Banks under the spotlight (again)

About 6 months ago, I posted a blog on the current state of banking and financial services. It was published before the proceedings at the Royal Commission got underway, and since then we have heard a litany of complaints of malpractice and other inappropriate behaviour by some of our major financial institutions. We have also seen the publication of the Prudential Report into the CBA, commissioned by APRA. But despite the horror stories, is anyone really surprised by either of these findings?

Image: Jacob Edward; Source: Flickr; Some Rights Reserved

Some have suggested that our banking culture is largely to blame – but to me, that is somewhat simplistic, since I don’t think that the culture within our banks is so very different to that of other large companies or statutory corporations. (But I will explore this topic in a future blog.)

We have a love-hate relationship with our financial institutions, especially the 4-pillar banks. The latter have continued to be regarded as some of the most stable, profitable and prudent banks in the world – they are probably among the top 30 banks globally based on their credit ratings. Moreover, during the GFC, it was largely agreed that, despite their participation in complex financial products such as mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations and credit-default swaps, the big 4 banks helped to prevent a total meltdown in the local capital markets because they had reasonably strong balance sheets, and they worked closely with the RBA to avert the full effects of the GFC.

In fact, so enamoured are we of our banks that, despite the Royal Commission, the banks will not face significant regulatory reforms. One economist at a major fund manager I spoke to suggested that even an in-coming Labor Government would have to confine itself to some sort of bank tax. Anything that would undermine the 4-pillar policy (such as increased competition, rationalisation or foreign ownership) would likely be seen as unacceptable in the current political environment. In addition, since the financial sector makes up such a significant part of the market capitalization of the Australian stock market, most voters hold shares in the banks, either as direct or discretionary investments, or through their superannuation fund. Impacting the financial performance of the banks will have a knock-on effect for customers and shareholders alike.

Despite the relative strength of Australia’s financial services regulatory regime, it’s clear that part of the blame for the current malaise lies with the regulators themselves. None of the transgressions complained of at the Royal Commission or uncovered by APRA’s report on CBA suggest that new regulation is needed (unless we are talking about structural reforms…) In the wake of the GFC, and in line with global banking standards, banks have had to adjust the levels of risk-weighted capital they hold, and meet more onerous compliance costs – as well as rein in riskier lending practices. Yet, it feels like the regulators have not been as vigilant or as pro-active as they might have been – or there is such a “checklist” mentality towards compliance and risk management that banks and their regulators have lost sight of the substance of the law, not just the form.

Having read the APRA report on the CBA, there are a number of issues which need to be addressed, as I suspect that they are replicated (in whole or in part) among the other major banks:

  • All of the incidents covered by the APRA report occurred since the GFC – so, maybe increased compliance obligations are not the answer to these problems, but better supervision and enforcement?
  • Technology is only mentioned about a dozen times in the report – and technology was placed very low in the organizational framework for CBA’s Better Risk Outcomes Program (BROP) – yet banks are increasingly becoming technology businesses
  • Decision-making was seen as being too slow and too reactive, in part due to a collegiate and collaborative environment (surely, the signs of a positive culture?)
  • I would suggest there was a lack of external or independent input at the executive and even board level, and an over-reliance on in-house technical experts – especially in the areas of IT and risk
  • Further, the typical silo structures within large, complex organisations like banks, are the result of an over-emphasis on products and processes, rather than on customers and outcomes. To quote the APRA Report:

“…too many handoffs between silos and layers, with accountability often not clear enough and agreements hard to reach…”

  • Equally, a lack of delegation (especially to front line and customer facing staff) only compounds the lack of empowerment, accountability and transparent decision-making

Despite the strength of the 4-pillar banks and the market share they command, they face disruption and disintermediation from digital platforms, Blockchain technology, decentralized applications, P2P solutions and challenger brands. In fact, banks will increasingly become the digital custodians of our financial data – we will end up paying them to manage our data (rather than simply charging us transaction fees). Banks will also need to restructure their products and services around our personal financial needs and obligations according to our stage of life and other circumstances (rather than simply selling us products), along the lines of:

  • Essential – housing, living, education, health, retirement
  • Mandatory – superannuation, taxes
  • Discretionary – investments, holidays, luxuries

That way, banks will also have a much better “whole of client” view of their customers, rather than the current product bias.

Next week: Culture Washing

 

 

 

Wholesale Investor’s Crypto Convention

Another day, another blockchain and crypto event. This time, the latest Wholesale Investor pitch fest in Sydney featuring companies that are looking to raise funding from accredited investors – either to invest in other crypto businesses, or as equity in their blockchain projects, or via a token sale.

Fran Strajnar, CEO and Co-Founder of Techemy delivering the opening Keynote Presentation

The pitches were punctuated by a number of keynote presentations, and panel discussions, to provide some context on what is going on in crypto, from a market, technology and regulatory perspective.

The presenting companies ranged from Xplora Capital, a specialist fund investing in blockchain technology, to Enosi, a platform for retail energy distribution. There were a few projects linked to the entertainment and event industry (Zimrii, FairAccess and Hunter Corp Records), and a couple operating in precious metals (MetaliCoin and Kinesis Monetary System). Ethereal Capital is focused on crypto mining, while Horizon State is bringing blockchain technology to voting systems. Systema is using AI on the blockchain to personalise e-commerce, Amber is like Acorns for crypto, Sendy* is an e-mail engagement platform, and Tatau* is building a distributed computation platform for GPU-based machines.

There was no doubting the level of interest in blockchain and crypto among the audience, but whether they are ready to invest is still open to debate. With the markets sending mixed signals (despite the generally positive industry news in recent weeks), institutional money continues to sit on the sidelines awaiting buying opportunities. My guess is they probably won’t want to wait too long, especially if we see the adoption of new security token standards, crypto-backed ETFs, and other asset diversification.

Meanwhile, over at Chartered Accountants ANZ, there was a very interesting seminar on the taxation of crypto assets. While there have been some positive developments (such as dropping GST on crypto transactions), the ATO is still being somewhat ambiguous about the treatment of crypto for CGT and income tax purposes. In particular, whether crypto assets will be recognised on the revenue account, or on the capital account, has implications for crystallising capital gains (or losses), and for carrying forward certain revenue gains (or losses). The inference being, there is a desire to extract as much as possible from accrued capital gains, while minimising the ability to rollover losses (especially given that many investors are probably sitting on unrealised losses if they bought in to the market during the late 2017 bull run). Essentially, crypto is not recognised as currency (whereas in Japan, for example, crypto is recognised as a legal form of payment), but as an asset that at a minimum, represents a bundle of rights. But the same could be said of a software license…

Next week: Tales from Tasmania

* Declaration of interest: Sendy and Tatau are both clients of Techemy, a company I consult to.

 

Blockchain and Crypto Updates

Courtesy of Techemy and Brave New Coin, I’ve just been on another whistle-stop global tour: 5 cities, 4 countries, 3 continents in two and a half weeks….. Along the way, I caught up on some of the latest market and regulatory developments in Blockchain and cryptocurrency.

Giant billboard in Tokyo’s Ginza district

First, there was no hiding the fact that the past six-month “correction” in crypto markets has had an impact on trading volumes, investor appetite and institutional enthusiasm – as well as generating some regulatory noises. More on the latter below. At the same time, many of the first wave of Blockchain projects that attracted funding over the past 4 years are still at the development or test net stage, or only just launching their MVPs. Hence some investor caution on new token issuance.

Second, there are probably far too many Blockchain and crypto conferences – or rather, volume is diluting the quality of content, meaning too many sub-par events. There is no shortage of interesting topics and informed speakers, but the format and delivery of so many panel discussions and plenary sessions end up sounding tired and lacklustre.

Third, expect a crypto-backed ETF to be listed on a major exchange very soon. I even think it will come out of Europe, rather than the US, but that’s just a personal view. Such a product is going to help with investor diversification and will eventually enable retail investors to get exposure to this new asset class, even within their personal pension plans, without the same level of risk and volatility than direct holdings or spot trading.

Fourth, institutional investors are still looking for institutional products and services: proper custody solutions, robust benchmarks, hedging instruments, portfolio tools and risk analytics. One challenge is that the market is still trying to define crypto fundamentals – the sorts of analysis we take for granted in other asset classes (earnings per share, p/e ratio, yields, Sharp ratio, credit risk, etc.).

Fifth, Japan feels like a case of “two steps forward, one step back”. Just over a year ago, cryptocurrencies were formally recognised as a legal form of payment. Then in late 2017, the FSA issued the first batch of crypto licenses to qualifying exchanges. Japan continues to represent a significant portion of crypto trading (partly a legacy of retail FX trading, partly a result of regulatory restriction in other markets). But yet another exchange hack earlier this year prompted the regulator to put the industry on notice to smarten up, or face the consequences. Exchanges are subject to monthly monitoring, and the self-regulating industry body is undergoing a few changes. Plus, exchanges are no longer able to list privacy coins.

Finally, with the lack of legal clarity or regulatory detail around initial coin offerings (aside from blanket statements that “all ICOs are securities until proven otherwise”), there is still a lot of regulatory arbitrage. Certain jurisdictions are actively attracting new issuance projects to their shores, and positioning themselves as being “ICO friendly”. Ironically, even though the SEC in the USA has been particularly vocal about ICOs that may actually be deemed securities, it has not defined what constitutes a utility token (or made any announcement on the new category of security tokens). However, there have been some recent announcements out of the SEC suggesting that neither Ethereum nor Bitcoin are in fact securities. More interestingly, the State of Wyoming is looking to make Blockchain and associated crypto assets a major pillar of its economy.

NOTE: The comments above are made in a purely personal capacity, and do not purport to represent the views of Techemy or Brave New Coin, their clients or any other organisation I work with. These comments are intended as opinion only and should not be construed as financial advice.

Next week: Bad sports

Fear of the Robot Economy….

A couple of articles I came across recently made for quite depressing reading about the future of the economy. The first was an opinion piece by Greg Jericho for The Guardian on an IMF Report about the economic impact of robots. The second was the AFR’s annual Rich List. Read together, they don’t inspire me with confidence that we are really embracing the economic opportunity that innovation brings.

In the first article, the conclusion seemed to be predicated on the idea that robots will destroy more “jobs” (that archaic unit of economic output/activity against which we continue to measure all human, social and political achievement) than they will enable us to create in terms of our advancement. Ergo robots bad, jobs good.

While the second report painted a depressing picture of where most economic wealth continues to be created. Of the 200 Wealthiest People in Australia, around 25% made/make their money in property, with another 10% coming from retail. Add in resources and “investment” (a somewhat opaque category), and these sectors probably account for about two-thirds of the total. Agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment and financial services also feature. However, only the founders of Atlassian, and a few other entrepreneurs come from the technology sector. Which should make us wonder where the innovation is coming from that will propel our economy post-mining boom.

As I have commented before, the public debate on innovation (let alone public engagement) is not happening in any meaningful way. As one senior executive at a large financial services company told a while back, “any internal discussion around technology, automation and digital solutions gets shut down for fear of provoking the spectre of job losses”. All the while, large organisations like banks are hiring hundreds of consultants and change managers to help them innovate and restructure (i.e., de-layer their staff), rather than trying to innovate from within.

With my home State of Victoria heading for the polls later this year, and the growing sense that we are already in Federal election campaign mode for 2019 (or earlier…), we will see an even greater emphasis on public funding for traditional infrastructure rather than investing in new technologies or innovation.

Finally, at the risk of stirring up the ongoing corporate tax debate even further, I took part in a discussion last week with various members of the FinTech and Venture Capital community, to discuss Treasury policy on Blockchain, cryptocurrency and ICOs. There was an acknowledgement that while Australia could be a leader in this new technology sector, a lack of regulatory certainty and non-conducive tax treatment towards this new funding model means that there will be a brain drain as talent relocates overseas to more amenable jurisdictions.

Next week: The new productivity tools