Nov 272015
 
Piggy Bank

The industry that benefited most from the economic reforms of the last twenty years of the 20th Century was the banking industry.

With the elections of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan three decades of good times began for the banking sector.

Now the good times are drawing to a close warns former Barclays boss Antony Jenkins who told a London audience how the banking industry faces an ‘Uber moment’.

While Jenkins focused on the fortunes of branches and frontline staff, the technological change facing almost all aspects of banking from tellers to risk analysts and upper management are all facing massive changes as artificial intelligence moves into fields that a few years ago most believed couldn’t be automated.

For the incumbent banks shareholders this is mixed news, on one hand it makes their existing operations vastly more profitable – the One Percent become the .001%.

On the other hand for the incumbents, the market is opening up new competitors and as Jenkins points out some of these disruptors will be the banks of the future. At the moment though established banks will do all they can to interfere with new entrants.

While interference will only go so far, the real challenge is to get ahead of the changes which is why financial technologies (fintech) has become such a hot topic in the last three years with major banks sponsoring or opening their own incubators, accelerators and hackathons.

Another important aspect in a changing environment is that of regulation and with the banks winning from the deregulations of the 1980s and 90s it may well be that we’re going to see a tightening on their powers as technology changes the playing field.

One thing is for sure, bankers are about to find times as exciting and challenging as many of the industries they displaced late in the Twentieth Century.

Aug 252015
 

One of the things that strikes you when wandering around London’s Docklands district is the sheer amount of advertising for financial technology companies.

That London has established this position should surprise no-one, its civic and national leaders have been aggressive in maintaining the city’s position as technology has swept through the banking sector.

One of the notable things when interviewing the Chief Executive of London and Partners, Gordon Innes, two years ago was how engaged both the city’s business and political leaders were in the development of the town’s technology sector and the financial industry was a natural focus.

An example Innes gave of that engagement was the co-operation between the offices of the Prime Minister and the London Mayor where staffers meet on a monthly basis to agree on business and technology policy, which is then put into action by Westminster and the UK Parliament.

Poaching the Aussies

The benefits of that co-ordination and focus are global, with the London fintech sector attracting startups from as far as Australia.

Australia’s experience, or lack of it, in the fintech sector is notable. As the story linked above mentions, the UK Trade and Investment agency actively scouts out promising businesses while the local state and Federal equivalents sit on the sidelines (disclaimer: I worked for the New South Wales government on its digital economy strategy).

For Australia, the late entry into fintech doesn’t bode well. The country’s financial sector is overwhelmingly weighted towards domestic property speculation – a structural weakness seen as a strength by most Australians – and the country’s high costs make it tough for startups.

Defining a competitive advantage

High costs in themselves aren’t a barrier to a city’s success – London, New York and San Francisco themselves would be among the highest cost places to do business on the planet.

To justify those costs a city needs a competitive advantage and there’s little to suggest Sydney or Melbourne have anything compelling as a financial centre beyond a bloated domestic banking industry fixated on residential property.

Two of the arguments used to support Australia’s claims are it is on the doorstep of Asia and it is in the same timezone as the growing East Asian powerhouses.

Timezone myths

If timezones do matter in modern business, the sad truth for the Aussies is the powerhouses themselves – specifically Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore – are in roughly the same longitudes so any time differentials aren’t great.

Being on the doorstep of Asia is probably one of the greatest Australian myths of all – it’s actually quicker to fly from Beijing to London than it is to Sydney. London might be on the edge of Europe – one US entrepreneur once told me how they can get Spanish developers into the UK in an afternoon – and New York is the gateway to the United States however there’s little reason to go Down Under for any other reason than to visit Australia.

The power of history and focus

Comparing London to Sydney is useful though as it shows the power of history and trade routes. London became a global financial centre because it was the financial centre of a global empire just as New York is today and possibly Shanghai in the not too distant future.

For the Aussies, the trade routes aren’t so encouraging in indicating the country has a future as a financial sector. Even ignoring history, the commitments of governments and local corporations are at best half-hearted compared to their global competitors – as we see with London poaching Australian businesses.

One of the strengths in those global centres is a constant re-invention and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances – how China adapts to a rebalanced economy will define whether it remains a global economic power – and in the UK the government is looking at the next big things in biotech and the Internet of Things, two areas where it has strengths and can attract global investment and skills.

For countries and regions aspiring to be global players, they need not just to be playing to their own strengths but also to where the future lies and not be late entrants into the current investment fad.

Aug 242015
 

The accounting and professional services industries are uniquely positioned as the economy goes digital, while their own sectors are undergoing radical change so too are their clients.

Given the changes facing the accounting industry, the invitation to host last week’s CPA Australia Technology Accounting Forum‘s second day in Sydney was a good opportunity to see how the profession and its clients are dealing with major shifts in their industry.

The accounting profession has been one of the big winners of the Twentieth Century’s shift to a services economy. Last week’s story on how the workforce has been changing illustrates this with a chart showing how the occupation has grown over the past 140 years.

accountants-employed-the-uk

In many respects accountants should be well placed to benefit in a data driven economy given the training and skills they posses. The big challenge for existing practitioners is to shift with the times.

The transition from what’s been lucrative work in the past will be a challenge for some in the profession. Many of the manual tasks accountants previously did are now being automated with direct data links increasingly seeing operations like reconciliations and filing financial returns being done in real time without the need for any human intervention.

In private practice, the shift to cloud computing and direct APIs has stripped out more revenues with useful earners like selling boxed software petering away as services like Xero and Saasu arrived and established players like Intuit, Sage and MYOB moved to online models.

Shifting to the cloud

That shift has already happened with the presenter in one breakout session asking the audience how many practitioners used exclusively desktop software, purely cloud service or a hybrid of the two. Of the twenty in the room, the vast majority were using a combination with three being purely online and one sole operator still stuck with a desktop system.

For accountants the message from all of the sessions was clear; the future is online and businesses based around paper based models are doomed. The question though for them is how will they make the transition to being professional advisers.

Strangely, the big challenge for accountants in private practice may be their clients. A number of panel participants pointed out small business owners are slow to adopt new technologies and this holds both them and their service providers back. Divorcing tardy customers may be one of the more difficult tasks facing professional advisors.

The Technology, Accounting and Finance Forum showed the potential for accountants and professional services providers to be the trusted advisors in an online world, the task now is for practitioners and their clients to learn and understand those tools.

Jul 292015
 

Payment service Stripe joins the unicorn club as credit card company Visa becomes the latest investor reports the Re/Code website.

Two years ago this site interviewed John Collison, one of the Irish twins who founded Stripe about their mission to bring the payments industry in the 21st Century.

With the Visa investment it now means two of the world’s three major credit card companies are investors in Stripe, the other being American Express, and this shows the incumbent players are acutely aware of the changes happening in the payments world.

That credit card companies are investing in the businesses that threaten to disrupt their industry indicates the incumbents’ savvy management; while there are cultural and ethical barriers in trying to undercut the existing profitable products, having a stake in the new competitors gives companies like Visa and AmEx to remain relevant in a post credit card world.

For Stripe, investment from what could have been their major competitors not only takes some of the pressure off the the business but also opens opportunities for technology sharing and access to bigger markets.

Probably the most important thing for Strip with the Amex and Visa investments is they legitimise the business and the entire payments startup sector. It’s an important vote of confidence in the technologies and market.

For the Collison twins it also helps build better businesses, as John told Decoding the New Economy two years ago, “if we just building a business to take transactions from PayPal and get them onto Stripe, that’s not that interesting. What is interesting is if we can create new types of transactions that would not have existed otherwise.”

“By providing better infrastructure for anyone to build a global business. That will change the kind of things people will build.”

Now more people will be looking at what they can build on these payment platforms.

Mar 092015
 
PayPal have a number of strategies for mobile and online payments

Banking has always been a data driven business, understanding borrowers and the risks they present is one of the essential skills in making money from lending.

The new wave of payment startups present a new way for lenders to analyse risks; with real time data aggregated across businesses and regions, lenders can quickly decide wether a borrower is likely to able to pay the money back with the conditions asked for.

Payments company Square in its latest pivot has partnered with Victory Park Capital and claims to have extended more than $100 million in capital to more than 20,000 merchants writes the New York Times.

Like other payment companies that have entered this market, Square uses their own deep understanding of their customers’ incomes to be able to make a data based decision on the creditworthiness of applicants.

Square also offers ancillary data-driven products created for small businesses. The new instant deposit product, which is still in testing and will be fully available in the spring, will give businesses faster access to money they put into a debit account. And the company’s new charge-back protection service will cover some disputes between consumers and merchants.

Those products also rely on data that Square has collected. They will be available only to small businesses that have a solid financial track record, based on a history of accepting payments with Square.

Square is by no means the first business to do this, last year we wrote of PayPal’s move into small business lending and Point of Sale hardware manufacturer Verifone retreated from the market two years ago calling it ‘fundamentally unprofitable.’

The competition in the space and the fact assessing financial risks isn’t exactly a core competence of Silicon Valley start ups indicate Square’s and other companies may find small business lending a tough business as well.

Despite that, small business lending is a field that is overdue for disruption. With companies like Apple, Google and Amazon all offering payment services, the logical expansion is into evaluating risk and profit.

It may not be Square, Verifone or PayPal who ultimately redefines the sector, but it will be one of today’s tech businesses that does.

Feb 162015
 

“The most sophisticated attack the world has seen to date” is how Kaspersky Lab’s North American managing director Chris Doggett describes the massive Carbanak electronic bank fraud that could have cost victims up to a billion dollars.

Using a range of techniques, the Carbanak gang cracked their targets’ networks, right down to monitoring financial firm officers through their computers, and stole money through through the banks’ own ATM networks.

 

“That’s where the money is.” Was 1930s bank robber Willie Sutton’s response to being asked why he robbed banks and that is what’s driving the Carbanak gang.

For every Willie Sutton or Carbanak gang there’s a million opportunistic street muggers and script kiddies looking for stealing a few dollars from weak targets though and this is what the average small business or individual needs to be careful about.

Last week Kaspersky reported that nearly a quarter of all phishing attacks targeted financial data. The amounts being stolen are minuscule compared to Carbank’s ill gotten gains but far less work is required to crack a home or small business account.

For any large organisation that hasn’t learned from the Sony or Target hacks, the Carbank heist should be warning that information security is now a responsibility of executives and boards. All of us though have to take care with our data and systems.

Feb 072015
 

Microsoft founder Bill Gates suggests mobile banking can revolutionise developing nation’s economies says in a guest post for online magazine The Verge.

“People being able to participate on their phone, no matter where they live, even if they’re in a remote rural village in Tanzania or Kenya, they’ll be able to save small micro-payments,” Gates told The Verge during an interview in New York. “They can participate on the economy through their phone, but also in the fall when it’s time to pay the school fees, they’ve saved the money for the year. That’s transformative for their family.”

Gates’ piece appeared at the same time French telco Orange announced a partnership with Ecobank to provide mobile payments in several African countries.

Bringing banking to the masses through mobile phones is one example of how emerging markets can leapfrog the technological and institutional barriers that have given the western world a head start.

For poor and remote communities, a combination of cheap photovoltaic (PV) cells and cellular base stations mean it’s possible to connect into the global economy without the need of massive government or corporate investment.

As Gates points out, this has the potential to dramatically change the economies of many emerging markets.