Breaking up Big Tech is so last century

What should regulators do about the power of the big technology companies? In America, the Justice Department has just filed massive anti-trust suit against Google, which many think marks the beginning of a new era of regulation for “Big Tech” and the the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel have just completed a 16 month investigation into Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. That panel found that Big Tech has what is calls “monopoly power” in key business segments and has “abused” its dominance in the marketplace. It was a thorough condemnation of the internet giants. The panel complains that there is “significant evidence” to show that BigTech’s anticompetitive conduct has hindered innovation, reduced consumer choice and even weakened democracy.

So, what is to be done? I had the honour of chairing Professor Scott Galloway who is the author of “The Four”, an excellent book about the power of internet giants (specifically Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon – hence the title), at a conference in Washington a while back. He set out a convincing case for regulatory intervention to manage the power of these platform businesses. Just as the US government had to step in with the anti-trust act in the late 19th century and deal with AT&T in the late 20th century, so Professor Galloway argues that they will have to step in again, and for the same reason: to save capitalism.Galloway

With Professor Galloway in Washington, DC.

Professor Galloway argues that the way to do this is to break up the internet giants. Should Congress go down this route? Well, one of the panel’s own members, Ken Buck (Republican), while agreeing with the diagnosis, said that the Democratic-led panel’s proposal to force platform companies to separate their lines of business (ie, break them up) is not the right way forward. I agree. Forcing Amazon to spin out Amazon Web Services (to use an obvious and much-discussed example) won’t make any difference to Amazon’s role in the online commerce world.

Breaking up big companies seems to me an already outdated industrial-age response in the post-industrial economy. Click To Tweet

Google is not U.S. Steel, data is not the new West Texas Intermediate and Facebook is not the new Standard Oil. However, the idea of focusing regulation on the refining and distribution of one of the modern economy’s crucial resources has logic to it. We need this regulation to protect competition in the always-on world of today and there are plenty of alternatives to breaking up technology companies, as Angela Chen explained very well in MIT Technology Review last year. Perhaps the most fruitful way forward is an approach based on a future capitalist framework along the lines of what Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Thomas Range called in Foreign Affairs a “progressive data sharing mandate”.

There are many informed observers who say that America should to look see what is going on in Europe in order to formulate this kind of approach: Here in Forbes last year, Robert Seamans and “Washington Bytes” highlighted data portability as a potentially valuable approach and pointed to the UK’s open banking regulation as a source of ideas. I think this makes a lot of sense and that a good way to explore what some form of data-centric remedy might look like is indeed to take a look at Europe’s open banking regime. More specifically, start with what it got wrong: because in that mistake are the seeds of a solution.

Cake

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

Back in 2016, I wrote about the regulators demanding that banks open up their APIs to give access to customer data that “if this argument applies to banks, that they are required to open up their APIs because they have a special responsibility to society, then why shouldn’t this principle also apply to Facebook?”. My point was, I thought, rather obvious. If regulators think that banks hoarding of customers’ data gives them an unfair advantage in the marketplace and undermines competition then why isn’t that true for Big Tech?

When I said that the regulators were giving Big Tech a boost in “Wired World in 2018”, no-one paid any attention because I’m just some tech guy. But when Ana Botin (Executive Chairman of Santander) began talking about the lack of any reciprocal requirement for those giants to open up their customer data to the banks, regulators, law makers and policy wonks began to sit up and pay notice. She suggested that organisations holding the accounts of more than (for example) 50,000 people ought to be subject to some regulation to give API access to the consumer data. Not only banks, but everyone else should provide open APIs for access to customer data with the customer’s permission.

This is along the lines of what is being implemented in Australia, where open banking is part of a wider approach to consumer data rights and there will indeed be a form of symmetry imposed by rules that prevent organisations from taking banking data without sharing their own data. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has already had enquiries from international technology companies wanting to participate in open banking. The banks and many others want this method of opening up to be extended beyond what are known as the “designated” sectors, currently banking and utilities, so that if a social media company (for example) wants access to Australian’s banking data it must become an “accredited data recipient” which means it turn that it must make its data available (in a format determined by a Consumer Data Standards Body).

A symmetrical approach along these lines would not stop Facebook and Google and the others from storing personal data but it would stop them from hoarding it to the exclusion of competitors. As Jeni Tennison set out for the UK’s Open Data Institute, such a framework would allow “data portability to encourage and facilitate competition at a layer above these data stewards, amongst the applications that provide direct value to people”, just as the regulators hope customer-focused fintechs will do using the resource of data from the banks.

SIBOS 2020

This year, the SIBOS event was totally online.

At this year’s SIBOS (it’s a sort of Burning Man for bankers), the CEO of ING Steven Van Rijswijk re-iterated the need for reciprocity, saying that he wanted the regulators come up with an equivalent for banks so “the data flow can go two ways”. Well, this may be on the horizon. As the Financial Times observed, an early draft of the EU’s new Digital Services Act shows it wants to force Big Tech companies to share their “huge troves” of customer data with competitors. The EU says that Amazon, Google, Facebook and others “shall not use data collected on the platform . . . for their own commercial activities . . . unless they make it accessible to business users active in the same commercial activities”.

It seems to me that U.S. regulators might use this approach to kill two birds with one stone: requiring both Big Banking and Big Tech to provide API access to customer’s data. Why shouldn’t my bank be able to use my LinkedIn graph as input to a credit decision? Why shouldn’t my Novi wallet be able access my bank account? Why shouldn’t my IMDB app be able to access my Netflix, Prime and Apple TV services (it would be great to have a single app to view all of my streaming services together).

Symmetric data exchange enforcing consumer-centric data rights can lead to a creative rebalancing of the relationship between the technology and banking sectors and make it easier for new competitors in both to emerge. Instead of turning back to the 19th and 20th century anti-trust remedies against monopolies in railroads and steel and telecoms, perhaps open banking adumbrates a model for the 21st century anti-trust remedy against all oligopolies in data, relationships and reputation. The way to deal with the power of BigTech is not to break them up, but to open them up.

[This is an edited version of an article that was first published on Forbes, 12th October 2020.]

National Wealth Service

In the UK, last year’s report on “Consumer Priorities for Open Banking” by Faith Reynolds and Mark Chidley (which is, by the way, an excellent piece of work and well worth reading) set out just why it is that open banking by itself delivers quite limited benefits for consumers. They point towards a future of open finance (and, indeed, open everything else as well) and talk about an industry that uses the new technologies of artificial intelligence, APIs, digital identity and so on to take a more complete view of a customer’s situation and provide services that increase the overall financial health of that customer. I thought this was a very interesting way of creating a narrative for the next-generation fintech and regtech propositions.

Oct1 financial health

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

We are beginning to see initiatives focused on financial health and wellness. My good friend Rik Coeckelbergs, founder of “The Banking Scene” in Belgium, talks in those terms also. He recently wrote that a bank must support its customers in having “a financially balanced life, helping them to reduce financial stress by improving their financial wellbeing”. The more I think about it, the more I agree with Rik that this should be one of the societal responsibilities of banks as heavily-regulated players crucial to the nation’s well-being. Just as electricity companies are regulated to not only produce electricity but not to pollute their environment or kill consumers because of poor safety, so perhaps it is time to apply some similar thinking.

Two-thirds of executives surveyed said financial health was important but less than fifth were reporting on it. Click To Tweet

Where should we start? As the CFSI reported, while more than two-thirds of executives surveyed said financial health was a “strategic priority”, less than a fifth were actually reporting on customer financial health, which would seem to be a good trigger for practical initiatives and a way to encourage regulators, partners and customers themselves to ask questions about improvements in financial wellbeing. That’s not to say that nothing is happening, of course! For example, JPMorgan Chase have committed to give $125 million over the next five years to non-profits working around the world to improve the financial health of underserved communities and efforts such as this deserve applause.

Writing more recently in the Harvard Business Review, Todd Baker and Corey Stone explore some interesting ideas around this. They say that the prevailing paradigm (of markets and choice) has created a regulatory system that “largely places responsibility — absent the most egregious abuse — on the individual consumer”. They argue for a radically different regulatory structure to more directly connect the success of financial services providers to their customers’ financial health, a where-are-the-customers’-yachts approach where banks prosper when their account holders prosper. They draw an interesting analogy by comparing this approach with experiments in the American health marketplace that pay providers for improving patients health, “rather than paying them simply for treating patients regardless of the outcome of the medical intervention”.

My good friend Ron Shevlin wrote a great piece about this in Forbes arguing that financial health platforms will emerge to provide this next generation of financial services and pointing out that it will provide some terrific opportunities for fintechs. He suggests that aggregators such as MX, Plaid, Yodlee or Finicity could be a real catalyst in making something happen. I agree: if we can connect the potential for open banking to provide the data to the potential for new players to use that data, we can expect to see real innovation. This kind of thinking delivers a useful narrative for stakeholders to communicate around the post-pandemic financial services they must necessarily develop to support communities in their recovery from the COVID chaos and beyond.

I think this is really important. Refocusing the sector on delivering financial health, rather than financial services has implications that go way beyond choosing better credit cards or spending less on coffee and more on pensions. The American Psychological Association considers financial stress to be one of the top stressors in America and research shows clearly that financial stress and economic hardships link to a variety of very negative physical and mental health outcomes, ranging from abuse and neglect to household dysfunction and heart disease. There is no doubt about it: improving financial health improves health in general.

In order to do this, financial health providers will need a better picture of individuals and their circumstances. They need the raw data to work with. Just as the doctor needs X-rays, bloods and histories, so the AI that powers an effective financial health provider needs your transaction records from your checking account, your mortgage, your pension, your insurers and everywhere else. In the current economic downturn, to highlight the obvious example, many people make a lot mistakes in managing their finance through stressful and unfamiliar circumstances. But as was pointed out in the Wall Street Journal recently, most of these mistakes are very basic. It does not take a giant supercomputer and all of the data in the word to stop people from falling into common traps around the way they borrow, save, spend and invest.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we need a National Wealth Service in the UK, but we might imagine a situation where employers strive to improve employees wealth, just as they provide health benefits now by funding financial counseling as an employee benefit. The cost of providing such services, in a world of AI and machine learning, is affordable and delivers something of real value to the normal person who is, frankly, as ill-equipped as I am to make decisions about pension plans and savings and so on.

This is why I so sure that the connection with open banking, open finance and open data means the potential for a real revolution in consumer finance and this time it will be a  revolution that will make life better for the average consumer.

[This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Forbes on 1st October 2020.]

What fintech revolution?

You may have missed World Fintech Day this year. It was 1st August, a date chosen by (amongst others) my good friend Brett King. It was a day to take some time to congratulate an industry that has achieved… well, what exactly? What is there to celebrate when the truth is that we haven’t yet had a fintech revolution or anything like one. The “challenger banks” are just banks, they haven’t brought new business models or changed market dynamics.

If you think I’m being harsh, take at look at this survey of almost 800 companies that has just ranked financial services as one of the least innovative sectors of the economy! We all expect the pharmaceutical companies, to pick an obvious example, to be more innovative than banks. And according to this survey, they are. But even the textile industry is more innovative than banking, where business models and the cost of intermediation (which I would see as being a key measure of productivity) haven’t changed for generations. Yes, fintech has brought financial services to hundreds of millions of people in developing markets, but it has yet to transform developed markets.

Even the textile industry is more innovative than banking, where business models and the cost of intermediation haven’t changed for generations Click To Tweet

Why has nothing happened?

Well, there’s a story that I tell at seminars now and then about a guy who was retiring from a bank after spending almost his entire working life there (I heard the story a couple of times from a couple of different people but as far as I know its earliest written form is in Martin Mayer’s excellent book “The Bankers“).

The guy in question had risen to a fairly senior position, so he got a fancy retirement party as I believe is the custom in such institutions. When he stepped up on stage to accept his retirement gift, the chairman of the bank conducted a short interview with him to review his lifetime of service.

He asked the retiree “you’ve been here for such a long time and you’ve seen so many changes, so much new technology in your time here, tell us which new technology made the biggest difference to your job?”

The guy thought for a few seconds and then said  “air conditioning”.

It’s a funny story, but it’s an important story because it includes a profound truth. Robert Gordon’s magisterial investigation of productivity in the US economy “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”, shows very clearly that the introduction of air conditioning did indeed lead to a measurable jump in productivity, clearly visible in the productivity statistics. Of course, other technologies led to improvements in the productivity of banks and the wider financial services sector. Computers, for example. But it took a while for them to transform anything (we all remember Robert Solow’s 1987 “productivity paradox” that computers were everywhere except for the productivity statistics) and the figures seem to show that those improvements slowed to a standstill a couple of decades ago.

Pinkcard

with kind permission of TheOfficeMuse (CC-BY-ND 4.0)

In the last decade, the smart phone revolution does not seem to have been accompanied by any increase in productivity at all and it’s not just because half the workforce are playing Candy Crush and the other half are messing around on Instagram instead of doing any useful work. It is, as Gordon notes, because the technologies are being used to support existing products, processes, regulation and institutional structures rather than to create new and better ways of delivering financial services functionality into the economy. So while there are individual fintechs that have been incredibly successful (look at Paypal, the granddaddy of fin techs that is going gangbusters and just has its first five billion dollar quarter), fintech has yet to fulfil its promise of making the financial sector radically more efficient, more innovative and more useful to more people.

I can illustrate this point quite simply. While I was writing the piece, I happened to be out shopping and I went to get a coffee. I wanted a latte, my wife wanted a flat white. While I was walking toward the coffee shop, I used their app to order the drink. The app asked which shop I wanted to pick up the drinks from, defaulting using location services to the one that was about 50 yards away from me. Everything went smoothly until it came to payment. The app asked me for the CVV of my selected payment card, which I did not know so I had to open my password manager to find it. After I entered the CVV, I then saw a message about authentication. What a member of the general public would have made of this I’m not sure, but I knew that they message related to the Second Payment Services Directive (PSD2) requirement for Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) that was demanding a One Time Password (OTP) which was going to sent via the wholly insecure Short Message Service (SMS). Shortly afterwards, a text arrived with a number in it and I had to type the number in to the app. The internet, the mobile phone and the app had completely reinvented the retail experience whereas the payment experience was authentication chromewash on top of a three digit band-aid on top of a card-not-present hack on top of a 16-digit identifier on a card product that was launched in a time before the IBM 360 was even thought of.

Thomas Phillipon of the Stern School at NYU carried out a very detailed analysis of the US financial sector back in 2014 and found that the unit cost of financial intermediation was around 1.87% on average (which is a lot of money). This adds up to a significant chunk of GDP. Indeed, calculations seem to indicate that the finance sector consumes about 2% excess GDP. What’s more, these costs do not seem to have decreased significantly in recent years, despite advances in information technology and despite changes in the organization of the finance industry.  Earlier World Bank work looking at the impact of bank regulations, market structure, and national institutions on bank net interest margins and overhead costs using data from 1,400 banks across 72 countries tells us why: tighter regulations on bank entry and bank activities increase the cost of intermediation.

To put it crudely, Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law are overcome by the actual law and the costs of KYC, AML, CTF, PEP, Basle II, MiFID, Durbin and so and forth climb far faster than costs of transistors fall. This observation in fact shows us the way forward. As technology has driven down the costs of computing and communications, the costs of shifting bits around has collapsed. But financial services is — as it should be — heavily regulated and the costs of that regulation have rocketed. The net result is that fintech has not brought about a revolution. If there is going to be such a revolution, if new technology is allowed to create new business models and new market structures, and if those new structures are to reduce the costs of intermediation, then we need the regulators to create the space for innovation. And perhaps, just perhaps, they have: open banking is the first step on an open data road that may ultimately not only revolutionise payments, banking and credit but… everything.

Banking Bubbles no attribution

@dgwbirch The Glass Bank (2020).

We all understand that the future competitive landscape is about data, so the regulators can make an more innovative platform for enterprise by opening up access to it and then providing new kinds of institutions to curate it (such as the Payment Institution in the European Union and the Payment Bank in India). This kind of regulatory innovation may allow fintech to deliver what it promised and lay the groundwork for some actual challengers. So, this World Fintech Day, let’s celebrate fintech for what it is going to bring as we move forward into the open banking era, not for what it has achieved so far.

[An edited version of this piece first appeared in Forbes, 1st August 2020.]

PSD3 call me

The new paper from the European banking industry, produced by the European Banking Federation (EBF), European Association of Co-operative Banks (EACB) and the European Savings and Retail Banking Group (ESBG) sets out the industry’s vision for the EU payments market in detail. There’s lots of interesting stuff in there, but I was particularly interested in their views on the regulatory environment.

I couldn’t help but notice this paragraph on page six…

“From a data privacy perspective, global BigTech’s existing data superiority combined with access to payments data should be concerning and could lead to unintended negative outcomes for EU citizens.”

This is not a new position. It’s been obvious to any serious surveyor of the European payments landscape that it has been tilted. This is what I wrote for Wired magazine back in 2017:

“Non-banks are about to get a huge boost from European and UK regulators, thanks to the European Commission’s Second Payment Services Directive (PSD2)”.

I’m hardly the only person to have realised that PSD2 would mean that the playing field is tilted against banks and in favour of Big Tech. In fact I gave a keynote address on this topic at PaymentsNZ a couple of year ago, so if you are interested in a more detailed explanation of why the current regulatory environment is unsatisfactory, put your feet up and watch this:

The question is what to do about it now. Fortunately, I wrote about this in some detail more than a year ago, so if the European banking industry needs some help in formulating specific policies to lobby the legislators for, I stand ready to point the way. Last year, following the Paris Fintech Forum where this topic was discussed, I commented on the suggestion from Ana Botin of Santander that organisations holding personal data ought to be subject to some regulation to give API access to the consumer data. Not only banks, but everyone else should provide open APIs for access to customer data with the customer’s permission. This is what the European banks are asking for in their vision document. They want “concrete support” from policy makers to help achieve their objectives, including this levelling of the playing field between banks and Big Tech competitors, brining in a mutually-beneficial approach to data sharing address the inherent asymmetry in the post-PSD2 environment.

So, yes, Open Banking. But open everything else as well. Particularly Open Bigtech. This sharing approach creates more of a level playing field by making it possible for banks to access the customer social graph but it would also encourage alternatives to services such as Instagram and Facebook to emerge. If I decide I like another chat service better than WhatApp but all of my friends are on WhatsApp, it will never get off the ground. On the other hand, if I can give it access to my WhatsApp contacts and messages then WhatsApp will have real competition.This is approach would not stop Facebook and Google and the other from storing my data but it would stop them from hoarding it to the exclusion of competitors.

Forcing organisations to make this data accessible via API would be an excellent way to obtain the level playing field that the European banks are calling for. This would  kill two birds with one stone, as we say in English: it would make it easier for competitors to the internet giants to emerge and might lead to a creative rebalancing of the relationship between the financial sector and the internet sector. So, if the European Union wants to begin thinking about PSD3, in my opinion it writes itself.