Category Archives: Personal Finance

Is a European consumer credit model coming to the US via ecommerce?

If you are a retail customer in most European countries, you are quite familiar with this sight:

Selling credit or selling televisions?

If you are from the US or the UK, chances are this will not be a recognizable image. There is a fundamental difference in the way retail consumer credit is built and distributed between the US/UK and Central Europe, which can be summarized as (I am oversimplifying):

  • USA/UK > revolving credit through credit card (financial institution or merchants)
  • Rest of Europe > installment credit in store or through payment card (financial institution or merchants), often linked to a specific purchase. The interest cost is either carried by the customer or the merchant.

In that perspective the launch of companies such as Affirm, Bread in the US, as well as the geographic extension of Klarna are quite interesting. Effectively, they are introducing in the US installment credit at checkout, a very European product dominated in its traditional form by companies often linked to banks such as BNP Paribas Personal Finance, Santander Consumer Finance, Credit Agricole Consumer Finance, except the new players are starting from e-commerce and mobile e-commerce checkout.

The daily life of an ecommerce site

If there is one think that ecommerce website hate, its the Cart Abandonment Rate. It basically means you had everything right from acquisition to product mix, to site/app experience but when comes the time to pay, the user drops out. Making the checkout experience seamless is a constant concern and making any change / adding additional steps is a risky move. This will be a challenge for the emerging players who have to prove offering credit brings more users than it deters in the checkout process.

On a broader scope, the impact of Fintech on the American Credit Landscape is one of the most interesting trends in the recent years. Whether it is the new crop of credit at checkout players or the marketplaces lenders such as Payoff* or Lendingclub, they all participate in Credit Transformation, moving consumers from Revolving Credit to Fixed Term Credit. Compounded by Millenials’ attitude toward Credit Cardshttp://www.bankrate.com/finance/credit-cards/more-millennials-say-no-to-credit-cards-1.aspx , I can’t wait to see what consumer finance will look like in the coming years.

Are we at the beginning of a move beyond Credit as we know it?

2016 and beyond in fintech: a few thoughts

valthorensLooking at 2016 with the experience of the past 7 years in financial services. it will be a pivotal year for financial services. In many ways we are coming to the end of a phase, that started with the world‘s the most important financial crisis since 1929. The FED hike is upon us, after having experienced one of the most destructive slow downs, of which the effects are still very much acute through the world. While banks are still experiencing the effect of the crisis notably through restrictive regulation and a continuing string of financial scandals, their public messaging is one of innovation and change. For the raft of new players in financial services, the funding environment has never been as good and some striking successes are showing the way forward. A new wave of technology, from blockchain to AI and omnipresent sensors is shaping a new world (hopefully not brave).

2016 will see a strong competition in the pure banking space. In Europe especially, a crop of new banks and alternative banks will push strongly into the market. European digital banks such as Fidor are expanding beyond their core market.The UK regulator’s move to lowering the barrier to entry in becoming a bank will come to reality with Atom Bank, Tandem, (…) establishing themselves as a brand to customers. Alternative solutions based on prepaid born in various european countries are also expanding beyond borders, with SEPA as a core foundation to propose bank like services. With PSD2 looming, traditional banks have the opportunity / incentive to more easily expand collaboratively with startups.

What about the alternative lenders, roboadvisors and other digital financial services players? Having spent the last few years building a trusted brand as well as consolidating a customer base, it is highly possible they will start leveraging this to expand horizontally into other markets, whether collaboratively or by launching their own services. For example, blended remittance and multi currencies current accounts are highly complementary services for clients with attachments to multiple countries.

This collaboration between emerging players will most likely extend beyond end customers, towards balance sheet management, especially for emerging banks looking at matching assets to their new found deposits. Looking beyond the pure European and US context, in a developing world that is increasingly interconnected, via diasporas and large economic regions, the winning platform of the coming decades appears to be the messaging platforms: Wechat, Line, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are all showing significant growth, engagement and increasingly financial services integration. 2016 may be the year where we will see Facebook becoming more integrated with financial services, leading with seamless blending of messaging, commerce and payment first and potentially P2P transactions next.

If 2015 was the awakening of the entrepreneurs, investors and incumbents to the potential disruption of insurance by digital first players, 2016 may well shape up to be the coming of more true game changing challengers in the space. In reality, most of the investment and company creation has gone through changing distribution to digital means, focusing mainly on two main trends: the modernization of broker first markets, such as the German or Swiss markets (following the UK market) where digital acquisition is seen as a cost efficient, scalable way to attract customers and the reorganization of health insurance in the US market following the Obamacare reform. What is maybe more interesting is the coming wave of startups looking to challenge the core business model of insurance companies, an early example of which is Oscar. These new players are leveraging lower cost, scalable infrastructures, sometimes through mutual insurance mechanisms.Increasingly, a smart use of the full insurance stack including innovative insurance companies and nimble reinsurance players allows them to succeed at lower scale. Another trend that will shape up 2016 is the change from insuring people for their things to insuring their things for them partly driven by the increasing importance of the internet of things and the facts that objects are more and more blending with the underlying services they provide.

If 2014 was seemingly the year of Bitcoin, with its pricing toping above $1,000. 2015 was the year of transitioning from currency to infrastructure. 2016 will be the year of blockchains as infrastructures for smart contracts. Financial services use cases in clearing and settlement will continue to dominate the headlines with an increasing number of pilots and low scale production releases. Financial services being multi parties by definition, they are a prime market for decentralized trusted software but the use cases go well beyond pure transactional financial services and the coming year will see an increased such projects. Large scale projects are also by definition multi parties and can benefit from a smart contract infrastructure. And lets not forget the elephant in the room, our civil infrastructure which needs to reinvent itself for the digital age.

Finally, taking a longer view, it will be important to focus on two complementary trends. Artificial Intelligence and omnipresent data. Financial services core functions are based on managing capital scarcity and information asymmetry. With the amount of data increasing at high speed, notably through widespread, cheaper and more detailed sensors and the capability to process it progressing in parallel through the use of machine intelligence, the core market of financial services will be affected. The autonomous car is the perfect metaphor for it: what is the insurance market for a sensor full, crash avoiding vehicle? But similarly, what new markets will this create for financial services?

Discussing Machine Learning and Financial Services

It feels like fear around artificial intelligence is slightly receding and that the discussion has evolved toward what it can actually do now and its application in the current crop of technology companies. I, for one, welcome this new step in Machiavellianism from our machine overlords, well played, well played….

Robot pretending not to be able to open a door

Machine learning is about learning, measured as an improvement of an output (From the good read: http://www.androidauthority.com/what-is-machine-learning-621659/)

“ A computer program is said to learn from experience E with respect to some class of tasks T and performance measure P, if its performance at tasks in T, as measured by P, improves with experience E.”

Machine learning comes in various shapes but broadly there are important distinctions between:
supervised learning, in which the computer is given example inputs and desirable outputs, with the goal for the machine to learn how to map the two.
unsupervised learning, in which the inputs are not characterized and the machine has to learn what characteristics of the inputs are linked to the desirable outputs.

It is also important to understand that desirable outputs are effectively formulated as algorithms. They are very diverse and not only depend on the problem but also the approach taken to solve it. For example the graph below gives a good overview of potential solutions to a regression analysis problem.

So how does a machine think? Very differently from us as its input are more constrained data sets and its outputs are driven by equations. For example, this is how a computer views a picture of a cat on a carpet in order to be able to classify it as such.

from http://marketingland.stfi.re/how-machine-learning-works-150366?sf=ppelxr

So what can you do with a machine able to understand inputs and find correlations? A lot:

From: https:[email protected]/the-current-state-of-machine-intelligence-f76c20db2fe1

This map is already outdated increasingly, all businesses will leverage machine learning in some form and the infrastructure to do so is increasingly easier to access:
– IBM recently launched APIs to access Watson
– Google open sourced one of its core sofware Library for Machine Learning : Tensorflow
– Microsoft, just after Google announced its own open source release
– Machine learning is an increasing part of Amazon’s computing offer

It makes sense for these large players to open source a big part of their research and benefit from a broader development community. As we discussed above, an essential part of machine learning is gained from data and training, two components that remains firmly proprietary.

In Financial Services, in my mind there are short term two main cases for machine learning: one connected to the interface between humans and finance, the other to optimizing the analysis of vast pools of data.

One of my long standing pet peeve is the lack of innovation in building User Experience for Financial Services. Our representation paradigm is still too close to the accounting standard when only a very few % of the population receives the necessary education to understand those. Natural language interfaces are a rising tide for Financial services, because of their ability to abstract from pure financial data through a more intuitive user interface. This is true both for input and output. Two startups are a good example of this in my mind: Kensho and Narrative Science.

Facebook’s experimentation with M, is a strong indication of the future interface for financial services. Whether existing banks and financial services providers have the skill-set and ability to build and train these agents is an open question. Especially as AI has a strong lock-in effect.

On the data front, one of the key use of machine learning lies first with the ability to analyze at scale and speed data that would require an army of humans. A good example is satellite data. Companies such asDescartes Labs have the ability to determine crop type in satellite pictures of fields across massive sets of information. The other use case will most likely be understanding correlations in the large pool of digital breadcrumbs that people and companies increasingly create. Trading data, Credit scoring, because of their data rich outputs are prime targets. In credit scoring, one of the key concerns will be to make sure that these self learning algorithms comply with non discrimination laws.

Increasingly, if you are working on innovation in financial services and not actively looking into machine learning, you are probably doing it wrong.

Musings on Full Stack Financial Services startups

(This post has been long in the making). One of the posts that sparked my interest in the last months is a post by Chris Dixon, Full Stacked Startups. In it, Chris highlights several startups such as Nest, Uber, Tesla, Warby Parker as companies that have gone after the market as full-fledged businesses instead stacking on top or in partnership with other players. Notably the …

[…]  full stack approach lets you bypass industry incumbents, completely control the customer experience, and capture a greater portion of the economic benefits you provide.

Recent transactions, such as Twitter’s acquisition of Gnip, are also showing, in my view, the business tension by any tech startups to move vertically upstream or downstream to find the right mix of economic models.

There have also been more conversation around the idea of changing at its core financial services. Marc Andreessen has jumped in the discussion with the idea of building a full new bank: http://qz.com/175512/to-disrupt-banking-do-you-need-to-own-the-bank/.

Note 1: Bitcoin is a strong factor here, not so much from a direct technology perspective, but more from bringing into the public’s mind that the financial services sector can be disrupted / affected in its own core. 
Note 2: API banking has been at the center of what we are building at Anthemis and a personal passion of mine: http://tekfin.com/2012/04/10/the-core-of-the-machine-banking-as-a-utility/  http://tekfin.com/2010/08/16/banking-as-a-platform-coming-soon-with-banksimple/

Jack Gavigan answered with this excellent post on a blueprint for a new disruptive bank: http://jackgavigan.com/2014/04/14/disruptive-bank/.

nextbank_platform

 

A system blueprint is a great way to start but is one of the views of a fractal of perspectives that needs to be taken when considering financial services (I highlighted in red what I think is one of the key area). Another important one is the financial view. A full stack financial services startups is, in my view, a balance sheet driven startup. Balance sheet driven startups are a bit of an exception in the world of technology startups. In the past years, a lot has been made to make these less and less driven by balance sheet. From renting infrastructure to outsourcing functionalities to other companies, most tech startups have been driven at first with little focus on balance sheet. However in the world of financial services whether banking or insurance, balance sheet driven startups are the default structure for full stack startups.

That makes them more difficult to be considered from a venture capital perspective:

– First, they require capital, much more than a typical tech startup. Oscar’s minimum capital requirement for operating as a health insurer in the state of New York is USD 45M : http://www.dfs.ny.gov/insurance/exam_rpt/x9475o13.pdf , most/all of which will need to be kept aside. That’s a $45M raise just for the right to play. Additional funds will be required for development, marketing, …

– Second, they are very difficult to grow hockey stick. Think of balance sheet driven financial services startups as the weird cousin of multi-sided marketplaces startups. Taking the example of a new bank, for every new customer that will subscribe and deposit, a matching capital will need to be added following Basel III or another local capital requirement rule, invested in secure products. In parallel, you will want to deploy your customers’ deposits in money-making investments with risk profiles compatible with your capital requirements. Either you run your own lending / investment business which adds further complexity or you look for partners to deploy. Low risk with relatively good returns investments are chased by investors and your new bank is a small fish in that pond. All of this contributes to make growth more difficult than in a typical startup.

Even for a simpler version of balance sheet driven startups, say a lender with little/no prudential ratio, every growth in customers will need to be matched with an increase in available capital. Kabbage debt raise is a good example of that: ~$53M raised in equity for ~$345M raised in debt.

So why are full stack financial services startups interesting?:

– From an operational point of view, these activities are enormously inefficient in existing banks. The software they are using (Core Banking Software) is old, batch based and difficult to replace – understandably, once you have built a full balance sheet, something that can affect its management is high risk. Anything build on top of this software base is affected, from your customer front end to your risk management software to your lending activities. This leads to more operational margins being taken to ensure you are operating within regulation. A new player will have tremendous opportunities using the flexibility that current software allows. I am playing our book here (Anthemis) but Fidor Bank‘s ability to connect to P2P lending platforms, virtual currency exchanges or to manage multicurrency /commodity accounts is a good example. This is an incredible opportunity space.

– From a business point of view, once you are past the more difficult early stage balance sheet growth phase, you have built a resilient, flexible company. Flexible is not an adjective often used for banks, but with the right infrastructure and API layers I think modern banks will have the opportunity to open themselves to many business models. Built in-house or in partnership with others. This is also the case in terms of their capability to deploy assets. Financial products, liquidity providers, exchanges are evolving at a rapid pace. New platforms appear to access private companies equities, alternative debts (P2P but also factoring, data driven SMB debt). Non banks are becoming investors as well, investing in their own supply chain to guarantee its performance. And these platforms are becoming more and more digital, creating new opportunities for a bank to connect and invest.

Note 3: This is also where the evolution around contracts in the blockchain such as Ethereum, or distributed open ledger such as Ripple (which recently partnered with Fidor Bank) are really important. Making transactions fully electronic and real-time has massive implications for banks in terms of their investments as well as their risk monitoring.

There are a lot of additional perspectives to consider and I will gladly take additional insights, critics, comments. However if you are working on building a full stack financial services startups, whether in banking or insurance, I am really interested in talking with you. There are very few now but I am betting we will see more and more people try in the coming years.

Smart Commerce will only succeed with Smart Banking

Bill Ready had a great post at PandoDaily on the growing importance of smart mobile driven commerce. In my view this is one side of the equation of the future of commerce, the other side being the creation of smart banking services.

Using Bill’s example: I book a flight to San Francisco, my financial service app warns me that my travel budget will most likely be exceeded this month and has pushed back the budget allocation for new electronics by 1 month. My extra rental revenue from Airbnb should help cover cash flow needs for the month so that new MacBook is still a go. I take an Uber upon landing and check a restaurant for the group. Bills is split between us automatically, referring back to our positions in a global distributed ledger including interests owed (built on the Bitcoin protocol foundation). After the lunch, I check recent communications from my Angellist portfolio. My portfolio allocation to startups is split across various syndicates. Through tasks performed to help these startups, I have also earned additional exposure to a few. A good way to not only increase my upside potential but build my skills and experience.

Is this future far away? With the increase in sensors in mobile, shops, objects and the digitisation of money, the capabilities of financial services are changing quickly. A lot of this effort in calculation is currently focused on market activities (high frequency trading being probably the most discussed) but I am convinced we will see the same push start in consumer finance. The current push to integrate more data sources, including social data sources, in online lending is a good example.

Mobile is becoming an integral part of people’s financial life. Starbucks success with its mobile app proves that people, when given a good use case for mobile (increase in convenience and additional services) are more than ready to use their mobile. Payments on mobile are increasing at an amazing pace: Paypal’s total payment volume increased to $27 billions in 2013. But the increase in payments on mobile also highlights the gap between how easy it has become to spend online and how little has been done in helping people manage their spending.

Cash was the base budget management tool for a lot of people. A wallet is probably one of the best UX for money. Visually checking how much is left in a wallet is one of the most used and simple budget management tool. The rise of prepaid card with underbanked and neobanked is in some ways following the same trend, as closed cards, especially with easy to access mobile balance reminders, are the modern equivalent of counting the number of $10 left.

However, as highlighted above, as more and more of our purchase experience will not only shift to mobile online or offline but also to 1-click / no click payment, having a single credit card or debit card as a default payment mean can potentially increase the tensions in budget management and understanding of personal finance. In a world where payment is bound to disappear, the pressure for financial understanding will increase further.This is a vast opportunity for financial services startups.

The same technology that let applications recommend you what to purchase, how good a restaurant is or how to manage a fleet of cars / pricing to match demand can be used to optimize your personal financial management. As the age of mobile concierge is coming, the age of mobile financial advisors is coming as well. I am biased, professionally and personally on Simple but they are, in my view, a good example. Smart balance and goals are the beginning of a payment experience based around managing and optimising personal finance. And while this effort begins with spending, it will soon integrate as well with saving and borrowing. Paying overdraft fees with a saving account or other type of liquid assets is an incoherence in a time where a simple excel spreadsheet can compare borrowing and savings rates.

If we push this idea a little further, there is a potential for algorithmic finance becoming even more intelligent. We are on the verge of being able to record how people feel at any point in time. What about a financial algorithm that would help people maximize their happiness over time? What about a mobile agent that prevents you from buying stuff at checkout by automatically reminding of the other activities you would like to do that will be more rewarding?

World Usability Day 2012 – Financial Services

I had the opportunity to present in Geneva for World Usability Day. Here is the Prezi of my talk, unfortunately not recorded. This is a summary of some of my previous posts in Usability in online banking and why using Accounting design as the framework for usability is wrong.

 

 

The second presentation was a summary of a study made by Telono on the Mortgage Calculators in various Swiss Bank websites. Here is a quick video extract. The person on the left is tasked with finding the Mortgage Calculator. 0:11 is priceless.

Apologizes for the really bad framing

Square: from Dongle to Domination

I had the opportunity to write an opinion/profile of Square for the SIBOS edition of Informilo:

Here is the introduction and link to the full piece:

“In 2008, glass blower James McKelvey was unable to complete a $2,ooo sale of his glassware because a customer could only pay by credit card. Frustrated, he discussed this with a friend, Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. By the summer of 2009, Dorsey had prototyped a dongle and soon after, Square launched as a payments start-up targeting mainly the unservied micro-merchant space.

Fast forward to 2012. Square’s recent capital raise of $200 million implies a $3.25 billion valuation. Its valuation quadrupled between January and June 2011 and then doubled over the past year. This latest capital raise implies around 30x – 40x estimated revenue. In contrast, payment companies tend to be valued between 3x and 5x revenue multiples. What does this mean for the industry?” …

Full content here  Let me know your feedback in the comments.

Underbanked? Not without financial services!

Who are the underbanked in the US? If we refer to Javelin Strategy latest study:

“Comprising an estimated 35 million US adults (or 15% of the US population), underbanked are typically young, ethnically diverse, and more likely to use the “computer in their pocket” (i.e. their mobile phones) to conduct their banking.”

But does that not mean that the services targeting them are less diverse than classic banking services? On the contrary, the bank-less (as personal bank account / most of these services leverage the banking infrastructure in some form) universe of services is exploding!\

– The most know is probably the prepaid cardGreendot is one of the biggest new players in the field. These cards allows people to benefit from modern payment means without having to open a bank account. While there are several fees attached to its use (list of Greendot fees available here) , they can have advantages over a bank account as they don’t allow overdraft and don’t require minimum balance.

By the way, you can find these cards in retail stores:

 

– Don’t want to have a card? You can also pay online with cash using services such as Paynearme . Print a code online, present it at the nearest 7/11, pay in cash and the transaction is finalized. You can try it here. Seems strange? Not when you consider that:

 

– While all the talk is about branchless in retail banking, you can also use physical financial services locations without having a bank account.
Walmart Money Center provides check cashing services, distributes various financial services and according to the New York Times has benefited from the current banking crisis. Other players, such as Mango have looked at the opportunity to create Brick and Mortar financial stores. 

 

– While Square may be the most talked about startup in mobile payment, it does not prevent competitors to provide bank-less solutions.
RevCoin‘s difference is not its more rounded shape, its the fact that you can accept credit cards without linking a personal bank account. RevCoin is linked to a Debit Card provided to the users at the same time they receive their dongle. 

 

More than replicating existing offers linked to a personal bank account, prepaid product have also specific and innovative services
Payperks (an Anthemis Investment) combines prepaid card, education program and sweepstakes to provide an alternative to the paycheck  or cash payment. Payperks users are educated and incentivized (via sweepstakes games) to make better long term financial decision (avoiding late bill payment fees for example)

 

– Have a club, an association, a small company and want to manage both your money and your financials at the same time? Holvi offers exactly this by allowing organization to build, control and share their internal finance. Receiving payments are automatically integrated, invoices are matched as well.

 

– Cross-border payment companies such as Western Union are well known. But what if you could directly pay for charges instead of sending money across? Companies such as iSend provides exactly that by allowing people to pay for electricity telco bill or mobile top up of their families abroad. With Mamamikes , based in Kenya, you can also buy vouchers toward specific items.

 

What is driving this innovation?

 

Multiple factors are playing but I think among other things the relatively simpler regulation allows for more innovation that benefit the customers. They often have lighter licences to operate as they cannot provide credit services.  Most of these startups operate on top of the banking infrastructure, which provides some form of security.
For some of them, they  have engaged in following principles toward better financial services. The Compass Principles  designed by the Center for Financial Services Innovation , an unbanked, underbanked targeted think-tank can apply to the financial services sector as a whole.
With the growth of the prepaid market, regulators are starting to pay more attention to this market. It is important, in my view, that they are careful in allowing such innovation to continue via competition. While a number of bad operators can be expected in any industry, the trend is that the services towards underbanked and unbanked are becoming better and cheaper.

Accounting and Banking: design issues

I am no designer, nor a marketing specialist but as a bank customer (with different banking relationships) I can tell you I think my banking experience is pretty bad. Because I switched to a more corporate finance job, I finally realised what could be the root cause of this issue : accounting.

Accounting to be honest is not the most sexy topic, though it serves its use. It allows keeping track of a corporation financial situation by embedding control in the way it is done (double entries) as well as allowing a common language for several people working on the same topic or transitioning. Also in pre-computer era, it was built in relation with its support : books. Accounting on paper makes sense.

Good design (at the time)

But since I am not a corporation / nor an accountant by trade / nor doing my personal finance on paper, why are banks sending me banks statements in the format of accounting statement?

This makes no sense. Accountants must represent 0.01% of the population of bank customers.

Mint is a good example of design applied to financial information (while not the first and the best one). This makes much more sense than the previous statement.

Other startups, such as Simple [Note: Anthemis is an investor] are trying to redefine how financial information should be presented to customers. The first difficulty is to bring understandable information to each spending transaction. A better identification of the vendor and its category is key, notably for searching past transactions (also keeping more than 2 months of transactions helps).

Additionally, presenting not only an historical account of financial transaction, but also a forward looking view of a customer financial situation is moving from an accounting statement to a personal finance overview. This is not new as startups such as Rudder (http://mashable.com/2008/10/13/rudder/), have tried to show forward looking information. The concept of Safe to Spend balance used by Simple is in the same concept.

Fast Company has an interesting review of Simple design decisions: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665303/first-look-banksimples-iphone-app-aims-to-reimagine-your-money

Other interesting design choices used by financial services that could be added to this post?