Month: January 2018

investment
BankingTransactional and Investment Banking

Storefronting in investment banking – technology and the rise of ‘window-shopping’

Storefronting in investment banking – technology and the rise of ‘window-shopping’

Abhijit Deb, Head of Banking & Financial Services, UK & Ireland, Cognizant

People’s interactions with their banks have undergone an extraordinary transformation. From the emergence of app-only challengers such as Monzo to the evolution of physical branches, technology has dramatically changed the age-old relationship. However, compared to typical high street interactions, the investment banking landscape has always been markedly different, sustained by services such as capital raising and M&A advisory. Thanks to this structure, there has never been any pressure on such firms to vary the products offered to clients.

Since the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, a piece of legislation that separated commercial banks from their retail counterparts and the annulment of which is considered by many to be a primary cause of the financial crisis, members of the former group have become powerhouses trading on information and access to credit. In this context, huge organisations such as JP Morgan and Merryl Lynch can draw on low-cost funding without having to interact with other banks not affiliated to them. However, combined with increased competition and the cost of regulation, recent rhetoric around breaking up the power of Wall Street has caused speculation  that the act will be re-instated. Ten years on from the financial crisis that the act’s repeal supposedly ignited, these factors are putting commercial banks and the existing industry model under pressure.

Investing in technology

While the core services around equity, debt, structured finance and M&A will endure, many of the ‘low touch’ activities carried out by investment banks are being commoditised by technology. These are typically people-intensive processes such as regulatory reporting, risk management and product control. Thanks to automation, the next 10-15 years may present a vastly different landscape in which only the most highly customised, ‘high touch’ services are handled by humans. For example, investment banks could offer customised product and pricing systems for the average institutional customer, using a fraction of the time and human intervention that is needed today.

Furthermore, services such as Know Your Customer (KYC) that are core, but non-differentiated, are becoming simplified and now take minutes rather than days, in the same way that retail outfits such as Monzo have achieved. Some organisations are already using blockchain-based platforms for instant settlements, mitigating credit and counterparty risks simultaneously and paving the way for ‘exception-only’ intervention. In fact, a recent Cognizant study found that 90% of financial services executives say their firm has identified or is currently identifying processes and functions that can be automated through the technology. Even ancillary services such as research can be easily personalised for institutional and high-net-worth clients using automation, based on buying behaviour patterns. Most novel for investment banks, technology is enabling greater collaboration between banks. Using smart algorithms, organisations can select a syndicate of lenders, giving a corporation easier access to funding, through reverse auctions taking place in real-time. Lead by mass automation, investment banks are experiencing the same kind of digital disruption felt by their retail siblings.

The dawn of the storefront model

Beyond these basic process efficiencies, technology in our view has heralded the arrival of a ‘storefront’ model in investment banking, something usually associated with the retail banks. The defining factor of this is the level of personalisation provided, in this case, to institutional clients, high-net-worth individuals and even sovereign entities. Compared with the one-size-fits-all approach of old, clients are now presented with an array of product combinations depending on their requirements, in the same way that consumers would take out a loan. For example, a bond-issue could feasibly be as easy as buying a mortgage, while a mezzanine financing deal could be carried out via a series of simple, context-dependent steps to profile, risk-score and approve the financing. Therefore, we are seeing specialist investment banks without a retail arm become sophisticated ‘virtual windows’, through which clients of all risk profiles and needs will be able to shop for services.

As this model gains traction, institutional clients will also be able to ‘test-drive’ trading portfolios and other products with simulated returns. This access to sophisticated software that banks provide their clients gives them an additional incentive to buy. It is only a matter of time before similar platforms for trading and risk management are opened up to clients, in the same way that Amazon allows us to preview a book before buying. Organisations such as Goldman Sachs are leading the way in this field, tailoring their services and marketing themselves as tech firms in the business of banking. This new model forces investment banks to re-consider how they price and design products, although they often take advantage by charging a premium for personalised products, something that increases alongside the value of the customer. While it is likely to be the smaller, more agile investment banks that move down this path first ahead of larger outfits, change is coming for organisations of all sizes.

Equally interesting is how this trend will impact the fortunes of traditional investment banks that are now foraying into more mainstream consumer banking, a prime example of which is Goldman Sachs with their Marcus  lending platform which is soon to come to the UK in 2018. In Goldman’s case they will cover online deposits and extend to lending over time, seeking to both take on established high street players as well as create a more sustainable customer-base. And once traditional sell-side firms venture into the retail space, we should start to see the full extent of this ‘store-fronting’ for a wider cross-section of customers across investment and retail banks.

Crossing the bridge to personalisation

Depending on the extent that this route is chosen, the new model will require an overhaul of an organisation’s technology infrastructure and the way they price, sell, execute, clear and maintain products, all the way through from customer experience to back-end design. Investment banks are increasingly in a position where they must adapt and differentiate, or find themselves racing to under-cut competitors on price.

Ironically, while recent years have seen a huge focus on a ‘customer experience’ revolution in consumer finance, it is the sedate world of investment banking that is primed for change. Moving away from a world of bland trading and towards more tailored offerings may result in a bigger shop window with more products than retail banks, but the impact will be similar as technology simplifies the buying experience for institutional clients. This is undoubtedly a seismic shift for the industry. Whether incremental or something that happens all at once, we will see a fundamental change in how investment banks interact with their clients. Whatever the speed of transition and style of delivery, they must remember that the primary goal is to provide customers with the most intuitive service possible.

Issues

Issue 1 2018

Click the image below to read this months issue!

Welcome to the first edition of Wealth & Finance for 2018. Providing you with an insight into the latest industry news across both traditional and alternative investment sectors.

In this month’s issue, we discover more about Opilio Recruitment. The firm was established in 2010 and is the go-to digital recruitment agency for global brands and tech start-ups. We spoke to Sheba Karamat as we find out more about this knowledgeable and industry leading firm.

Also in this edition, Beckford James are experienced, independent chartered financial planners. We invited Partner & Chartered Financial Planner, Joseph Maguire to provide us with an insight into the company’s success behind the scenes.

On the theme of success, Alta Semper invests patient, flexible and strategic capital across growth markets with a specific focus on Africa. We invited Afsane Jetha to tell us more about the firm as we examine the secrets behind its success. 

Elsewhere in this issue, established in 2004, Idappcom is a privately owned security software development and security services business. We profiled the firm and sat down with CEO, Ray Bryant who reveals more about one of the rising companies in the exciting world of cybersecurity.

Lastly, as we look ahead to the possibilities that 2018 has to offer, Anthony Morrow, CEO of evestor.co.uk comments on what 2018 holds for fintech and robo-advice.

Here at Wealth & Finance, we hope that you enjoy reading this edition, and we wish you all the best for 2018.

Cryptocurrency; flash in the pan or long-term investment opportunity?
FinanceInfrastructure and Project Finance

Cryptocurrency; flash in the pan or long-term investment opportunity?

Cryptocurrency; flash in the pan or long-term investment opportunity?

By Arianne King, Managing Partner, Al Bawardi Critchlow

Cryptocurrencies have dominated media headlines over the past few months, and no wonder with the value of a single Bitcoin – the original digital currency – growing by more than 1000% in 2017. It would be hard to think of another investment opportunity capable of delivering those returns.

Of course, these figures don’t paint the full story of Bitcoin. 2017 was a rollercoaster ride, with plenty of spectacular price fluctuations along the way, especially during the month of December, when the value of a coin rose from approximately £8,100 to in excess of £14,500 in just a matter of days. Since then, Bitcoin’s crown has slipped a little. At time of writing, a single coin is valued at approximately £8,700, but it’s still worth bearing in mind that this still represents a healthy profit for anyone who invested prior to December’s remarkable rise.

It’s not all about Bitcoin though. Other cryptocurrencies have also begun to attract the attentions of potential investors. Ethereum, Dash and Ripple are just three of note, but there are countless others springing up on a seemingly daily basis.

Investors must of course exercise extreme caution before entering this market, especially as many industry experts consider Bitcoin’s recent slide could be a sign of things to come. But nevertheless, governments, traditional banks, financial regulators, and both commercial and hobby investors are increasingly investigating how they can participate in the market.

So, could this be the year when cryptocurrencies gain traction with everyday investors?

Crypto’s image problem

To achieve mainstream appeal, digital currencies must first shake off their close associations with the criminal underworld. Their links to the Dark Web, for money laundering, funding terrorism and drug trafficking, as well as many other illegal activities, represents a major barrier to investors.

The market still has a long way to go to disassociate itself with these shady beginnings. While there are now many legitimate Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) of new currencies, regulators – most notably the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) – are still warning investors to be on the lookout for bogus ICOs. Scams are so problematic that in China the government has banned ICOs altogether.

A lack of adequate security is another factor inhibiting mainstream participation. November 2017’s $31m hack on a Tether Treasury Wallet was just one in a long line of thefts.

While it’s easy to paint a bleak picture of cryptocurrencies, it is still worth remembering that not every ICO is a ruse and not every wallet is vulnerable to hackers. The modus operandi of virtual currency operators vary considerably, as do their underlying technology infrastructures. Due diligence should be undertaken before contemplating any type of investment, however small.

The role of regulation

Digital currencies have gained momentum because, for the most part, they fall outside of the jurisdiction of governments, regulators and central banks. As true global currencies, they do not recognise trading arrangements or geographic boundaries. This frictionless quality is their appeal, but it also makes them hard to monitor and regulate.

That hasn’t stopped traditional financial institutions and law makers from trying to get involved. Indeed, over recent months many of the more traditional players have shifted from being mere observers to taking a more active role.

In particular, regulation is set to be tightened. Laws being muted by the UK and some EU governments recognise the need to update anti-money laundering legislation so it is fit for the digital age. As a by-product, it could also bring much needed credibility and stability to what is an immature, volatile market.

Of course, cryptocurrency-related regulation is itself immature and in a state of flux, as law makers attempt to keep pace with this rapidly evolving market. Even though the crypto-market is open to everyone via the internet, legislation and regulations vary considerably between countries. Activity that is perfectly legal in one country, might be illegal in another. For example, in Bangladesh, crypto is outlawed completely; anyone investing could be found guilty of money laundering. At the other end of the scale, SBB, the Swiss rail operator, accepts Bitcoin as payment.

While some countries will undoubtedly use regulation to inhibit or even ban adoption, more openminded regulation may provide the impetus required to take digital currencies mainstream. That said, if momentum continues to build, the day will soon arrive when it is almost impossible for any regulator to outlaw or restrict their use.

Blockchain: the real opportunity?

Blockchain is the technology that underpins cryptocurrencies and, despite the headlines about wallet hacks, it is inherently secure.

Each blockchain contains a decentralised ledger of all transactions which can neither be amended or deleted. Each individual block in the chain has a timestamp and a link to the previous block; this forms a chronological chain that is encrypted to ensure records cannot be altered by others. Theft or fraud is extremely difficult, not just because of the encryption, but also because copies of each blockchain are distributed throughout a peer to peer network. No changes can be made to the blockchain without that change being applied to all blocks in the chain.

This represents a major advancement over traditional banking systems, which are often based on older technology with known vulnerabilities. Indeed, the Australian Stock Exchange recently announced its plans to replace its current clearing system with blockchain technology.

Blockchain security is likely to be the crypto market’s greatest attribute as it strives to establish its mainstream credentials.

What next for crypto?

Few people would have predicted what has happened to Bitcoin’s value over the past few months. What will happen in 2018 is largely anyone’s guess. However, there are signs that it – together with other cryptocurrencies – are beginning to appeal to a wider set of investors.

Increased interest from the regulators, coupled with mainstream financial brands incorporating blockchain technology into their daily business operations, is beginning to provide credibility and stability to what is still a very immature and unpredictable market. While it’s still very much in its adolescence, it will be interesting to see the rate at which the market grows up.



An Ode to Banks: Collaborate And Thrive
FinanceInfrastructure and Project Finance

An Ode to Banks: Collaborate And Thrive


An Ode to Banks: Collaborate And Thrive

Open banking will soon be with us, while some people are still fighting to accept APIs as the new reality, for many the dialogue has moved on and they now look to identify partners with whom they can collaborate and thrive. Andrew H Brown, Chief Risk Officer, Earthport Plc, tells us more.

The pace of change in the financial system is ever increasing: new infrastructures, legislation and regulation, and market and product evolution. But, who pays for these changes?

Ultimately, the consumer pays for every change, either directly or indirectly, but as PSD2 goes live in January 2018, there is some anxiety about this mandated move towards “open” banking. Some of that angst focuses on who is to pay for continued development of the infrastructure. Are the costs of the required broader access to be borne by the banks or shared across the entities that provide alternative services via that access?

Such a debate is hardly surprising when the impact will be, at least in some areas, to end the banking monopoly that has existed for many years over a wide range of financial services. Should the banks that developed and maintain these utilities be forced to give “free” access to other commercial (potentially competitive) entities?

In truth, any and all costs always end up with the customer, and if there is an individual consumer behind that, with him or her. Sothe oft referenced concept of “free banking” has always been something of a fallacy, albeit one that has perpetuated for decades.

As banks and their core services become more akin to utilities, the opacity of the pricing of these services is a cause of concern, so the provision of pricing transparency in offerings such as Earthport’s own is increasingly a competitive differentiator.

During the financial crisis, the bail-out of banks via the public purse challenged the definition of a free market – at least as it had been applied to banks. A “free market” after all, removes the need for a “lender of last resort” allowing banks to operate outside of regulation and standalone.

The crisis demonstrated that banks and governments are indelibly linked, that sovereign nations need a robust and stable banking system, and that that system must not be allowed to fail in times of stress. Banks are under obligation to adhere to legislation, regulation and codes of practice, and to meet a variety of social responsibilities. These include the provision of services to the most vulnerable in society, access for rural communities etc. Sometimes these complex obligations are evident in direct legislation (e.g. requiring the provision of free or low-cost current accounts) sometimes supported through government programmes (e.g. those ensuring the provision of ATMs in remote and/or less profitable areas).

We didn’t quite get to see what would happen if the system actually unwound, but we came perilously close. Moreover, despite widespread criticism of the banks, their legacy systems, and indeed their internal cultures, we have yet to see a mass exodus of bank customers to alternative providers. Nevertheless, it should have been something of a wake-up call.

PSD2 and open banking are, at least in part, responses to the financial crisis. A recognition of too much concentration risk in the system. Banks now fear a different risk; that such legislative prescription will support their disintermediation, driving wholesale industry changes that will erode their market share across a wide range of financial services.

But for those that do adapt to this brave new world (and it is now inevitable) choosing the right partners means banks can benefit from their most valuable assets: the scale of their customer bases, the associated deep rich data, and the hard to erode Trust that consumers have in their brands. The right partners can enable banks to leapfrog development costs, unchain themselves from monolithic legacy systems and directly leverage exciting new technologies to provide cheaper, better and more efficient services.

To do this they will need to act with some urgency, some institutions continue to invest heavily in aged systems lacking the flexibility to move with the changing dynamic. However, this new regulatory framework around the “free market” will be good news for consumers.

It means a greater choice of better services. The mythical free banking era is long gone as banks struggle to make the margins they did in the past, hampered by low interest rate regimes, more challenging capital and other regulatory demands, and fresh competition from nimble providers without legacy issues.

Most banks now realise that life will never be the same as it was before 2008 – and some are already making forays into the brave new world, working with carefully identified partners, learning how to be successful after the vertically integrated model is re-tooled, determining new pricing models across multi-party chains. Given what we experienced over the past decade, sharing the risk and the reward isn’t such a bad thing, is it?