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.


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.