The fintechs are not leaving things to chance. They are not waiting for the banks to reduces their access to APIs or stop access altogether. They are looking at technological ways to combat the banks’ blocking technology. And they are lobbying for open banking. This works by allowing fintech companies’ apps to ask consumers for permission to access their accounts, and then requiring that banks abide by that consent.

The battle between the banks and the fintechs is not confined to the USA. In Europe Payment Services Directive II encourages technological developments that disrupt existing businesses by collecting data on savings, spending, wealth management and more.

The struggle continues for control of our data, but has anyone ever asked you what you’d like to do with your financial information and who you are prepared to share it with?

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.