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

 

 

 

More musings on ICOs and cryptocurrencies

In the same week that SEC launched a spoof ICO (was anyone really fooled?), I attended two informational sessions about cryptocurrency that revealed much about the ignorance, greed, fear and misinformation that continues to plague this new asset class. Thank goodness that rational thinking still prevails…Much of the public dialogue around Blockchain, bitcoin and cryptographic assets has been along the lines of:

1. Everyone and their dog is trying to sell ICOs; so

2. FOMO is driving trading momentum; but

3. Price volatility deters many institutional investors; while

4. Regulators don’t really know what, where or how to regulate the industry.

But out of this uncertainty, clarity will emerge in the form of a new asset class, with appropriate regulatory structures, disciplined markets, and sophisticated investment products.

The first session I attended, described as a “Beginners’ Guide to Cryptocurrency”, felt a bit like one of those “get rich quick” seminars, where greedy (but unsuspecting) punters are sold the dream of timeshare apartments and highly leveraged equity warrants. While I can’t blame the audience (some of them knew no better), I would take issue with the presenter – the CEO and founder of a company in the process of launching an ICO. Admitting that they had limited technical knowledge of Blockchain, cryptocurrencies and token sales, the presenter also revealed limited knowledge of securities regulations and tax legislation when it comes to crypto and ICOs.

Meanwhile, the second session I was invited to attend (featuring representatives from brokers, exchanges, fund managers, Blockchain platforms and compliance experts) was far more informed. Even though some of the topics covered are still full of hypotheticals, the speakers all gave credible accounts of their respective positions. Compared to the first session, this forum gave me far more confidence that there are experts out there who know what they are talking about.

When it comes to cryptocurrencies and digital assets, I think the a reason why regulators, policy makers, traditional capital markets and advisers are often bamboozled is this is the first asset class in decades (if not centuries) that has not relied on a trickle down effect (in terms of production, distribution and exchange). In theory, anyone with access to Satoshi’s white paper, and who was capable of deploying the open source code, and who maintained a suitable CPU could have started mining, accumulating and trading bitcoin – and all without leaving their own home. And while it still forms a small proportion of total global capital assets, this industry has grown exponentially in less than 10 years.

Having developed the technology, identified the value proposition and established the asset class, the industry is now waiting for the appropriate regulatory tools so it can get on and build the infrastructure – from security tokens to atomic swaps, from Blockchain interoperability to custody solutions, from robust wallet integration to self-sovereign digital identity management.

Next week: Fear of the Robot Economy….

 

 

CoinAlts Fund Symposium, New York

Following on from last week’s theme on Blockchain, crypto and asset management, the recent CoinAlts Fund Symposium in New York brought together various parts of the fund industry to discuss issues connected to crypto investment, portfolio management and back office solutions.

Although conducted under a veil of non-attribution, it wouldn’t be betraying any confidences to describe some of the key talking points. If anything, the main themes echoed much of what I have heard at similar events over the past 6 months: scaling transaction capacity and establishing Blockchain interoperability; building industry standards for this new asset class; and creating valuation models for new token issuance projects.

In addition, the conferences addressed operational matters such as crypto fund administration, audit, custody, taxation and client reporting. All the usual back office functions that are taken for granted in other asset classes.

What was particularly noticeable about this event was the lack of international participation. In fact, a number of the speakers almost berated the audience for choosing to ignore overseas industry, market and regulatory developments at their peril.

For example, on regulation, it was suggested that if the SEC doesn’t provide some constructive guidance on new token issuance (especially so-called security tokens), the USA could be left behind. Indeed, one industry representative stated that for his company, the USA is only their third largest market. Another presenter drew attention to the fact that South Korea (a leading marketplace for Blockchain and crypto) produces 15 times as many engineers as the USA, while the USA produces 40 times as many lawyers as South Korea.

A recurring theme throughout the day was that without formal standards, clearer regulation, and institutional-strength tools and infrastructure, major asset managers, pension funds and Wall Street firms will remain very cautious about investing in digital assets, whatever their current level of interest.

Next week: Startup Exchange, Chicago

 

Beyond Blocks, Tokyo

Thanks to my work with Techemy and Brave New Coin, Content in Context is currently on the road, attending various Blockchain and crypto events in Tokyo, Vienna, NYC and Chicago. The next few blogs will attempt to capture notes from the field.

Techemy CEO, Fran Strajnar presents on the new asset class of digital value

In Tokyo, the Beyond Blocks Summit was a stellar affair, with marquee blockchain projects and major investors presenting on stage, alongside cosplay characters, light shows, upbeat music and a crowd of crypto fanatics.

Given the significant developments in Japan’s regulatory framework for crypto-currency trading, there was a lot of interest in the presentations by bitFlyer, Quoine and Smart Contract Inc.

As with the recent APAC Blockchain Conference in Melbourne, there was a strong representation from China’s growing base of Blockchain projects (but not ICOs, of course), keen to demonstrate their infrastructure projects.

There was much debate about regulatory developments across Asia, made all the more interesting by the announcement that Monex is acquiring Coincheck, despite (or because of?) the recent hack on NEM tokens held on the local exchange.

Among international key speakers were Patrick Byrne from Overstock and tZERO, John Burbank of Passport Capital, and Techemy’s own Fran Strajnar – all looking to the future of this new asset class, especially so-called security tokens.

Interspersed throughout the two days were panel discussions and presentations on scaling, infrastructure, decentralized exchanges, stable coins and the future of ICOs.

Although this was only their second event of this kind, the Beyond Blocks team have quickly established themselves on the conference circuit.

Next week: Token Investment Summit, Vienna