EBF-panel Tech meets Finance

With the year 2020 dominated by Covid-19-related restrictions of physical interaction and an increasing relevance of technology and digital interaction for businesses and citizens, legislative initiatives by the European Commission aim at addressing digital transformations in Europe’s economy. Technology actors, i.e. BigTech, are expanding their reach from their core businesses into adjacent industry sectors. In turn, the European market is increasingly facing questions of competition, market conditions and available digital infrastructure. The financial sector is a frontrunner in the application of digital innovation to the benefit of customers and business operations. Consequently, the financial ecosystem meets newcomers who – thanks to possible gatekeeper roles –carry significant changes into the known environment of business relations and regulatory framework.

PANEL DEBATE: Innovation in finance – digital platform solutions

How are European banks, regulators and tech companies perceiving these changes? With the European Commission’s Digital Services Act coming up, the conversation will touch upon the role for new ex ante regulation and the protection of fair competition and innovation required for a prosperous Europe.

  • Pablo Urbiola Ortún, Head of Digital Regulation and Trends, BBVA
  • Elisabeth Noble, Senior Policy Adviser, EBA
  • Jan Boehm, European FinTech Association
  • Teunis Brosens, Head Economist for Digital Finance and Regulation, ING

Moderated by: Sébastien de Brouwer, Chief Policy Officer, EBF

CBDCs and commercial banks: Evolution or Revolution?

As countries around the world accelerate the development of retail central bank digital currency, the impact on commercial banks and their role in this endeavour remain uncertain. OMFIF’s Digital Monetary Institute convened a panel discussion to explore what a retail CBDC public-private partnership would look like and how this would shape banks’ business models.

The panel included Hanna Armelius (Riksbank), Henny Arslenian (PWC), David Birch, and me. We discussed the potential division of labour between central banks, commercial banks and technology companies, and assessed how non-bank providers’ participation in a CBDC roll-out could impact traditional banks’ strategy and operations, as well as wider implications for global banks if digital currency is adopted for cross-border payments.

Tellingly, at the start of the seminar 78% of the audience thought the benefits of CBDC would outweigh the risks posed to the commercial banking sector, but this had dropped to 61% by the end of the webinar.

The consensus view among panelists was that central banks could distribute digital currencies through banks, in a public-private partnership not unlike the way the distribution of physical cash is organised. This would be a less disruptive scenario for banks and for the financial system more broadly, although availability of deposits would remain an issue for the supply and pricing of credit to businesses and households. While preserving banks should never be a policy goal, preserving financial stability while introducing CBDC should be. This does not mean a no-go for CBDC but does imply a reality check, and a warning to proceed carefully.

 Sources: ING THINK, OMFIF DMI, video registration. 

How Covid-19 is drastically changing digital finance

Digital finance was already a fast-changing place before Covid-19. After the pandemic, expect more government intervention. A changing appreciation of data may have strong implications for finance as well.

The Covid-19 pandemic will eventually pass, but not before disrupting vast swathes of the global economy and making its mark on digital finance.

1. Bigger government role

The increased role of government in the economy and financial sector is likely to persist to some degree. Before Covid-19, the changing geopolitical landscape had already made policymakers aware of the strategic importance of vital domestic infrastructure, including communications and payments. Governments are now also looking into data, an area already identified as a strategic priority by the European Commission earlier. In finance, governments have quickly established huge guarantee schemes to see businesses through the crisis.

It will take years to wind down the increased public role in finance 

Even in a best case scenario, it will take years to wind down this increased public role in finance and the broader economy. A renewed debate on the division of labour between public and private sectors in finance will likely flare up, once the dust settles.

2. Reduced foreign dependence

Calls for autarky (e.g. in producing face masks) may fade quickly, but both businesses and authorities will look for less complex cross-border supply lines and smaller foreign dependencies, as Covid-19 demonstrates their fragility, but also on national security grounds. At the same time, governments have also been made acutely aware of the need for high quality communications infrastructure, e.g. to facilitate working from home. Countries with leading positions in the required technologies (think China and 5G) will be aware of their good negotiating position.

Authorities realise digital platforms are playing useful roles in locked down societies.

Finance  has grown into a business with complex cross-border linkages. This ranges from financial ties to IT outsourcing and supervision. These international, sometimes global linkages, were already critically scrutinised by authorities, a development that may intensify post-Covid-19. How bigtech’s endeavours in finance fit the revised picture, remains to be seen. National authorities e.g. in Europe were increasingly critical about bigtech before the pandemic struck, but also realise that major digital platforms have become an important part of daily life and are playing useful roles in locked down societies.

3. Cybersecurity

The switch to working from home has stretched across corporate and national network infrastructures. With resources reallocated to keeping the show on the road, this exposes businesses (and an already heavily burdened health care sector) to increased cybersecurity risks, such as ransomware attacks and data leaks, but also to things like fake news. We have to reckon with the possibility that bad actors use security gaps today to establish a presence, only to exploit this presence later on, when it suits them best. To counter this threat, cybersecurity may be expected to move up the policymakers’ agenda. Given that cybercrime knows no borders, it is best fought at the international level. In the EU, while there is an EU agency, there is no deep cooperation as in markets and finance, for example. That might change in the future.

4. Faster adoption of digital interactions in retail

On the retail end, we expect the adoption of digital finance technologies to accelerate post-Covid-19. Many people have had no other choice than to acquaint themselves with ways to do business digitally – ranging from video conferencing to exchanging documents securely by digital means, or paying contactless to minimise physical contact.

Identity verification via video call may become accepted practice rapidly

We expect identity verification via a video call to become accepted rapidly. In the medium term, this may provide a boost to digital-only financial intermediaries, and may accelerate the demise of brick-and-mortar financial shops.

5. Focus on inequality and financial inclusion

The pandemic has put new focus on inequality in society. Digital financial intermediaries may be asked to intensify their efforts towards financial inclusion, e.g. by improving access to financial products for groups such as the self-employed, temporary workers and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Access for these groups is hindered by the limited availability of financial data and the high costs of processing them. One way to go about this is to augment financial data with a diversity of non-financial data sources.

6. Changing attitudes vis-à-vis data

Until recently, data debates centred around things like privacy and the question of whether people are comfortable paying for platform services with their data. While people may not like the idea when they think about it, in practice they continue to use said services. Several European governments are currently considering tracking location, health and other personal data for Covid-19 control monitoring and personalised health advise (e.g. to self-quarantine). There are other examples where data sharing could be useful in a lockdown society. Acutely arising liquidity needs due to the lockdown have demonstrated the need for quick credit checks. In the absence of readily available financial data, alternative (platform) data may prove very valuable.

People may reconsider the potential gains of sharing data and the need to protect users and society at large from data abuse

While data protection and usage monitoring remain paramount, far-reaching data sharing may be temporarily acceptable to most given the challenge at hand. But after the pandemic too, people may reconsider the value of data, the potential gains of sharing this data and the need to protect users and society at large from data abuse. Such shifting views may in turn enable new business models such as data guardians (a function that prima facie banks might be in a good position to fulfil), and may accelerate the establishment of legal frameworks to govern data sharing and protection.

Conclusion: Don’t stop thinking a step ahead

The coronavirus pandemic is such a fundamental and monumental shock that it will have a lasting influence on digital finance. In particular, and in no particular order, we see shifts in the relationship between the public and private sector in finance, changes to global interconnectedness, the need for increased cybersecurity cooperation, an acceleration of digitisation, an increased focus on financial inclusion and shifting attitudes towards data. For both financial intermediaries and policymakers, it is wise to start thinking about these tectonic shifts too.

 This article first appeared on ING THINK 

Wat kan de facebookmunt Libra nog redden?

Mark Zuckerberg, de baas van Facebook, moet morgen voor het Amerikaanse congres verschijnen. Daar moet hij zijn digitale munt, de Libra, verdedigen. Sinds de lancering van de munt in juni is er veel kritiek op de plannen van Facebook. Gaat het Zuckerberg lukken om het congres te overtuigen dat de munt kan werken? En ligt er een rol voor Nederland weggelegd in dit verhaal? Wouter van Noort, tech-journalist van NRC en Teunis Brosens, econoom van digitale zaken bij ING, vertellen het in De Nieuws BV.

Kijk (jawel) naar de radio-uitzending:

Of alleen audio:

Banking disrupted by FinTech and BigTech

Today banks are facing competition from non-bank firms whose core strategy is based on technological innovation – Big Tech and Fin Tech. What is in store for the future of banking?

Watch Nicolas Véron’s introduction of a Geneva Report on the topic, followed by panel discussion featuring Kabbage’s Sam Taussig and myself:

Introducing the 22nd edition of the Geneva Reports on the World Economy, co-author and Bruegel scholar Nicolas Véron lays out the challenges that traditional banks are facing given modern technology. Discussions began with an overview of traditional banks, defined by their government charter. While engaging in many activities, in essence, a bank’s business is to take deposits and make loans. These roles are being challenged and the definition becomes an increasingly blurry line with the emergence of FinTech and Big Tech. The Geneva report therefore explores the question: Does technology challenge big banks?

FinTech companies excel in speed, customisation, and are digitally adept. Bigtech companies including Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon in the United States, along with Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent in China, boast an enormous scale of reach, and have both public trust and data. Banks remain the upper hand in customer experience, and their policy base gives them the ability to lobby. Véron encourages everyone interested to read the report in order to better understand the dynamics posed between these groups. He then recognises how early we are in the stage of competition, and that many questions are yet to be answered: How will banks evolve? How will banks embrace FinTech? How will policy respond?

The Geneva report outlines previous banking evolutions and identifies underlying themes. What is new with this challenge is how big Big Tech truly is. Libra gave a wake-up call to policy makers that FinTech will continue to grow, and policy needs to be implemented. Véron again encourages all to read the report to further understand the challenges and implications of banking competition.

Opening up the panel to a discussion, Teunis Brosens, lead economist for digital finance and regulation at ING, remains confident that banks will not go away. He poses the question whether Big Tech firms are willing to become banks or not. Emphasising the regulatory role of traditional banks, Brosens sees the next steps to moving forward as a levelling of the playing field both in local and global spheres specifically in terms of data sharing.

Sam Taussig, head of global policy at Kabbage, an Atlanta based small business credit platform, expands on his view of the future of banking, agreeing that traditional banks are not obsolete. From his perspective, customers will use FinTech’s user friendly interface, who will be backed by the regulatory base of a bank. The main concerns here are of anti-trust and data ownership.

Rebecca Christie, a Bruegel scholar, posed questions of redlining and regulation. She questions how intra-bank competition will affect this evolution, and whether fees will remain a setback for banks. After a discussion led by Christie, the floor was opened up to Q&A where the panel shared their thoughts on shadow banks, the need for specialised licenses, and the role of central banks in creating cryptocurrencies.

Notes by Larissa Nowjack

Meeting notes first appeared on Bruegel

Fintech, bigtech and banks

At Bruegel’s conference “Rethinking industrial policy in the digital age“, I was asked to provide a bank’s perspective on digitisation. Please see below my intervention.

If you are not keen to watch my head talking for 11 minutes, the summary is:

  • There is a tension between innovation and the financial regulatory framework;
  • “Unbundling” of banking, outsourcing, and a national supervisory framework add to complexity and fragmentation;
  • The data sharing embedded in PSD2 provides a template for a broader, cross-sectoral data sharing framework.