Davo Polo

I set off for Hangzhou  and Money2020 China as a modern-day Marco Polo, intent on coming back home to regale the subjects of Her Majesty with fanciful tales of a far-away place where people use their mobile phones to pay for things and nobody uses paper money any more, much as Marco Polo himself would have regaled the inhabitants of Venice with his tales of (as it happens, the same) far-away place where people used paper money to pay for things and nobody used copper bars, cowrie shells or coins any more.

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Hanging with Tracey Davies, the President of Money2020.

My travels were a lot easier than Marco’s because for one thing I was able to fly directly to Shanghai whereas it took him years to get there and for another thing because everyone (and I mean everyone) has a smartphone, and their smartphones all have translation applications that convert spoken English to written Chinese and spoken Chinese to written English. My first experience of this was at Shanghai airport when the driver meeting me spoke into his phone and then presented me with a screen saying “do you know this person?” and holding up a sign with “Chris Skinner” on it. Naturally, I took the phone and said into the microphone “no, I’ve never heard of him and I’ve never read any of his books either” but it was too late as the driver had just seen him in arrivals.

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Flying the flag for Brexit Britain

My first step on the road to amazing my peers back home was to get a working AliPay or WeChat account. I’d forgotten my AliPay password so I decided to sign up for a new account. Unfortunately you can’t get an AliPay account with a UK phone number. An American phone number, yes. An Australian phone number, no problem. A Burkina Faso phone number, Bob’s your uncle.

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Alipay options

As it seemed like a UK phone number was beyond the pale, I decided to get WeChat instead. I activated my WeChat money function by linking my account to a couple of my credit cards.

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Activiating WeChat Money

None of my cards worked in this context, but it didn’t matter because once the money function is activated you can just give people cash and ask them to send the same amount via WeChat, thus topping up via a system of human Qiwi terminals. One of the women that kindly agreed to do this for me, on being handed a couple of RMB 100 notes, told me that it was the first time she’d touched paper money for at least a year.

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Woot! You can pay me using WeChat right now if you want to.

(China was the first in to printed means of exchange and they are close to being first out, close to being the first nation-state where notes and coins are economically irrelevant and post-functional cash will be the only kind most people ever possess. It looks as if China’s 800 year experiment with paper money will soon be over.)

Actually, it turns out that my stories of mobile phone payments are almost completely uninteresting – I wish you’d told me before, frankly – because everyone has now heard about WeChat and AliPay, everyone understands the transformational nature of their payments platforms and everyone has seen the ubiquity of QR  codes. The one time we tried to use NFC, ApplePay and that totem of Western Civilisation, the iPhone (which is, of course, made in China) to pay for something, it didn’t work. App and pay, frankly, is beating tap and pay.

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A payment expert witnesses the failure of tap-and-pay

(China was early into NFC, with China Mobile doing plenty of experiments in the field. Further back, Hong Kong was the birthplace of the contactless mass transit card, the Octopus scheme. I note that the Hong Kong MTA has just awarded a contract for QR code ticketing. It looks as if China’s 25 year experiment with contactless will soon be over.)

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Ron Kalifa talking about value-added merchant services

As for the conference itself, I particularly enjoyed Worldpay vice-chairman Ron Kalifa’s fireside chat. He said that in general people were underestimating the impact of open banking and I am certain that he is right. He also presented Worldpay’s annual report on payment trends worldwide, which was very interesting as you might expect.

One of the factors central to the evolution of payments is security and so I always enjoy presentations around fraud. In China, these have scary large numbers attached to them, but you have to take into account the size of the Chinese economy. According to the back of my envelope, Chinese cybercrime losses are lower than in many other countries.

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Real, and scary, fraud numbers

Given the widespread use of scores of one form or another to determine trustworthiness it is no coincidence that China sees a rise in frauds relating to the manipulation of these scores. Without commenting on the benefits or otherwise of such models (most Brits, myself included, can only think of Black Mirror when social scores are discussed) it is worth making the point that preventing “gaming” of these scores while preserving individual privacy means dealing with paradoxes that might well be resolved through the use of cryptographic techniques that have no conventional analogues and are therefore difficult for policymakers to bear in mind.

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Reputation fraud in action

Most of what I found thought-provoking, both in the presentations and the water cooler discussions, was to do with business models rather than new technologies. The new technology that fascinated me most was the toilet in my hotel room. The lid opens automatically when you walk into the smallest room and once you have settled onto the warmed and padded seat you are faced with a control panel (shown below) that gives access to a variety of functions, all of them wonderful. Next time someone tells you that a cashless economy is as likely as a paperless bathroom, tell them that I’ve experienced both, and they are both awesome.

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Toilet 2.0

The new business models emerging in a regulated, platform-centric, dynamic market are what we should be studying. We might choose to implement some of these models in a slightly different way taking into account the varying cultural norms around security and privacy, but the idea of separating payments from banking and then turning payments into platforms, and then using these platforms to acquire customers at scale for other businesses is certainly very interesting.

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This is what a smartphone-centric platform looks like

These new models, of course, centre on data and value-adding using that data. When people pay for everything with their mobile phone, they lay down a seam of data that is waiting to be mined. Despite this, the convenience of the mobile-centre platforms is so great that people are clearly willing to put privacy concerns to one side. I chaired a great session on privacy with CashShield, Symphony and eCreditPal with, I think, gave out a very comforting message: if you build services with privacy in the first place, then actually complying with GDPR and other global regulations is actually not that much of a problem.

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One more thing that struck me about the context for these developments that it seems to me that China is making its e-money regulation more like the EU’s. With an EU electronic money licence, the organisations holding the funds must keep them in Tier 1 capital and are not allowed to gamble the customer’s money, whereas in China there was no such restriction. Now the People’s Bank has said that from January 2019 the Chinese operators will have to hold a 100% reserve in non-interest bearing deposits at a commercial banks, a decision that will likely cost the main players (Tencent and Alipay) a billion dollars or so in revenue.

Anyway, a big thank you to the Money2020 for giving me the opportunity to take part in this event! It was lovely to meet so many new people and see so many new perspectives, even if I did have to spend some of the time in a jazz bar.

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All in all, I wouldn’t change my job for all the tea in China, much of which you can see in this picture of the plantations outside Hangzhou.

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Looking forward to next year already.

“Do you want a shot of novocain? / No, I want a shot of you getting a diploma.”

There’s been yet another story about fake medical qualifications in the news. A woman from New Zealand spent a couple of decades working as a consultant psychiatrist in our National Health Service (NHS) before it was discovered that she had made up her medical degree and forged a bogus letter of recommendation from Pakistan. The deception only came to light after she had been convicted of trying to defraud an elderly patient.

Now, I rather imagine that if I were a hospital or a medical centre or a GP practice employing a new doctor, I might be tempted to at least look them up on LinkedIn or something before I let them get their hands on a patient but I suppose that under the NHS it’s considered ungentlemanly or discriminatory or just plain rude to ask a prospective clinical employee for verifiable evidence of any valid qualifications. We are English, so we take people at their word. Unfortunately, dictum meum pactum. May not survive the 

While fake doctors seem to be something of an issue, as I have written before, I am English and therefore far more concerned about the epidemic of deceptive dentists across our green and pleasant land.

When I read that a “bogus dentist with no qualifications managed to fool her employers at NHS hospitals for nine years before being discovered” it makes me shiver.

When I see a woman convicted at Birmingham Magistrates’ Court on two charges of carrying out dentistry work without holding any dentistry qualifications, I get twitchy.

When I find out that Manchester Magistrates Court convicted a man who had no dentist qualifications, used a false name and was fraudulently using the registration number of a genuine dentist, I begin to think about leaving the country for good.

When I discover that a bogus dentist (an asylum seeker who told immigration officers he had a dental practice in Iran) took a dead dentist’s identity, drilled without a local anaesthetic and did expensive fillings that crumbled within days, I have trouble sleeping.

(Which again reminds me of the late lamented Robert Schimmel’s joke about visiting the dentist: “Do you want a shot of novocain? / No, I want a shot of you getting a diploma.”)

How can this happen, you might wonder, in a world where the blockchain exists? As Don and Alex Tapscott remind us in “Blockchain Revolution”, the “blockchain can hold any legal document, from deeds and marriage licenses to educational degrees and birth certificates”. And indeed managing educational qualifications seems to be one of those things I hear about at conferences where the magical properties of the blockchain are going to transform the sector and bring about a new era of peace and prosperity.

But how?

Suppose there was some global educational qualifications blockchain. That wouldn’t by itself fix anything as far as I can see. How exactly would the blockchain stop fake dentists from fixing my teeth with superglue and polyfilla?

I happened to look at a couple of projects in this space earlier in the year, and I can tell you that much of the wishful thinking projected onto the blockchain is really nothing about consensus or immutability but, as in so many other cases, really all about interoperability. There is no global standard for education qualifications, there is no global trust framework for organisations able to create qualifications (and their regulators) and there is no global infrastructure for digital signatures in that framework.

Think about it. If you present me with a Ph.D in Quantum Philosophy from the University of Woking, I need to be able to establish a trust chain that tells that there is a WokingU, that WokingU was authorised to award Ph.Ds at the time that you’re Ph.D was awarded, that the Ph.D you are presenting is real and signed by WokingU and that you are indeed the subject of the Ph.D award.

All of these problems have to be solved before we get near to figuring out whether a global blockchain might or might not be a better place to store such qualifications that either a global database of qualifications or a scheme for federating qualification repositories.

Insurance and outsurance

A couple of years ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) put out their report on “The Future of Financial Services” [PDF]. This report (for which I was subject matter expert, as it happens) said that while it is natural to focus on the imminent disruption of banking because of new technology, the biggest disruption caused by that new technology will be in insurance. For all of the talk of open banking and contactless payments, your life is not going to be fundamentally changed by having Goldman Sachs lend you money via your Amazon app. The advent of “insuretech”, on the other hand, will almost certainly mean that you will change your day-to-day life.

Here’s why. When you insure your teenager’s car you have the insurance company install a “black box” in the vehicle to encourage them to drive within appropriate parameters to the dual ends of keeping them alive and reducing the cost of their comprehensive cover. So why not do the same for people? After all, a third of US consumers have adopted wearable devices, such as smartwatches and fitness trackers, to help themselves to better health. In turn insurers (and employers) are of course looking at ways to benefit from the massive quantities of data that people are therefore generating about themselves, whether consciously or not.

This will completely change the relationship between insurers, health care and individuals. It’s in the life insurers’ interest to have you stay alive and paying premiums for as long as possible! It might seem odd that when you go to renew your health insurance you find the premium raised because you didn’t go to the gym enough, or went to the pub too much, but I’m sure we would soon get used to having the additional data and the feedback that goes with it. (Although it would spoil a great many detective shows, since the first thing the police will do after the jogger has discovered the body in the park will be to download the bio-telemetry data so that their companion coroner-bot can instantly tell them the time and cause of death.)

This isn’t some internet-of-things (IoT) future hype. John Hancock, one of the oldest and largest North American life insurers, has said that is going to stop selling traditional life insurance and instead sell only “interactive” policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices and smartphones. Apparently, nearly half of its customers are already part of such as scheme and they check in with company a couple of times every day!

Such initiatives are certain to spread. Accenture says that three-quarters of US consumers are willing to share data from wearable devices with their insurance company, and with Apple launching their new watch with all sorts of health monitoring facilities built in to it, the normalisation of the personal black box is advancing to the point where I can easily forsee scenarios in which consumers will be required to have such devices into order to obtain insurance at all.

Now, this may all sound (as Vox rather memorably put it) like a cross between Nectar points and the Hunger Games, but there is no getting away from it. Big data is all around us and its most voracious consumer, machine learning, is preparing the ground for artificial intelligence (AI) to step in and manufacture wisdom from that raw material. In many industries this may well lead to great efficiencies and amazing new products. Your insurer could, potentially, know everything about you. And I mean everything. From your data exhaust they will know where you are and what you are doing. Never mind counting your steps, they will know whether you are walking or riding the bus, sleeping or having sex.

All good stuff. There is, however, an elephant in the room. Society is going to have to decide the regulatory envelope for insurers’ strategies. Do we want a society where individuals are given affordable access? Will we allow people to be divided into insurable and uninsurable groups? Given the knowledge generated by the additional data at their disposal, which will serve to reduce the number of “average” risks (as shown in the picture), what will we do about the growing numbers for whom insurance will become an unaffordable luxury? While it seems reasonable to give you a better deal on life insurance if you are going to live longer, it seems unreasonable that you are not going to be able to afford health insurance if your genes indicate a tendency to expensive illnesses! We might all think it’s a bit rich to have the NHS pick up the tab because you are stuffing your face when you might otherwise eat sensibly, but what if it turns out that your genes have given you no option?

As it happens, my good friends at the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation CSFI) are hosting a (free!) lunchtime roundtable on InsureTech on 6th December 2018 in London. I’ll be on a panel there as the Technology Fellow at the CSFI, along with my no.1 RegTech go-to person Jo Ann Barefoot, Matt Cullen of the Association of British Insurers (ABI) and an informed audience that may well include you if you get over to the CSFI and register a place now. See you there.

Central banks, tokens and privacy

Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and therefore to a first approximation the person in charge of money, gave a speech in Singapore on 14th November 2018 in which she asked…

Should central banks issue a new digital form of money? A state-backed token, or perhaps an account held directly at the central bank, available to people and firms for retail payments?

This is a question that, of course, interests me greatly. The IMF Staff Discussion Note (18/08) on which her speech is based sets out these two options clearly:

  1. Token-based CBDC—with payments that involve the transfer of an object (namely, a digital token)—could extend some of the attributes of cash to the digital world. CBDC could provide varying degrees of anonymity and immediate settlement. It could thus curtail the development of private forms of anonymous payment but could increase risks to financial integrity. Design features such as size limits on payments in, and holdings of, CBDC would reduce but not eliminate these concerns.

  2. Account-based CBDC—with payments through the transfer of claims recorded on an account— could increase risks to financial intermediation. It would raise funding costs for deposit-taking institutions and facilitate bank runs during periods of distress. Again, careful design and accompanying policies should reduce, but not eliminate, these risks. 

 Or, as I said a few years ago, should the Bank of England create BritCoin or BritPESA?

I’ve written before about the advantages and disadvantages of moving to digital currencies and don’t want to go over these arguments again here. Ms. Lagarde has also spoken about them before, specifically noting that digital currencies “could be issued one-for-one for dollars, or a stable basket of currencies”. Why her new speech was reported in some outlets as being somewhat supportive of cryptocurrencies is puzzling, especially since in this speech she specifically said she remained unconvinced about the “trust = technology” (“code is law”) view of cryptocurrencies. But the key point of her speech is that the IMF is taking digital currency seriously and treating it as something that might actually happen.

(Note that the IMF position seems different to the position of European Central Bank, where President Mario Draghi recently said that they have “no plan to issue a digital currency because the underlying technology is still fragile and the use of physical cash still high in the euro zone”.)

The reason for this comment on her speech is to re-iterate my view on the BritCoin approach. I think Ms. Lagarde is right to mention a state-backed token as an option. The idea of using token technology to implement cryptoassets of any kind, which I have labelled digital bearer instruments, is feasible and deserves detailed exploration. What we might call “digital fiat”* is simply a particular kind of cryptoasset, as shown in the diagram below, a particular kind that happens to be create digital money based on an institutional binding (where the institution is central bank) to national currency.

Cryptomarket Model

 

Now, nothing in this formulation makes the use of cryptoassets (rather than a central database) inevitable. There are, however, other arguments in favour of using there newer and potentially more radical technologies to implement digital money. One of them is privacy.

(As The Economist noted on this topic, people might well be “uncomfortable with accounts that give governments detailed information about transactions, particularly if they hasten the decline of good old anonymous cash”.)

In her speech, Ms. Lagarde said that…

Central banks might design digital currency so that users’ identities would be authenticated through customer due diligence procedures and transactions recorded. But identities would not be disclosed to third parties or governments unless required by law.

As a fan of practical pseudonymity as a means to raise the bar on both privacy and security, I am very much in favour of exploring this line of thinking. Technology gives us ways to deliver appropriate levels of privacy into this kind of transactional system and to do it securely and efficiently within a democratic framework. In particular, new cryptographic technology gives us the apparently paradoxical ability to keep private data on a public leader, which I think will form the basis on new financial institutions (the “glass bank” that I am fond of using as the key image) that work in new kinds of markets.

* I happened to sit in on the panel discussion on digital fiat at Money2020 China. The discussion was chaired by Carolyn MacMahon from the San Francisco-based Digital Fiat Institute, which I must confess I’d not heard of until today, but intend to visit next time I’m over on the West Coast. In the Q&A I was going to ask about the anonymity issue but go sidetracked with the impact on commercial banks. Next time. 

Mobile money and the race to cashlesness

The wonderful people of the Economic Club of Minnesota (ECOM) invited me to Minneapolis to give a talk at their October luncheon. I was talking, generally speaking, about my “5Cs”: the potential issuers of future digital currencies. If you click on this picture, it will take you to a video of the talk and the Q&A session afterwards. One of the points I made in the talk was the payments in the future are about my mobile phone talking to your mobile phone, not me handing something (banknotes, credit cards, cheques, whatever) to you. This means that the adoption of new forms of money can accelerate without updating or replacing cash registers or plastic cards.

The mobile phone is taking us into a cashless future.

Birch Talking

The Club had arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport and take me to the hotel. He was very interesting man of Somali origin and we had a nice chat in the car. By the time we got to the Hilton, I thought I ought to call my hosts and ask them to have him onstage instead of me!

Why? 

Well, he told me about his last visit to the old country, when he was surprised to find himself paying for everything (and he meant everything, from a nickel payment in the food market to a $400 remittance to relatives) using a mobile phone.

“It works on trust”, he told me, “because there is no government”.

(I was thinking of telling him that in my opinion the reason it works at all is because there is no government, because in places where the government has done its best to regulate mobile payments, such as India and Nigeria, mobile payments do not have anything like the penetration that they do in Somalia.)

Mobile payments are spreading. New interfaces (voice), new security (face), new authentication techniques (continuous passive authentication) and evolving network coverage mean that mobile phones are simpler and more secure than cash for a great many people around the globe. But which country will win the race to cashlessness? 

Well, that’s where my driver comes into it. My reasoning as to why he might have been a good choice for a speaker, apart from the fact he was smart and loquacious, is that it is his motherland, rather than the UK (or Sweden, or even the USA, where the Federal Reserve tell us there are now more $100 bills in circulation then there are $1 bills) that may well become the world’s first cashless country. A recent World Bank report showed that Somalia has one of the most active mobile money markets in the world, outpacing most other countries in Africa. It’s even superseded the use of cash (their words, not mine) in the country. Let me repeat that for emphasis. The World Bank say that in Somalia, cash has been “superseded”. It is approaching irrelevance (apart form anything else, no-one uses it there because of widespread counterfeiting) as Somalia heads toward cashlessness.

(As I said in my book, a cashless country does not literally mean a country where cash is extinct. Some cash will linger for post-functional purposes, such as pinning to wedding dresses or waving around in casinos, but that cash will be irrelevant to GDP.)

Interestingly, within Somalia there is already an almost cashless enclave where “payments through mobile she says have rocketed from 5% two years ago to more than 40% now”. That enclave is Somaliland (the breakaway republic of 3.5m people within Somalia), and it may well be Somaliland, rather than powered-by-Swish Sweden, as the place where cash will first vanish into memory. And if your memory is good, you may recall that I wrote about it six years ago, when I said that “Somaliland might well become the world’s first cashless country. Not Iceland or the Netherlands, Korea or Kenya, but Somaliland”.

It hardly difficult to predict that cashlessness would come to Africa first, because as I have often said at conferences, in seminars and when interviewed, it is the mobile phone (not the payment card) that is the nail in cash’s coffin, because a mobile phone is a means to get paid as well as a means to pay. It’s both a “card” and “a terminal” in the world of Visa and PayPal, Faster Payments and Venmo. The spread of mobile payments, rather than the spread of plastic cards, will see cash become irrelevant to law-abiding people in a great many countries. And that cashless world is almost here. As everyone observes, if you go to China or Kenya, you’ll see people paying with phones for everything. In fact when I was in China last, I was in a near-permanent state of shock watching people for everything, everywhere with ubiquitous bar codes. (And almost all of those payments went through third-party providers (WeChat and AliPay) rather than through bank services.)

While in urban China, cash is becoming obsolete, it is still widely used outside the cities, which is why I still think that Somaliland might win the race though, just as I said all those years ago. Don’t listen to me about it, listen to what Mr. Rashid, a tea seller there, has to say about it: “I never see cash”. And his teas sell for 2,000 Somaliland Shillings each. Which is about 25 cents. A quarter. And his customers use phones to pay.

The world of mobile payments has fascinated me from its earliest days and I’ve been able to observe its evolution first hand. My colleagues at Consult Hyperion worked on the UK’s first prepaid scheme, first WAP “walled garden”, the first NFC trials and, I’m proud to say, M-PESA in Kenya. Experience has given a pretty realistic picture of what is happening across the payments industry in general and mobile payments in particular, and my view is that we are heading toward a tipping point that will see us accelerating toward cashlessness.

 

 

xxx

Something funny is going on with our great British cash

In our United Kingdom, the value of currency in circulation has dropped, year on year, for seven consecutive months (see chart), for the first time since records began in the 1960s. This is something of a surprise. For many, many years the use of cash for purposes such as shopping has been steadily decreasing while the amount of cash “in circulation” has been steadily increasing. Broadly speaking, the use of cash for legitimate activities has been falling while the use of cash for drug dealing, money laundering, tax evasion, payments to corrupt officials and so on has been rising. Hence my surprise at this shift in the statistics.

Of that cash that is “in circulation”, the £16.5 billion in £50 notes is particularly puzzling. Earlier this year the Treasury said that £50 notes were “rarely used” for routine transactions and that “there is also a perception among some that £50 notes are used for money laundering, hidden economy activity, and tax evasion”. I’ll say. This perception is widespread, by the way. A couple of years ago Peter Sands, the former head of Standard Chartered, said that the main use of the £50 was illicit and he’s a banker not a mere blogger such as myself.

Given this perception, I would have thought that is was time for the Treasury to tell the Bank of England to stop making life easy for criminals and withdraw the £50 over a two year period. But apparently not. Given that no-one is using them for legitimate purposes, the Bank of England has decided that now is a good time to bring the £50 up to date and make it out of plastic. Robert Jenrick, exchequer secretary to the Treasury, explained the decision by saying that “people should have as much choice as possible when it comes to their money and we’re making sure that cash is here to stay” although I don’t think anyone in the Treasury or anywhere else was asking for cash to be removed from circulation, only for a narrowing of the spectrum (dumping 1p and 2p coins, two-thirds of which are only used once, and removing £50 notes leaving the £20 as the highest denomination).

Oh well. I suppose tax evaders are more of an electoral force than I thought. According to the HMRC’s latest estimates that are shown the chart below (for 2016/2017), almost half of the tax gap is down to small businesses and they account for nearly three times as much of the missing tax as “criminals”. I’m not sure if these groups are natural Conservative voters, but they must in some measure account for the governments reluctance to inconvenience those responsible for the lion’s share of missing taxes.

UK Tax Gap Customers 2017 Picture

 

As an aside, the Bank says that it wants a scientist to be the face of the new notes and (god help us) says it will ask the public who it should be. But why a scientist? That doesn’t seem appropriate to me. Surely a much better choice would be the late and much lamented national treasure Sir Kenneth Dodd of Knotty Ash who, rather famously, kept enormous piles of cash in his attic because he didn’t trust banks. Or perhaps one of our greatest jockeys, Lester Piggott, who was once sent down for three years for tax evasion. I think the Bank should be told: the medium is the message.

Why do I keep going on about this? It’s because the people who benefit from the convenience of £50 notes (eg, builders avoiding VAT) are doing so at the expense of law-abiding tax-paying citizens (eg, me) and I have to fill in my tax form soon.