It is this time of year again where most of us willingly and willfully make fools out of ourselves trying to predict the future of our industry. The momentous electoral events we have witnessed and those coming up in 2017 remind me that, even more so for the next 12 months, macro risks will rule and influence the state of financial services and fintech. I will limit myself to comments pertaining to the US and Europe.
I have already attempted to decipher a Trump presidency in a previous post, see here. Suffice it to say there will be winners and losers in the five sectors of the industry – lending, capital markets, asset management, payments and insurance. Regtech may be impacted the most if the US experiences a wave of deregulation. Although I still ascribe to a secular and long term trend towards regulatory harmonization, we may see deviations at the margin, especially within sectors that are more domestic than international by the nature of their activity. I would not be surprised if US domestic lending regulation, compliance and enforcement be loosened while European consumer protection remain tight for example. Another area where one may see changes at the margin would be domestic payments. Still, when it comes to such sectors as capital markets, cross border payments, interbanking activities I do not expect much deviation from one jurisdiction to another and certainly no loosening up when it comes to clamping down on illegal activities, fraud. Hence cybersecurity, AML/KYC and reg/compliance thereof should be interested ecosystems with plenty of investment and operational activity. On another regulatory note ,2016 was the year of the FCA with it’s sandbox. The FCA’s initiative was so popular we ended with more than 8 regulators launching their copycat initiatives. I will make three predictions in the sandbox space for 2017. First, regulatory sandboxes will be renamed – sandbox is just a poor name everybody dislikes. Second, the US and the EU will see their own “sandbox” initiatives launched (where in the EU is a mystery) as hybrid collaborative efforts between regulators, technologists and incumbents. Third, there will be more collaboration at the “sandbox” level between regulators. Be that as it may I also expect the FCA to go from strength to strength given its clear leadership and first mover advantage (same for MAS, the Singapore regulator).
I continue to worry about alt-lending or marketplace lending as rising interest rates will benefit banks first and while there is some room to increase the cost of lending, in a competitive market with regulatory oversight there is a limit to how high the cost of borrowing can go. On the other hand banks cost of capital will not rise as fast as those of alt-lenders. Therefore the next 12 months will prove delicate for this industry. I expect banks flexing their muscles and acquiring some platforms as well as mergers between alt lenders while the weakest competitors close shop. Whether this pattern will evolve in sync across the US and Europe I do not know. It depends on how US, UK and EU yield curves will behave. I certainly expect this pattern to occur in the US. On the other hand, infrastructure spending, if it is on a massive scale in the US, will have a positive impact on lending and fintech lending actors will benefit. One might even see fintech startups funded on the basis of infrastructure services for example.
In the retail asset management sector we have witnessed a wave of consolidation in the US, notably with roboadvisors. Most incumbents have placed their bets and the few remaining independent startups have survived, so far. We have yet to see consolidation in Europe. Arguably, there are fewer roboadvisors in Europe than in the US and most are younger so we might not see full consolidation yet. I would not be surprised if a European incumbent or two makes an acquisition though. I remain interested in roboadvisor models, especially those that will make effective use of ETFs, micro investing or micro saving and build a social layer that enables high engagement. I think there is still space for these types of models. Additionally, there is still much to be done to modernize incumbents and to date few fintech startups with a b2b model have emerged in asset management. Some are due to pop up.
In the payments sector I will go out on a limb and call for the rise of micro payments platforms in 2017, most probably powered by a distributed ledger technology. Most startups addressing micro payments have failed so far but it is only a matter of time before a startup or an incumbent hits the right note. Given the rise of m2m, p2m transactions with IoT and the continued growth of p2p as well as the explosive growth of other types of activities (esports, different models of media consumption from a la carte to subscription) it is only a matter of time before micro payments make it big. My bet is on both platform plays that provide backbone and infrastructure and front end models. Other than micro payments, I continue to be interested in b2b payments and services to SMEs. We have barely scratched the surface and financial services to SMEs are still antiquated. The prospects of a global trade war will not play well with trade finance and supply chain finance activity though.
As for the blockchain ecosystem, 2016 was a fascinating year. We now have a pretty good picture of the landscape with up to 10 companies being the potential winners. Most of these winning companies have opted to open sourcing their code, collaborating with standards setting bodies, or working as a consortium with many incumbents. Other than a few financing rounds for some of these leaders, I do not expect much investment activity. Indeed I expect many casualties, acquihires or outright failures for the other weaker competitors. 2017 will be a year of consolidation in the DLT space while the winners go about their deployment business quietly. I expect further standardization efforts to bear their fruit – “yesterday and today” in the capital markets arena, “tomorrow” in the insurance space. Finally I expect the start of the patent wars in the space. Most serious contenders have filed patents – incumbents and startups alike – and it is only a matter of time before some try to enforce these patents. Sooner rather than later is my bet.
In the insurance industry, I expect more of the same, both in terms of level of activity and types of insurtech startups. I also expect emphasis on cyber risk coverage and on climate change given both are top of mind and material risks going forward. Cyber risk coverage is particularly interesting to me, given the rise of IoT and the security risks associated with both hardware and software in the space.
On a more general level, I expect five themes to pick up steam in 2017. First, all the business models we have seen created and funded in fintech over the past 8 years will be revisited with an AI component – be it machine learning, deep learning or other. This is bound to happen as AI is sweeping the business world. If mobile is eating the world, AI is the chef that is orchestrating the menu. Whether in lending, asset management or any other sector, I expect to see much activity in this domain and this includes new fintech startups getting funding, especially in b2b. An inevitable trend towards the cognitive financial services firm. Second, the convergence of software robotics, AI and automation will be applied at scale in what is called robotics process automation for banks and insurance companies alike. This is a pure b2b play for sure and I expect this sector to be a fertile ground investment wise. Third, platforms and ecosystems will continue to take shape as various banks further build their API strategies, their marketplace strategies, or even their bank as a service strategies. Whereas 2016 was the year industry thought leaders spoke about platforms, 2017 will be the creative phase for these types of business models. Some startups are already picking up funding. Expect more over the coming 12 months. One should note that platform business models require standards and interoperability. As such, I expect the beginning of standardization and open source in the field of bank as a platform or bank as a service, in a similar vein to the movement we have seen in the DLT/blockchain space. Fourth, the messaging platforms wars will be in full swing as Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft vie for dominance and expand their respective ecosystems. I expect more financial services incumbents to jump on the bandwagon and more startups to build their own apps. The lure of reaching millions of users – customers and potential customers – is strong. To me AI powered chatbots fall in this fourth category as few will be successful on their own and most will want to align with at least one messaging platform. In as much as PFM startups were not particularly successful and neither were account aggregation models, the messaging platform wars with their myriads of skills or applets or bots (voice or text or voice+text) present both an opportunity and a threat to the financial services industry. The threat is well known and lies with being further disintermediated and removed from the end customer. The opportunity is less obvious. Indeed, most fintech startups focused on retail use cases have failed to make any significant traction because either the service did not generate excitement and engagement (simple aggregation of data or accounts), or was too obtuse (too complex) or was too superficial (giving you options to consider) whereas what works usually hits on at least one of three dimensions: enhance an experience, accelerate a process, simplify a process. You can bet that the bots within the messaging platforms that will win the day will enhance, accelerate and simplify. It is up to fintech startups and incumbents to emulate best of breed as they will coexist within the same ecosystems. Else, fintech AI chatbots will fail to impress much like PFM models did before. I should add that the messaging platform wars will be a wedge for GAFA to further encroach in the payments sector. Fifth, 2017 will be the year of digital identities. By that I mean most of the investment activity will be focused on identity business models. Some may consider this field not part of fintech. They will be wrong. there is no identity without trust and vice versa. Further identity and trust impact and influence payment methods and enable or disable currencies. I view digital identities as the corner stone of the future of financial services industry. I expect the investment pace to pick up in the identity space.
A few random thoughts in closing. Should a Trump presidency usher an era of instability and trade wars, we will undoubtedly encounter currency wars. Should the EU further weaken in 2017, currency turbulences will be exacerbated. Should the renminbi further weaken, capital flows leaving China will accelerate. Thusly, it is not inconceivable that cryptocurrencies will benefit, notably bitcoin, along with its ecosystem. In this macro case figure, and assuming legal and regulatory house sorted out with the SEC, I expect much activity with Initial Coin Offerings in 2017 (ICO).
Finally, I expect subdued venture investment activity in Europe and the US in aggregate, especially in the first year of a new US administration which is still an unknown for many.